In Huichol art work, the Huichol Indians express their deepest religious feelings and beliefs from a life time of participation in ceremonies and rituals. Huichol art also reflects shamanic tradition documenting age-old worship and wisdom surviving into modern times. The Huichol Indians live in the isolated region of the western Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico.
Although the sale of artwork is a way of survival, Huichol art is deeply symbolic, and nierikas — bead or yarnwork “votive paintings” — are petitions to the gods. Maize, peyote and deer are usually present as well as candles, arrows, serpents, scorpions and the gods’ eyes that point to the four cardinal directions. Each individual Huichol artisan develops his or her own personal style.
Traditional art among many North American Indian tribes was influenced both by the environment and the materials available to the artist. Among eastern and northern woodland Indians, floral designs copied from the natural sylvan surroundings prevailed. Among the plains Indians, geometric patterns reflected more accurately the generally flat terrain of the Great Plains. Before the arrival of the European traders, the woodland peoples in particular used dyed porcupine quills to weave intricate designs on tobacco pouches, headbands, and baskets. When traders introduced the small Italian-manufactured coloured glass beads, native artists quickly adapted to the new medim and continued to produce increasingly elaborate variations of the original decorative designs and religious symbolism. The use of commercial or manufactured products, such as glass beads, in place of porcupine quills or other strictly indigenous materials, does not thereby nullify the authenticity of the artistic production. Few people would argue that Indian beadwork is not authentic simply because it is made of imported European trade goods.
The authenticity of Huichol art on the market today becomes of some importance when called into question by no less an authority on the Indians of Mexico than the famous Mexican historian and anthropologist Fernando Benítez, who once described the popular Huichol yarn paintings as “…a falsification and an industry.” Benítez was referring to one of the original yarn paintings which depicted the spirits or souls of deceased persons as disembodied floating heads. He argued that the Huichol did not traditionally represent the dead in this manner and that the whole concept smacked rather of a Walt Disney fantasy than authentic Huichol religious art. The Huichol, of course, have an entirely different concept of the meaning and purpose of their art.
Originally most, if not all, Huichol designs had a particular religious or symbolic meaning. Plant and animal motifs are still common. The toto, asmall five-petalled white flower that grows in the rainy season, is worked into embroidered patterns with different petals, according to the taste of the individual artist. Designs on sashes and belts imitate the variegated markings on the backs of real snakes, which the Huichol associate with rain, good crops, health, and long life. A scorpion pattern may be used as a charm against the bite of the venomous creature. Like their predecessors, the classical Aztecs, the Huichol still have an extensive pantheon of deities. Takutzi Nakawe, the ancient goddess, mother of all the gods, creatress and destroyer of all that exists, is represented in religious art, such as statues or yarn paintings. Today even the most decorative designs usually retain a certain religious or symbolic meaning.
Through their artwork, the Huichol Indians encode and document their spiritual knowledge. In their artwork the Huichol express their deepest religious feelings and beliefs acquired through a lifetime of participation in ceremonies and rites. From the time they are children, they learn how to communicate with the spirit world through symbols and rituals. Thus for the Huichol, yarn painting is much more than mere aesthetic expression. The topics of these yarn paintings reflect Huichol culture and its shamanic traditions. Like icons, they are documents of ancient wisdom.”