Mirja Wark is a professional weaver educated at the Henri Story Institute in Belgium. She has written a book called Si’ria, studying extensively the weavings of the Wayuu women between Colombia and Venezuela. In an interview with her, MAMA TIERRA captured some of her amazing experiences with the best weavers of the world: the Wayuu.
Why did you investigate the Wayuu weavings?
I started investigating the Si’ira traditional belt in 1991, while living with my family in Venezuela. As a professional weaver, I was looking for a challenge and I found it in the Kanas designs of the Si’ira and Shei’i belts. The book documents the ancestral designs of the Wayuu with a step by step guide on how to weave the Kanas. The Wayuu had collected this knowledge over hundreds of years and I found it a pity that they were loosing this ancestral knowledge. I wanted to make a contribution and safeguard this weaving tradition. It was then when the plan for this book was born. I wanted to be it a gift to the Wayuu, as a token of my appreciation for their work and as a thank for sharing their knowledge with me. 15 years later my book about Wayuu weavings was first printed.
Who taught you to weave Wayuu patterns?
I was taught by an elderly lady called Cantus in Kareme Venezuela, between 1992 and 1993. We did not share the same language.
It was extremely difficult to learn weaving. Cantus went fast like a spider with her fingers. It took me two weeks sitting daily 8 hours on a stone in front of the loom to figure out how to move my hands correctly. I cried, the women made fun of me but in the end, I left with a half woven belt. Cantus massaged my forehead and sang a song which meant as much as “that you may not loose what you have learned in your travels”. At home I put the belt back on a loom and finished it. When I returned a few months later and showed the women the completely finished piece, they were impressed. From that moment on I was one of them. I was no longer treated as a foreigner, an ‘alijuna’, but trusted and protected.
How can one learn to weave the Wayuu Kanas?
A normal way of learning this technique would be to first learn to warp a loom and weave a plain belt with rolled edge and finishing tassels. Then a simple hourglass motive is taught and bit by bit the technical difficulties are introduced. Weaving the Kanas patterns is considered the highest art of weaving in the Wayuu culture. In the past, several women sitting next to each other would weave a shei’i . This would first be a cacique’s cloak and later a funerary cloth. Few shei’i have survived, as people were buried with it. In fact, the shei’i I have seen have corpse stains in it.
What do you think about the Wayuu weavings? With whom can you compare them?
Let’s first define what is weaving: that is a piece of cloth constructed on a loom with vertical threads called warps and with horizontal threads called wefts. In Spanish one uses the word ‘weaving’ also for crochet and knitting. Although I admire the crocheted Susu mochila’s enormously, I think the weaving of Kanas is much more complex. It is amazing that in La Guajira, where the Wayuu were isolated for so long, they developed this complex structure that enabled them to make such complex weaves and patterns and on very basic primitive looms. The Chinese make complex weaves but use complex looms too.
I would compare the Wayuu with the Bolivian and Peruvian Weavers, who also make very complex patterned weaves with an easy technique.
What is the cultural importance of the weavings for the Wayuu people?
The cultural importance in the past is different from that of today. In the past, the girls had to go through a period of ‘blanqueo’ after their first menstruation. During this phase, the women of their tribe would educate the young girl on the women’s tasks. Natural medicine, crafts and skills related to womanhood, are the main subjects.
Learning crochet is a basic task. Weaving a ‘chinchorro’ in ‘cadeneta’ or ‘double face’ would precede learning to weave an ‘hamaca’. Saddle girth’s in double face weaving are the next step. If the instructor is capable of weaving Kanas patterns, the young girl would grasp the technique. Important is also the time the family could miss the girl for the daily chores. The longer the ‘blanqueo’ lasts, the more the girl can learn. However, what the girl learns, depends on the skills of her instructors.
If a girl knows how to weave Kanas designs, her value on the marriage market is much higher.
“The Wayuu used to be a semi-nomadic society. They did not own lots of material goods. Just their jewellery, their livestock and their textiles. Owing few items, made those things very valuable”.
Wayuu People © Jenny Velasco
In these days, when girls go to secondary education in boarding schools, they often miss the “blanqueo” ritual. The girls might have their menstruation while at school and during the vacation the time might not be right. Also, nowadays is less value placed on the traditional crafts. If a woman is a lawyer or a doctor, this is considered a higher qualification than being a good weaver. Handcrafts are a lot of hard work for little money. Education gives you a job with high salary and esteem.
Will the Wayuu people forget how to weave the Kanas design?
Thanks to the cultural Wayuu festival in Uribia, the Wayuu’s are made aware of their rich heritage. But will that be enough to revitalise the high standards of the weaving art? Once I was asked to teach the young girls how to weave Kanas. The message I received from those girls was, that it was extremely boring to sit behind a loom and learn about “old things”.
The time is not ripe yet. But my book was written in the way, that there is a record of patterns and techniques so the Wayuu can recuperate the (lost) art when they realise how valuable it is.
What role has the Wayuu woman in the Wayuu society?
I have always maintained that in the Wayuu society, the woman is the boss in their home. Her husband is a guest. Specially, if he has more wives. He needs to provide each of his wives with equal accommodation. The women are the stable factors; husbands migrate to other parts for work and are often away. Women need to solve the daily problems and that makes them strong and inventive.
By Mirja Wark
What do you think about the Wayuu bags (mochilas)?
The Wayuu learned crochet first from the Capuchine nuns. They used the american DMC’s pattern books. Therefore in all Susu’s, old and new, you find a variety of patterns. Crochet gives other possibilities than Kanas weaving. So, the susu’s that I like most are those with geometric patterns. But there are ones with DMC copied patterns and also with completely free designs.
I think the quality of the Susu is very good, although nobody used natural cotton anymore.
What defines a well done mochila or Susu bag?
Firstly, the mochila should be tight even if made in crochet. Secondly, the more colours the higher the complexity and thirdly a nice bottom design is a quality sign. The strap should be braided, woven or in Osonuchi technique. All these factors make a difference in quality. I have heard about mochilas been made in china. People should pay attention to the things mentioned, when buying a Wayuu bag.
I think it is good for the Wayuu communities to make a Susu production and create an income. On the other hand the Wayuu women sell their bags too cheap.
Why is the Wayuu traditional weaving despairing?
The way of living of the Wayuu is changing. As soon as people settle in a village or city life changes. With electricity and running water comes television, then social media and easy communication amongst each other. In order to get some weaving done on a loom, one needs to separate from the daily chores and distractions in order to concentrate and work without mistakes.
Weaving is still done in Kareme and other remote settlements but in small cities, like Uribia, they do not weave Si’ira anymore. They will work on crochet because it can be done while chatting.
Since when do the Wayuu weave?
The oldest pieces I found dates back to the late 19th century and early 20th century. But we have to realise that pieces were worn until their disintegration and the Shei’i were buried with the dead. The Wayuunaiki language is related to some spoken in the Orinoco delta. It is possible that the Wayuu migrated from there to the semi arid Guajira. This evolution of weaving has surely taken many hundreds of years.
How has the Wayuu weavings changed?
Mirja Wark with her Wayuu friend
Natural cotton grows in the Guajira. It used to be harvested and handspun. As soon as commercially spun yarns became available, handspinning was abolished.
Natural dyes were present in the Guajira to dye red, blue, black, brownish red and yellow. Cotton is hard to dye. You will find that in old pieces as natural or beige, white and yellowish.
Now the Wayuu buy synthetic yarns already dyed and they love strong colours. I find that they have an amazing colour-sense. Contrasts and colours are daring and challenging but beautiful. On every visit I have brought gifts of mercerised cotton for the Wayuu.
If the Wayuu want to improve quality, let them go back to using natural fibres for their handicrafts.