(This text was originally published in the Humboldt Magazine of the Goethe-Institute in South America.)
Bolivian artist and researcher Elvira Espejo, specialist in textile art and director of the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore of Bolivia (MUSEF), approaches community art from the outset of the production process. Attending the process allows for a broader discussion of the influences of Andean textile art on the textile laboratory at the German Bauhaus school, as well as on its main weaving artist, Anni Albers (1899-1994).
C&AL: As an artist and researcher; which is your perspective on Andean textile art?
Elvira Espejo: Art education provided me with both academic and creative tools. However, I think the concept of community, and how it relates to science and technology, were the defining elements that really opened the door for me to understand and question, for example, museums. After my academic training in an urban environment I returned to the community. There, I was asked what had I learned in college and my answers were constituted in academic baggage. The answer from the communities is that the academic concept of knowledge makes little sense in the approach to the Andean textile art, since they are formulations from a western point of view as well as a social position or status of the academics, which stands in stark contrast with the idea of community. From this field of tension, I seek to discuss the dynamics of the pattern of the raw material in the production of textile art, from the raising of animals, over the treatment of the raw materials to the crafting and elaboration of the object. This chain was never exhibited in museums. What was shown there – for lack of knowledge – were objects under the kneecap of the artisanal. Changing these structures and deepening the science and technology of the art of the communities is what interests me.
C&AL: How has folklorical art, particularly Andean textile art, been intertwined with Western art? Do you consider there to be a tension of cultural influences and reappropriations?
EE: This is a topic which I have worked on extensively and in which I find very strong connections. The influence of pre-Columbian art on Western modern art is greater than one might assume. We can think, for example, of modern art of the twentieth century. In the work of Joaquín Torres-García (Uruguay, 1874-1949) and its relationship with Inca architecture. Cesar Paternosto (Argentina, 1931) also goes in that direction. I also see a clear connection between the geometric compositions of Piet Mondrian (Netherlands, 1872-1944) and the textiles of the Bolivian Tiahuanacu culture. The geometric composition, the color palet and the iconography of these textiles are transported directly to Mondrian. The Tiahuanacote fabrics are an inspiration that he – like other European artists of the twentieth century who approached the art of American cultures – used and superimposed in his own work.
C&AL: In the past, Andean textile art clearly had an important influence on the work at the Bauhaus textile department, specifically on the work of Anni Albers. How was this influence expressed? How do you interpret it?
EE: In the case of Anni Albers, the influence was a little further away from the iconographic and compositional. She visited the archaeological regions of southern Latin America and saw textile art up close. She sought to decipher techniques through textile iconography, reinterpreted the composition of fabrics towards abstract art and produced works that translated this influence. All the replicas that Albers made of Andean textiles for her own compositions attempt to work with the use of color in relation to the various forms of textile production. She worked with gauze, double cloth and plain fabrics. However, she did not systematize these approaches, so there are many gaps left.
It is said that the Bauhaus had its own collection of textiles from the archaeological communities of the Andean region, cut-out fragments of textiles that they brought back. These samples that the Bauhaus masters introduced as a source of inspiration worked as catalysts for a rethinking of their art and for new aesthetic concepts. However, I think that because of how abstract art was understood at that time, it did not delve into the science and technology that support textile art. The approach was from a compositional point of view and did not extend to a reflection on the chain of production.