In May 2015, a group of 12 New York based designers and artists led by Rebecca Welz arrived in the city of Antigua, Guatemala, to collaborate with artisans in diverse crafts and create a line of products. This project became The Antigua Project, and it follows a model previously conceived by Rebecca in Malinalco, Mexico in 2013 (The Malinalco Project) and in Guyana in 2009 (The Guyana Project).
Rebecca writes on The Antigua Project blog: “The environmentalist Paul Hawken writes in his book Blessed Unrest that there are many movements afoot on a small scale that are brewing all over the world which point to global change. He breaks the movements down into three major areas: environmental sustainability, social justice and preservation of indigenous people. As we become more and more mechanized and production and services are increasingly outsourced, these collaborative projects are a tribute to the makers who work with their hands and the traditions of culture that have been passed down for generations.”
Guatemala is particularly known for its handcrafted textiles, continuously made with centuries old techniques. For instance, the típico (everyday wear) is composed of a huipil (a shirt woven with a backstrap loom), a skirt or pants (woven on a foot loom) and different accessories. It employs different patterns and color schemes so one can identify which village someone is from by the clothes they are wearing.
Our contact with Guatemala started through Elizabeth Bell, a historian and travel agent based in Guatemala. She put Rebecca in contact with Alida Perez, the founder of the Museo Casa del Tejido Antiguo, a craft museum and cultural center in Antigua. After one year of exchanging emails, the collaboration was finally arranged.
Arriving separately in Antigua, the thirteen of us found each other walking around the city, at the Bodegona (the supermarket) and the Posada San Sebastian, which would become our cozy home for the next two weeks. The following morning, assembled in our open-air living room, we were met by Alidita (Alida’s daughter), a perky woman dressed in the típico who spoke perfect English. She walked us to the Museo, where we first met Danilo, our translator and staff of the museum, for a tour of the collection beginning with wonderful vignettes of traditional life from various areas of Guatemala. We saw examples of weaving from different regions and artifacts that date back hundreds of years and are still in use, as well as currently made artesanías. They walked us to our studio, a beautiful covered patio with common workbench space in the center surrounded by individual nooks for each of the teams.
Before arriving, we had chosen two main materials to work with. The artisans (including a ceramicist, silversmith, weavers, metalworkers, woodworkers, seamstresses, leatherworker and shoemakers) who had come from nearby towns and further away places were waiting for us in our new studio.
We started work instantaneously! Though we only had two native Spanish speakers in the group, plus Danilo and Alidita, we soon remembered the official language of design: a combination of drawing, fabricating little models, and hand gestures. By 2 pm we had spread out in smaller groups around town and neighboring villages sourcing materials. We went to the local lumberyard, where they were freshly milling cedar and palo blanco; to San Antonio to buy cotton thread and sedalina (cotton+silk); to Pastores to source leather.
A wonderful resource was the Mercado just around the corner from us, with a wide selection of stores from fresh produce, to buttons and sanding paper.
At the end of the day, objects were already starting to appear and a general spirit of camaraderie was in the air. We agreed on meeting Monday to Saturday from 8.30am to 5pm, leaving two Sundays off for field trips.
We settled into our daily routine: waking up early in the morning to greet the sun on our rooftop surrounded by mountains and volcanoes; or going out for Guatemalan coffee sourced from the surrounding estates, continuing on to the museum through narrow sidewalks and pebble stone streets. During the day the teams would work together, hands on the project. We helped each other translate, bounce ideas, share tools, concepts, stories and food.
Designing and building from the hip, we found inspiration all around us: in the indigenous patterns, romantic architecture and the new skills we were learning from the artisans. The whole studio spilled out with our backstrap looms as we began learning to weave.
On our two Sundays off, we visited other villages and market towns farther away. We took a boat on Lake Atitlan, visiting remote villages and discovering even more incredible textiles. On our second trip we traveled to the market town of Chichicastanango, one of the largest markets in the America’s and quite overwhelming!
Through these experiences and friendships we merged traditional craftsmanship with our design backgrounds to create objects that tell this story. As we were finishing our work and packing the objects to bring back home, we began to say our tearful goodbyes, hoping we’d see each other again the next year. The relationships we built have impacted our lives forever and we hope to continue this project.
The work produced by The Antigua Project will be exhibited at the BF+DA in the Pfizer building on Friday September 25th, 6-9pm. Alida Perez will demonstrate the backstrap loom at 7 pm, as well as setting up a pop-up store. Visitors will be able to buy Guatemalan artisanal products such as bags, home goods and jewelry. The exhibition and store will also be open on Saturday, September 26th from noon to 6pm. We look forward to sharing our work and experiences.
The Antigua Project designers: Juliana Alvarez, Aldana Ferrer Garcia, LiLi Jackson, Samantha Katehis, Joshua Knoblick, Elisia Langdon, Murrill Oakes, Adin Rimland, Lane Samata, I Chao Wang, Michael Wong, Rebecca Welz.