Wednesday, June 23, 2010

"Woven Lives: Contemporary Textiles from Ancient Oaxacan Traditions" An Interview with Artist/Filmmaker Carolyn Kallenborn

SDA member Carolyn Kallenborn is an award-winning artist whose hand-painted garments and sculptures have been shown nationally and internationally. In July 2010, Carolyn will become a film producer as she heads to Mexico to film "Woven Lives: Contemporary Textiles from Ancient Oaxacan Traditions”. This is Part 1 of a 2-part interview with Carolyn:

How did the film project get started?

I’ve been going down to Mexico every year since 2003. Sometimes I bring [UW- Madison] students with me. It was so amazing to see the work of the artisans and weavers so it was always in my mind to bring this experience and beauty here [US/Wisconsin]. I brought this up in a conversation with filmmaker, Andrew Galli, owner of Galli Film Studio in San Francisco about a year ago. I recently received a grant through the University of Wisconsin to pay for production costs.

The movie focuses on 5 different Zapotec families who weave cloth in the ancient traditions of their ancestors. Could you elaborate?

Yes, the film will focus on one or more families in 5 different Zapotec villages. In most of the villages around Oaxaca (pronounced Wah-Ha-Ka), there are craft villages in which individual families are making their individual works in their homes. Each village specializes in one type of craft such as green pottery, silk, weaving. Each individual craftsmen has different type of specialty e.g. rug weaving, backstrap weaving, silk weaving, fat weaving with a fly shuttle and lightweight cotton or hand-dyeing using insect extracts.

For centuries the Zapotecs have been cultivating cochineal, an insect which feeds on the native nopal cactus and yields the world’s most brilliant red dye. For over two hundred years cochineal was the second most expensive export from Mexico and was very tightly controlled by the Spanish; smugglers faced the death penalty. Pirates loved it because it was lightweight and easy to transport. Some Zapotecs still raise the insects that their ancestors domesticated from the wild and which were even used to pay tribute (taxes) to the Aztecs. These traditions have been going since 1000 BC. The Perfect Red by Amy Butler Greenfield is an in-depth look at the fascinating history, uses and cultural aspects of the cochineal.

Many of the dyes used are made from plants and animal sources- mosses make greens, a different moss produces a brilliant yellow, indigo plants make blue, tree bark or nuts for brown, pomegranates for black. By using various fermentation processes, tweaking the Ph and adding other ingredients such as urine, or iron an amazing range of colors can be produced.  

The focus of the documentary is on the art and tradition rather than the technical how-to aspects of each craft, though there will be plenty of technical information that can be gleaned just by watching what they do. Each craftsman’s expertise, their eye for color, and how these abilities are used to create art which supports their families will be explored.

It seems “family” and “tradition” are important factors in their work?

Family is central to the making of the craft; weaving looms are in the middle of home, in the family patio or courtyard. Some have separate shops to sell their art but most of the weaving is done in the home. In some types of weaving the men are the primary weavers and in others the women do the weaving. The women often take care of household duties and weave in between those duties. The kids are often helping wind bobbins or just playing around the looms, it’s very interactive.

There’s a strong tie to community and they are required to give time back to community. They work very hard and there’s a lot of trade and barter. In many of the Zapotec towns there is a complex mandatory volunteer system that takes care of much of the village labor: the mechanic, the driver, the cashier for the community bus, building infrastructures like water systems or roads. All are done in volunteer service to the community.

How are the crafts sold?

It varies. Some families have stores in town. Some sell at the market stalls. Several of the villages have a cooperative markets where everyone’s rugs are being sold. Most homes have a space set up to display items for sale for walk-in customers.

Most all of them have done commission work— anything from special colors or sizes to logos, team colors, special orders, or specific motifs are not unusual. One weaver produced hundreds of rugs for a purse and shoe designer.

What are your responsibilities as producer?

My main role is controlling content, storytelling, script, and researching the material. My background is with these people, I know them. I’ve stayed with them in their homes and am now weaving it into a compelling story. The filmmaker will visually capture the story. The editor will pull the sounds and visuals together to make a feast for the eyes and ears.

Where will the movie be released/shown?

The pre-release lecture will be in Costa Rica in September. I’m scheduled to do a lecture in London in November and it will be shown at the 2011 SDA Conference in Minneapolis.

Part 2 of this interview will focus on Carolyn's personal connection with
 Oaxacan families which inspired her to create her exhibition called “Aucencia”.

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