Article featured in Yorokobu Design Magazine July-August 2010 print edition in Madrid, Spain.
By Marcus Hurst
Indigo promotes a coming together between designers and indigenous culture in search for distinctive elements in a world that is day by day more homogenous.
“Globalisation is standardising everything. We share languages, in many cases, English. A uniform design aesthetic is starting to impose itself. In an environment where the local and global breathe next to one another we cannot forget about our roots”, said Russell Kennedy, Icograda (International Council of Graphic Design Associations) President.
Since 2006 Kennedy is one of Indigo’s promoters, an organisation that helps study and experiment with indigenous design. The aim is to explore different ways of highlighting and exploiting its identity without appropriating its customs.
“It is a very delicate subject because a lot of the times it has many political and colonial connotations. With Indigo we have wanted to create a network of designers that explore this field. At first, it was born to study the aboriginal peoples and the American Indians. Upon advancing with the project we realised it is a theme that can be applied to any part of the world. It has special relevance in Asia where countries are trying to establish a differentiating element.”
According to Kennedy, cultures’ over-protection prevents evolution. “In Australia, on the other hand, there is the belief that indigenous cultures need to be protected above all and the museums do it very well. But sometimes this obsession doesn’t allow for their culture to change and evolve.”
The New Maya Language
Frida Larios is one of the designers who actively participates in Indigo as an ambassador. In her case, she has done by exploring ways of redesigning Maya art and design and translating it to our present context.
In what year did you start the project? It started in 2004, when I was studying my masters in Communication Design at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design in London. I was the first Salvadorean woman to study there – ¿How could I not look for my own roots within an institution, and city, with marked avant-gardé tendencies? The Maya are one of the founding six pillars of the civilised world. Nonetheless, there is a lack of recognition of their intelligent and advanced hieroglyphic language’s art form, within Mesoamerica – a term used for the shared Maya geographical area within Central America – itself, and beyond its boundaries.
How has it evolved? The project is a unique system, in content and style, which rescues the dead written language created by the Maya civilisation across Mesoamerica 300 BC. The New Maya Language’s vision is the recreation, re-composition and contemporary life’s application in different media: art, product and fashion design, brand identities, information design, navigation and education in archaeological sites and public spaces, children’s toys. It has been warmly received by public and private entities in Central America. Through its applications, it aspires to promote culture, education and play. These three characteristics are its developmental roots. Whether it is by instigating conceptual thinking through a 0 – 12 year-old boy or girl’s game, through a t-shirt design or, simply by being appreciated through my artworks, which to-date have been acquired by collectors around the world.
Do you continue to explore indigenous art application in design? This is a project that has as much application ground as desired – it can even be expanded to other hieroglyphic languages. Hence, my goal is for it to always remain democratic, accessible, not only to northern hemispheres’ academics who are the ones who command the hieroglyphic writing knowledge, but to common Mesoamerican citizens. Above all, and this is one of the shared objectives with my fellow INDIGO colleagues, I want it to be inclusive of native inhabitants so that they have the opportunity to recreate themselves in it. A lot of these populations are illiterate and my New Maya Language, in a certain way, even touches their emotional fiber. It is a language without words that makes them feel included in a world where the letters of the alphabet are their uppermost barrier.
What does a designer have to consider when inspiring him or herself in indigenous art and communication? Does he or she have to avoid appropriating his or her culture? In my case I illustrated how it came to light, decoded it so that others could understand where each line, each form and each concept came from. First by explaining in my book, the original Maya hieroglyphic language to then arrive to what I can call my own, or of my own intellectual property, and the formula for each pictogram’s creation.
Before being historians, mathematicians, or astronomers, they were artists. Their writing not only gathered the political life and other relevant affairs, but it was also a work of art in itself manifested through different mediums: stone sculpture, ceramics, murals, calligraphic manuscripts, garments and utilitarian products, etc. There is not much difference between a practicing artist or designer in our days, right? Except that our profession is not as valued as in those old times, in which – like Mayanist Michael D. Coe says – “artists could even be kings.” It was indeed a royal profession. When a designer attempts to develop indigenous-iconography based designs, he or she must preserve the ancestral artists’ spirit at the time of creation, highlighting, and not merely reproducing, their own culture.
Do you think Latin American countries should deepen in their roots to reinforce design with an individual identity instead of obsessing with what Anglo-Saxon countries do? But of course. There are parameters at the time of designing, or international design standards, which in fact, were born in the Anglo-Saxon world. But this is very different to searching for inspiration in European styles that breed from their own history and tradition. Why not look for inspiration in what is ours, which by the way is very different to the rest? Indigenous cultures had magnificent artistic development, sourcing themselves in their natural and social environment, respecting it. If we Central American designers, had been able to continue until our present days with that legacy – a development defrauded by many conquests during the course of over 500 years – the roles would be reversed and it would be the western world looking for reference in our culture. Today, we would be kings.
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Or comment on the article on the INDIGO website.