At the Smithsonian Latino Center recently, two designers decked out in colorful Central American outfits discussed how the ancient art of their Mayan ancestors influences their work; a design methodology that goes beyond artistic endeavor.
Frida Larios, an ambassador for the International Design Network, is the creator of the New Maya Language; a multimedia design project. She is an author, lecturer, facilitator, typography consultant and educational product designer. Originally from El Salvador, she sported a contemporary tunic styled with modernized indigenous symbols at the May 28 talk.
Manuel León is a multimedia graphic designer originally from Chichicastenago, Guatemala. He is the owner of the design studio Potencial Puro and the art director and website designer for the United States Institute of Peace.León was dressed head-to-toe in traditional Maya clothing.
While the indigenous regalia looked a bit out of place in the conference room of the Center’s Southwest Washington D.C. office building, they had the full attention of the small audience of Smithsonian staffers and others who take special interest in Latino or indigenous cultures.
Larios and León are in the midst of creating a Maya design collective dedicated to Maya knowledge, symbolism, and preservation of their identity as indigenous people.
Their similar methodologies and values brought them together. They draw a deep influence from the Maya to inspire new art forms, while using ancient symbolism as a means to inspire people of Mayan descent to take an interest in their rich cultural heritage. They look to inspire others to take an interest in their heritage as Mayans and build a common understanding of its relevance. It’s a design methodology that could be used with other indigenous cultures to help people discover aspects of their identity in the same way it helped Larios delve more deeply into her identity as a Salvadorian, she said.
By reinterpreting ancient symbols they aim to breath new life into them. Larios said they envision their Maya design collective will “preserve our heritage and make it relevant to today’s citizens, using design as a bridge.”
In other words, design is the medium through which they connect the past and the present by adapting the Mayan visual language in a way that is understood in today’s world. These changes could be seen as the changes any language goes through over the course of time. Likewise, adaptation prevents Mayan hieroglyphics from becoming merely the subject material for history books.
For Larios, pictograms are stories. In some of her work she utilizes pictograms everyone knows, like a skull and crossbones. Then, integrates this common symbol into modern symbols to create a new idea—a new Maya language. These symbols are incorporated into her various mediums such as clothing, jewelry, and art prints.
For León, his work is much more than art; philosophy inspires the story behind his visual designs. He said the book “Ensueños Cosmovisión Del Maiz” by Daniel Matul is a particularly guiding aspect with regard to his philosophy. Of the designs he presented, an image of an ocelot with four points stands out; a traditional glyph of an ocelot reinterpreted in mid-yawn. León named this visual interpretation “Awakening Ocelot”.
When asked how their work is perceived by the natives and community, they agreed it was welcomed, particularly children thoroughly enjoy it. Despite the interest children show in their work, they noted that there is certain competition when it comes inspiring children to take an interest in their cultural heritage. This competition comes from pop-culture phenomena, such the booming superhero movie franchises.
What is known of the Maya glyphs is largely from Archeological study. Larios’ and León’s reinterpretations often begin from these archeological interpretations. The Spanish Conquest was a breaking point in Maya culture; their language and the related knowledge of hieroglyphs were lost. Larios and León are trying to construct a conceptual bridge between the past and the
“What you see here is not even the tip of the iceberg,” said Larios, referring to an entire lexicon of glyphs waiting to be integrated into a modern symbolism.