Talk: Ancient glyphs inspiring new Maya design at the Smithsonian Latino Center

Anthrodesign, Art, El Salvador, Guatemala, Talk, Washington DC

Published by Hola Cultura, Washington, DC, June, 2015

A Maya-inspired design by Frida Larios. Photo by Oliver Garretson

A Maya-inspired design by Frida Larios. Photo by Tyler Orsburn

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.

Manuel León, Awakening Ocelote

Manuel León, Awakening Ocelote

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.

—Oliver Garretson

Mother Tongue Exhibition Report From Taipei, Taiwan

Art, Design, Frida Larios, Graphic Design, Language, New Maya Language, Taipei

Written by Paola Torres, Frida Larios’ studio intern.

Being an international student, I felt flattered with my recent experience. As an Adobe Design Achievement Award finalist, I received a ticket to Taipei to attend the ADAA Awards, the Taipei World Design Expo 2011, and the 2011 IDA Congress. Taipei is an amasing city, with gorgeous monuments, a super well-organised transportation system, fabulous people, and of course, exotic food.

Once in Taipei, I had the opportunity to visit the Originality 100 – International Indigenous Cultural And Creative Design Exhibition at the National Taiwan University of the Arts’ Art Museum. This collection exhibited more than 100 pieces of international cross-cultural and domestic aboriginal designs. The designs originated from aboriginal cultures and totems, combining current design concepts and applications.

Mother Tongue exhibition is an INDIGO – the International Indigenous Design Network – project. It is a cross-cultural platform to open discussion around the role of contemporary indigenous design and to encourage collaborative projects that deepen our understanding of people’s culture in our visual world of this 21 century.

The exhibition’s introduction read like this:

Mother Tongue – a rapidly changing concept in a world where growing immigration affects not only the economic and social structure of the host

society, but also its culture and, as such, its language.

27 posters were selected from over 500 by designers from around the world. I felt proud when I contemplated the calligraphy poster design of my boss/mentor/teacher/inspiration, Frida Larios. The description of her Mayan poster, named yal-Child of Mother, read the following way:

The Maya natives of Mesoamerica, in their nearly 2000-year ancient hieroglyphic writing, pictured the “thumbs-up” hand as a symbol of harvesting, completing, and binding. In the case of the word ya-AL (yal), the harvest is a child – the fruits of the womb. In the same way our mother tongue is the product of our upbringing and culture. The flames represent the fire coming out of our mouth when we speak – when we speak with the passion of our native language.

I loved the idea of how designers nowadays are involved in this global culture. The role of designers here is crucial, and it is what will someday make a difference in our rapidly changing world. This exhibition was not just a design exhibition. I felt it was design for the people, for the world, its different cultures, and each others roots. Frida Larios, and the rest of the designers, deal with issues about life itself. It is not easy to understand cultures, especially when such racial differences are affecting our society. This exhibition was about a connection to the earth, about learning to accept diversity, and about respecting what others conceive as their Mother Tongue.

All photographs courtesy of Paola Torres, except were noted.

This is part II of my Mother Tongue Submission blog post where you can read about the concept behind this artwork.

YAL - Child of MotherThis was a fun calligraphic poster I designed to promote a beautiful INDIGO project like Mother Tongue.

You can learn about the project and view the diverse poster gallery here.

I am happy to inform that it was selected by the jury among the top 27 posters to be displayed at the first Mother Tongue exhibition at the National Taiwan University of Arts in Taipei, Taiwan from 17-30 October 2011.

I hope to up-date you with photos of the event by the end of October.

Art, Frida Larios, Graphic Design, New Maya Language, Taipei

Inlightenment Comes To Light!

Frida Larios, Graphic Design, New Maya Language

Inlightenment K'IN Masthead

The Maya, like other Asian and Indian civilisations, were talented calligraphers who expressed their brush art through book writing and pottery. They used water-lily thrushes as pens, and bark-made paper on jaguar felt-bound books as media.

Shannon Kring Buset, an award-winning writer, cook, and producer, is the editor of Inlightenment: Nourishing the Sacred Within, an e-magazine for which she called me to design the logo and masthead.  The meaningful articles are insights into real people’s experiences looking for a more soulful existence amidst an empty consumer-moved world.

A New Maya Language custom pictogram was designed.  The K’IN hieroglyph was used as inspiration, and symbolises sun, flower, the colour yellow and the south cardinal point–the perfect meaning for a soul-seeking publication.

In the spirit of New Maya Language, I brought the ancient artistic expression to life in our modern world by using their traditional calligraphy.  By utilising our hands to write instead of a computer keyboard we connect with our inner selves–from our head, through our heart, and onward to our hands.

You can subscribe to Inlightenment: Nourishing the Sacred Within here.

My Mother Tongue Submission

Frida Larios, Montreal, Taipei

YAL - Child of Mother

yal – Child of mother

The Maya natives of Mesoamerica, in their nearly 2000-year ancient hieroglyphic writing, pictured the “thumbs-up” hand as a symbol of harvesting, completing, and binding. In the case of the word ya-AL (yal), the harvest is a child – the fruits of the womb. In the same way our mother tongue is the product of our upbringing and culture. The flames represent the fire coming out of our mouth when we speak – when we speak with the passion of our native language.

This was my submission executed in the ancient Maya art of calligraphy (click here to see more works with this technique).  You are welcome to submit your own visual, verbal or written piece on the INDIGO, Mother Tongue project, website.

Beijing Typography 2009 Catalogue

Beijing, Frida Larios, Graphic Design, New Maya Language

Este es el catálogo de los 80 diseñadores tipo-gráficos internacionales seleccionados para exhibir en Beijing Typography 2009. BT ’09 fue parte de la más grande serie de exhibiciones de diseño gráfico que jamás hayan tomado lugar en China. Fui la única latinamericana seleccionada por el jurado para participar. En las primeras páginas se publicó un cuestionario que pregunta acerca de la vida de un diseñador y trata de investigar la recurrencia con que se usa papel y pluma para escribir o que tanto uno se apoya en la tecnología. Interesante.
Catalogue collection of the 80 international typo/graphic designers selected for exhibition at Beijing Typography 2009. BT ’09 was part of the largest graphic design series of exhibitions to ever take place in China. I was the only Latin American selected by the jury. In the up-coming post you can find my answers to the questionnaire to all the 80 exhibiting designers. Questions related to the life of a designer nowadays.


Typography. Unity with New Life, front and back cover.


To the left there is a Questions & Answers section asking me how often I hand-wrote letters, if I believed design changes life or life changes design, etc. The new trend here is to counter-act globalisation through hand-writing



The Hacienda's oven featured on one of the spreads!