Ron James, TV-show host and writer, acquired two of my paintings: Planting Seeds and Crop Harvesting. He wrote a beautiful note on my guest book:
I’m taking a window on the Mayan soul back to Toronto thanks to you and your exemplary talent. What a corner of Paradise you capture with your work! Inspired, unique and accessible (not ‘democratic’. See I listen!)
Thank you –– Ron James
You can learn about his show and up-coming tour here.
Land reform is taking center stage in northern Honduras. As of August 22, 2011, the Honduran newspaper, El Heraldo, reported 37 murders along the Bajo Aguán River Valley. The problem—a landowner with over 3,000 hectares removed nearly 4,000 families to cultivate and export palm oil.
Land distribution in Honduras isn’t just about pitting the rich against the poor. Seven hours west, along the Guatemalan border, members of the indigenous Maya Ch’orti’ have split into two opposing factions—they can’t agree on how to manage their 30-hectare community parcel. The land in question supports nearly 55 families and sits near the UNESCO World Heritage archeological site of Copán Ruinas.
One Ch’orti’ group, CONIMCH, wants to keep the land intact, while the annex group, CONADIMCH, wants to privatize it. CONIMCH claims that if the land is privatized, it could be sold to non-Maya Ch’orti’ prospectors, thus redirecting food and profits from the community. Tension between the two groups has led people to flee their homes for fear of being murdered. There have been reports of machete and rock-throwing fights.
As a post graduate school initiative I plan to use the Dorothea Lange Fellowship to travel to Copán Ruinas, Honduras. I will embed myself from August to September and document the Maya Ch’orti’ way of life. My objective is to understand how indigenous land reform can mutate from one philosophy to another and how that affects food and social survival.
I’m interested in Honduran affairs because I’m half Honduran. My grandfather was born in Copán Ruinas and was the country’s first director of the Honduran Institute of History and Anthropology. In the 1970s he brought archeologists and anthropologists from the United States to help preserve the ancient ruins and to study the Ch’orti’ ethnic group.
You can read more about Tyler’s (my husband) award and Dorothea Lange here.
La Pintada is an indigenous community in the Maya archaeological site of Copán Ruins in Honduras, Central America. I was in close contact with the inhabitants of this small village while me, my husband and son were living at my husband’s mother eco-lodge and natural reserve – Hacienda San Lucas.
Don Damacio is one of the life-long workers from La Pintada who maintains the gardens at Hacienda San Lucas (1 kilometer away from La Pintada). He is the father of Don Mundo – the most talented stone-carver I have ever met. Don Mundo is now able to express his artistry through the carefully sculpted New Maya Language accessories he produces for me. You can really feel the 2000-year Maya heritage running through his veins in his stone works. You come to wonder if artistic talent is something that you inherit or you acquire.
Maya art brings to mind many other art wonders from around the world. Eighth century Classic Maya stella dedicated to King Ubah Kawil of Copán, for example, are often compared to the sculptural traditions of southeast Asia – like twelfth century’s Angkor Wat, Siam Reab in Cambodia. The Copán series of stellas, which depict important royal events with dates and other details inscribed on them, reflect a strong sense of history – they could also be compared to European works such as the fifteenth century Tapisserie de Bayeux embroidery works.
To look on these pictures carved in the seventh to eighth centuries in the “classic” phase of Maya civilisation is to be confronted with a way of life so remote it almost seems like science fiction – and yet these are not just humans, they are artistically accomplished humans. Details like slender fingers, baskets holding ritual tools, stylised flames and pictograms are executed with calm confidence. And because of that, you can visualise the scene in a darkened temple where a wife tortures herself as her husband holds a torch, then hallucinates in her pain and bleeding… It’s a shocking encounter with a lost world. Rembrandt portrays people we empathise with. The [Mayan] lintels portray people who intimidate and perplex us – and yet this art makes us see the deep humanity of their existence.
Jonathan Jones in ‘1000 Artworks To See Before You Die: The Maya’, The Guardian, UK
The Mayans from Mesoamerica are one of the six founding pillars of early civilization. According to the Foundation for Mesoamerican Studies, they invented the concept of zero and devised one of the most accurate ways of measuring time in the history of the world. Their hieroglyphic writing is still very much unknown, apart from the elite few who knew it at the time and the academics who have deciphered it.
Harvard’s Peabody Museum epigrapher, Alexandre Tokovinine, believes ancient Maya hieroglyphs are the most elaborate and visually striking writing system in Pre-Columbian America. “Although some Maya texts, particularly those in the surviving manuscripts, are characterized by rather simple and straightforward execution of letters, most inscriptions on carved monuments, buildings, and painted vessels decidedly rival in beauty and visual complexity the best examples of calligraphy of the Old World,” he said.
For more than two years I was in close contact with a Maya-Chortí indigenous community while living in the mountains of Copán Ruinas, Honduras at Hacienda San Lucas eco-lodge and reserve. They are one of the last Honduran inheritors of the great Maya civilization that thrived from 1000 B.C. through 1500 A.D.
For a community of indigenous peoples whose ancestors managed to create an affluent empire and a sophisticated common writing system that was used across what is modern Central America, today they face harsh and constant economic and social struggle–certainly not an echo of their glorious past.
The lack of education sets them right at the bottom of the social system–right were the walls are made out of carton and children are raised amongst dirt. Children have to walk miles and cross rivers to get to school, most have to work while they are still infants to help feed their brothers and sisters. They can hardly afford to plant their own crops or make a self-sustainable decent living wage.
Their illiteracy affects them in their practical living. Maya-Chortí today cannot read the instructions on the pesticides they to use for their crops, which affects their health. They cannot read the instructions of a medical prescription so they self-medicate wrongly. They need help to cope with most jobs and many everyday situations, like dialing a number or reading a letter. Their lives are impaired and their greatest enemy is letters.
In contrast, our modern lives as middle class literate and even bilingual citizens revolves around the computer and information circulating in the global digital system called the World Wide Web, we are able to read books and labels and now most of us are computer literate. Indigenous populations in remote corners of the world cannot comprehend modern digital spreading, gathering or design of information because many cannot read or write. Their emergent needs are supporting a family of 10 on $2 per day, or getting to a hospital on foot that is 30 miles away. For an indigenous community that has little food, education or healthcare—digital communication and information design are the last things on their mind—unless it touched them by helping them understand the world of letters around them.
My ideal would be a world with no alphabetical words—where icons were the only language. This would help bridge the gap between illiteracy and emotional comprehension of a message. Some indigenous peoples who don’t know how to read or write the Spanish language nor their own heritage hieroglyphics’ codex, feel close to the New Maya Language pictograms because they don’t need to know the alphabet or numbers to understand it. It just comes to them naturally.
A 100% pictographic language bridges the gap between once a highly literate community now living extremely poor and undermined, and our modern era of over information. In my vision, it is the answer to include minorities who are otherwise diminished by not being able to access the physical or digital world of information around them.
We visited La Hacienda today with the new US Ambassador. Our group had an amasing time – of course – but I was PLEASANTLY surprised to find such wonderful art here. Your new Mayan interpretations are stunning! I used to be an artist myself, but decided to be a diplomat instead 🙂 I hope to see more of your art and I wish you the most success! I can’t wait to purchase one of your designs!
Commemorating this meaningful day with words by Jonathan Sinclair, Head of Ancient Surfaces in North America:
2000-year old Maya archaeological site in Copán, Honduras. Photo by Gloria Chávez.
“Life is too short for people not to contemplate their past. If your personal past experiences define who you are, imagine the wealth of knowledge we can acquire from the cumulative experiences of all of our ancestors that came before us.
Even though they are long gone they still expect the best of us because we are the fruits of their labor, their love for one another and to their land.
So let’s honor them by making them proud of their greatest achievement, us…
I love what you stand for and what you are doing. Mucho gusto Frida.”
My journey to revive the visual language of the ancient Maya started in 2004 when I was studying towards a masters in Communication Design at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design in London, located only two blocks away from the British Museum which holds some of the most important lintels in the Maya world. I was the first Salvadoran woman to study at Saint Martins. How could I not look for my own roots within an institution, and city, with marked avant-garde tendencies? It was my opportunity to show my peers and now the world how the Maya are one of the founding six pillars of the civilised world, inventors of the notion of zero and of one of the most accurate calendars in history. There is also a lack of recognition of their intelligent and advanced hieroglyphic language’s art form, within Mesoamerica (modern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador) itself, and beyond its boundaries. Now, as an ambassador for INDIGO (Icograda’s International Indigenous Design Network), it is my privilege to promote part of this ancient culture through my design work.
My New Maya Language is a unique system, in content and style, which rescues the ‘dead’ written language created by the Maya across Mesoamerica as far back as 300 BC. My vision for the New Maya Language is to recreate, re-compose and develop contemporary applications in different media: art, product and fashion design, brand identities, information design, wayfinding and education systems for archaeological sites and public spaces, as well as children’s toys. Through these diverse applications I aspire to promote iconographic meanings, education and play, whether it is by instigating conceptual thinking through a 0–12 year-old child’s game, T-shirts or simply by creating appreciation through my artworks, which to-date have been acquired by collectors around the world. Antonio Avia, Indigenous Education Director for the Organisation of Iberoamerican States had this to say about my artworks: “… your work presents another form of seeing, understanding, recreating, and above all, employing again in daily life, millenary means of expression. I am fascinated by this new vision of the glyphs.”
The book I wrote, illustrated and designed the 120-page New Maya Language book so that people could learn about the original language of the Maya in a simple and practical way and to decode my new interpretation to others. The main chapter provides the formula for each of my pictograms, original hieroglyphs on the left page and the new hieroglyphs or result on the right. Finally I showcase various design applications.
I tried to preserve the ancestral artists’ spirit at the time of creation, highlighting, and not merely reproducing their strokes. Aptly, renowned Harvard Peabody Museum’s epigrapher Alexandre Tokovinine describes my work with these words:
“Even though there has been a growing body of scholarly works devoted to the subject of Maya calligraphy, few artists systematically sought their inspiration in Maya letters beyond mere reproduction of certain glyphs and glyphic patterns, usually in the context of contemporary indigenous art. Frida’s project stands apart as an attempt to explore and reinvent Maya calligraphy as a symbolic and aesthetic system from an artist’s viewpoint. The New Maya Language creates its own world that blends Maya imagery and symbolism with Frida’s unique vision in a series of artworks which would make an ancient calligrapher proud.”
The single info/graphic resource is the New Maya Hieroglyph pictogram Path To. These set of stones lead to the ‘Los Sapos’ archaeological site. The trail had no signs and is now benefiting from an intelligible very simple system of self-standing rocks from the local river + community craft + inclusive grafica + easy installation that can be read in any language. Even children and the illiterate can understand it.