Made in Mexico: The Rebozo in Art, Culture & Fashion, at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum, looks at the vital role that textiles such as the iconic Mexican shawl play in promoting Mexican culture.
In a cultural exchange programme between the University of the Arts London and Universidad Iberoamericana, artists are designing rebozos, or Mexican shawls, for the 21st century. Made in Mexico investigates the dramatic resurgence of craft skills resulting from this programme.
Visitors to the show will see works by Mexican artists such as Pedro Diego Alvarado, Sergio Hernandez, Mauricio Cervantes, Giullermo Olguin and many others, together with items by UK artists including Barbara Rae RA., Andrew Logan, Alison Willoughby, Wallace#Sewell and Mary Restieaux. Fashion designers Carla Fernandez, Lydia Lavin, Carmen Rion and Beatriz Russek are also represented in the exhibition.
In addition, the Fashion and Textile Museum invited contemporary artists and designers to offer their responses to Mexican culture and textiles. The show features more than 50 new works by Francisco Toledo, Graciela Iturbide, Carla Fernandez, Kaffe Fassett, Zandra Rhodes and others.
Introducing the Rebozo, a Striking Part of Mexican Identity
The rebozo – a powerful symbol of Mexican culture and identity – is a long flat garment worn mainly by Mexican women and worn in various ways, usually folded or wrapped around the shoulders and/or head.
In the Castilian language, ‘rebozo’ means to cover or protect oneself. Other indigenous names are ciua nequealtlapacholoni in the Nahuatl language and mini-mahua among the Otomi people. It is sometimes called cenzotl, meaning a multi-coloured cloth.
These highly-treasured, decorated shawls play a central part in the China Poblana, the traditional costume adopted by Mexican women. The rebozo represents the journey from birth to death – playing its part as baby carrier and a shroud for the dead, and has many other uses in between.
Hilary Simon, Curator of Made in Mexico
Curator Hilary Simon, a curator, collector and passionate devotee of Mexican culture, spoke exclusively to Decoded Arts about her interest in the rebozo:
Decoded Arts: ″When did you first become interested in the rebozo and why?″
Hilary Simon: ″The first time I was made aware of the rebozo was when I organised a group of Mexican artists in 2009, to come to Art in Action in Oxford. I met a weaver, Moises Martinez, from San Pedro Cajones in Oaxaca, who makes beautiful silk rebozos. The village also produces the silk locally. I had seen them in the paintings of Frida Kahlo, a long time before, but had not paid attention to the wonderful garment.″
Decoded Arts: ″What are the main elements of the rebozo?″
Hilary Simon: ″The main element is a woven piece made with cotton, silk or wool. It has an Ikat design. The unique feature is the fringe work which is hand-knotted. The end of the rebozo is left with loose threads by the weaver, and the empuntadora, has a separate skill of making a fringe. The two collaborate to create the final rebozo.″
Decoded Arts: ″Can you explain to readers how Mexican women wear and use the rebozo?″
Hilary Simon: ″A cotton or rayon rebozo is worn in daily life by women in rural areas of Mexico. It is used as a carrier for babies and toddlers, as well as produce. It is worn in holy places, and during mourning, over the head, and as shelter from the sun and rain. It is part of the national costume – ‘la china poblana’. The silk rebozo is worn as a decorative garment for social occasions. The wool rebozo is worn for warmth in the highlands, where they are produced.″
Decoded Arts: ″Are modern rebozos still made using traditional skills?″
Hilary Simon: ″Mostly they are still using traditional skills of back strap and treadle looms. A machine manufactured rebozo is also being made, to cut time and costs.″
Decoded Arts: ″Are those traditional skills under threat from machinery and technological advances?″
Hilary Simon: ″Traditional skills are under threat in the area of hand crafted rebozos due to the fact that the specialist weavers are fewer. Machine manufacture results in a different quality and detail. It is not that machine manufacture is taking over, but the fact the hand-made ones take much longer and therefore the costs are higher.″
Decoded Arts: ″During your research for this exhibition did you learn anything that really surprised you?″
Hilary Simon: ″Yes… a top quality silk rebozo can be passed through a wedding ring.″
Decoded Arts: ″Most Mexican women own at least one rebozo – do you have your own personal collection? If so, can you describe your personal favourite?”
Hilary Simon: ″Most women do own a rebozo. It is a garment that is held as a piece of Mexican identity. It holds memories, and can be passed through generations, making it a personal and treasured part of a Mexican’s wardrobe.
My personal favourite rebozo is from Ahuiran, Michoacan. The weaver, Cecelia Bautista, wove the rebozo in a heavy cotton, with colourful rayon stripes on a black background. The fringe is unique to the area and is made of rayon threads which are in the shape of roses of all colours. It is a splendid rebozo!″
More than a garment, the Mexican shawl remains a vibrant example of modern Mexican culture. Most importantly, it helps keep traditional craft skills alive and encourages more people to design these colourful garments.
Margarita Zavala, former Mexican first lady; actress Maria Félix; artist Frida Kahlo; and award-winning contemporary musician Lila Downs are well-known for their many colourful rebozos.
Mexican-Californian artist, Catalina Gárate, has created a series of paintings inspired by the Mexican shawl.
To get an insight into a modern version of the shawl, Decoded Arts spoke directly to Emma Sewell of textile design studio Wallace Sewell about their woollen rebozo:
Decoded Arts: “Your woollen rebozo is very beautiful, and I particularly like your choice of colours – what inspired your design? For example, is it typical of a Mexican region or inspired by a particular artist?”
Emma Sewell: “Inspiration came from the ‘warp ikat’ and ‘palm leaf’ style rebozos, interpreting the patterns through dobby woven structures. We chose contrasting colours to highlight these woven patterns.”
Decoded Arts: “Is the rebozo made using British wool?”
Emma Sewell: “Sadly it is not made from British wool. Currently, the majority of British wool is not of the right ‘quality’ or soft enough for this type of cloth.”
Decoded Arts: “We all love, wraps, pashminas, etc., but what makes the rebozo different?
Emma Sewell: “The complex patterning of warp ikat rebozos is very special, which in combination with the detailing of the fringes, result in very individual shawls.
In addition, its wide-ranging uses, from supporting the tummies of mothers to be and carrying babies, to its use as a funeral shroud, plus more conventional uses as a garment and fashion item, mean it has had an important role at the heart of Mexican heritage over many centuries.”
Made in Mexico: Textiles and Art
Made in Mexico: The Rebozo in Art, Culture & Fashion explores the history of Mexican textiles; the key personalities linked to the garment, from artist Frida Kahlo to Grammy award-winning musician Lila Downs; wearing and using the traditional Mexican garment; the weaving techniques, and the place of the rebozo in modern art and fashion.
Contemporary photographs by Graciela Iturbide, Antonio Turok and Lourdes Almeida as well as an installation by artist Mauricio Cervantes, who investigates the aroma de luto – the rebozo’s use as a death shroud, are extremely interesting.
Hilary Simon, Marta Turok and Dennis Nothdruft, Curator of the Fashion and Textile Museum, are jointly curating the exhibition.