On his recent travel column, New York Times “explorer” Michael Benanav takes his readers on a trek through Bolivia’s cordillera and into world depicted in the extravagant tapestries of the Jalq’a people, where “animals with wildly exaggerated features are shown alongside mythical creatures called khurus, which include hunchback dragons and griffin-like bird-things. Within larger animals, smaller animals — called uñas, or offspring — are woven, but earthly laws of biology don’t apply: Condors can give birth to cats, monsters can give birth to men.”
In the mid-1980s, Antropologos del Sur Andino (ASUR), a small nonprofit run by a team of husband and wife anthropologists, reached out to the IAF with a powerful idea for rescuing this then dying craft. They arrived in the Jalq’a communities just in time to find weavers who still remembered the traditional techniques and young women interested in learning them. But there were no models for them to use, as all the classic weavings had been sold off for mere pittances. So ASUR contacted collectors around the world asking for photographs. Enlarged and hung on the walls of workshops and homes, the mysterious figures of ambivalent devils and fanciful animals spoke to a new generation of Jalq’a weavers who copied them faithfully. This sparked renaissance on their simple looms, which continues to be discovered today by visitors to ASUR’s museum like Benanav.
To learn more about the revival of the Jalq’a weaving tradition, read Our Man in Bolivia, a profile about Kevin Healy, the Representative who first brought ASUR’s efforts to revive Jalq’a traditions to the IAF. Healy’s book Llamas Weaving and Organic Chocolate, which contains insights gleaned from a lifetime of supporting grassroots development, tells the story of the Jalq’a in more detail. The chapter on the Jalq’a weaving renaissances is available here and you may purchase the full book on Amazon.com.