Thursday, May 7, 2009

Alexander Girard and Otomí Life Force

Not too long ago I got a chance to visit an exhibit that showcased Alexander Girard's work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Girard was a designer recognized for his simple designs and his bold use of color. The following panel via Apartment Therapy immediately made me think of Otomí paper cutouts! It seemed to me like this design could the a representation of the "Zaki" of a flower. What is "Zaki" you may ask? Read on!

The Otomí are an indigenous group that pre-dates the Mexica ("Aztecs"). The term was made up by the latter, it means "People that carry arrows". In the group's original language their name was "Ñah-ñu". This group has occupied Central Mexico for thousands of years before the Christian era, and are predecessors to many native groups that currently reside in the area. This region was traditionally woodsy and forest-like, to the unfamiliar, a landscape not generally associated with Mexico.

Otomí ritual cutout figure: "Zaki" of a Tomato - Seed spirit of a tomato

Squirrels, bird, skunks, rabbits and other fauna that reside in the woods show up in Otomí art and mythology. To this day Otomí art is deeply influenced by nature, and by the relationship between humans and natural forces. Otomí paper cutouts are made from amate paper (a type of bark) and are generally symmetrical. They are called Dahi and serve a ritualistic function, used as a type of fetish that personifies the spirit of an animal or plant. The Dahi are used as offerings, proxies and intermediaries for protection, healing or fertility. The Chamanes (doctors, or spiritual healers) use the Dahi as tools to influence or manipulate a divine current or life-force. The notion of life-force is known in several cultures. In Sanskrit it is called "Prana", "Chi" to the Chinese. In Santeria it is called "Ashe". To the Ñah-ñu this force is called "Zaki".

Otomi ritual cutout figure: Seed spirit of a sweet potato

When visiting Santa Fe I was charmed by the many items housed at the International Museum of Folk Art. At the time I didn't make the connection: most of the items there had been collected (and later donated) by Alexander Girard. Folk art influenced a lot of Girard's work. Some of his work remind me of Otomí art, mostly because of the symmetry, the clean geometric lines and the natural themes.

Fruit Tree - fabric by Maximo Inc, from a design by Girard

One of Girard's most iconic projects was the beloved La Fonda Del Sol, a restaurant that introduced South of the Border delicacies to New York in 1960. Accounts of diners attending La Fonda described it as simply joyous. The designer was very interested in creating an atmosphere, an experience influenced by a cohesive design; Girard designed everything, from the table top to the linens. The result was optimisic, bright and colorful. The name of the restaurant adecuately translates as "The Sun's Eatery". Here's an abstract from the Menu:

"This is your house...In this spirit of hospitality, we welcome you to La Fonda Del Sol. Here in an athmosphere relecting all the color, folklore and gaiety of our neigbors to the South, we invite you to enjoy food as it is prepared in the Haciendas and Inns of all the countries under the Latin American Sun".
La Fonda del Sol. Dinner Menu by Alexander Girard, 1960 via SFMOMA

For the Otomi, the most powerful being was Maka Hyadi, a personification of the sun. It delivered "Zaki" and energy to all living things. Could it be that Girard knew about the Otomí concept of influencing "Zaki" by means of using artwork? Probably not, but even in a city of steel, concrete and glass he may have known that finding a connection with nature, the joys of food lovingly grown and prepared, and maybe pondering on the misteries of life contained inside a tiny seed provide wonderful experiences.


Otomi paper cut-outs personifying Tomato seeds, and jams come via de Museum of Anthropology, University of Missouri-Columbia.

To learn more about Otomi paper, ritual and cutouts go to Mexican Textiles, where you'll find more examples of Otomi art, including a gallery that explains the amate production process.

1 comment:

  1. thank you! appreciate the greater information about the Otomi than one usually finds