Yarn paintings by the Huichol people, an indigenous group in Northwest Mexico, are a riot of bright colors, the swirls of spun thread creating figures and shapes that tell stories and histories. Nearly 200 Penn students in intermediate Spanish classes have had the chance to learn about these works and discuss interpretations in Spanish during visits to the Penn Museum this semester.
The 11 students in the Spanish 104 class of Patricia Vargas, a lecturer in Hispanic and Portuguese studies in the School of Arts & Sciences, gathered in small groups around six of the artworks laid out on tables in a Museum classroom last week. They asked each other what they thought the figures represented as they formed their ideas of the possible meanings.
The Museum has about 40 Huichol yarn paintings; most of them entered the collection in the late 1980s and early 1990s, says Anne Tiballi, Museum director of academic engagement. The paintings are made by pressing acrylic yarn onto thin boards covered in beeswax to form swirling, graphic designs and scenes.
Many of the works in the collection have a written description of the painting from the artist written in Spanish, which was used by the students as they deciphered the symbols and story.
“The yarn paintings, or nieli’ka, are important ritual objects for the Huichol and represent characters and symbols from their heritage and contemporary cultural practices,” Tiballi says. “These scenes are representations of the visions experienced by the Huichol when they eat peyote, a hallucinogen that allows them to connect with their landscape, ancestors, and gods.”
Vargas says the students have been studying art, including the work of Pablo Picasso. During the Museum class she asked them to compare a yarn painting to a Picasso work. They also shared their interpretations of the paintings in Spanish, describing the material, the color, the forms and figures, and their interpretations.
“What I like is that they are motivated to speak because I am not teaching art; I am teaching language. Sometimes we have to motivate the students to use the language, and the best way to do that is with the real material,” says Vargas. “Everyone was speaking today, practicing the language and learning about artwork from another culture. I think this was good for them.”
Stephanie Mach, a doctoral student in anthropology and Museum staff member, supervised the visit to the collections classroom. “It’s really fantastic to see the students utilizing the collections,” Mach says. “The yarn paintings are very visually interesting so it seems like a more engaged class because there’s a lot to talk about and to describe and to see and to wonder about.”
The Huichol yarn painting curriculum was created by two lecturers in Hispanic and Portuguese studies, Teresa Giménez and Mónica Velasco-González, who is also coordinator of Spanish 140, working with Tiballi. The first program in the spring of 2017 included the 40 students in their classes and then expanded to the other classes the following year, reaching between 200 and 300 students each semester. The program was suspended during the pandemic and restarted this semester.
Tiballi says the program allows the Museum to reach a broad range of students, since those taking Spanish language classes come from schools across the University. “The emphasis on intercultural learning, developing the skills necessary to adapt in diverse cultural contexts, is very similar to the Museum’s mission of transforming understanding of the human experience,” Tiballi says. “These students might discover a new interest during their visit and return for another class, program, or to visit the galleries on their own.”