The Ruins at Mitla, a Legacy of Proto Surface Design

On the advice of friends from the weaving community of Santa Ana del Valle, I visited the Zapotec architectural ruins at Mitla, about an hour from Oaxaca City, Mexico. Like many legacies of pre-Hispanic cultures much of the site was taken apart and used to build new buildings that supported the visual supremacy of conquering forces. What is significant however is what has been left.
The walls of the ruins are made of decorative repeating motifs, or “grecas” in Spanish. Wave forms, repeating “eye” elements and undulating interleaved diagonals.They are all made of pieces of stone that have been cut into intricate shapes and polished. Astounding to observe the accuracy, symmetry and overall decorative beauty of the motifs. All of these design elements are not just decorative, they are structural. This is also the only archaeological site in Mexico that has this particular mode of decorative element.
The motifs that can be seen on the walls of the ruins at Mitla, can also be seen on the carpet that I purchased only days before my Mitla visit at the workshop of a master Zapotec weaver in the weaving village of Santa Ana Del Valle. The Zapotec nation is an Indigenous First Nations population, one that predates the Spanish incursion by millennia. Ancient weavings were done on the backstrap loom, a weaving technique practiced globally among most ancient weaving cultures. The introduction of the treadle loom through Hispanic incursion changed the nature of weaving within the region introducing a larger woven surface to be worked. Contemporary Zapotec visual culture is a syncretic synthesis of Spanish and pre-hispanic indigenous cultural elements and society, all through the creative inspiration and skill of the weavers themselves.
Even now Zapotec community-based modes of local governance are fundamentally based in the collective traditions of their indigenous forebears. The weaving culture of the Zapotec nation exists at the juncture of many different competing visual, economic and cultural mediators. The carpets that are crafted today using the design elements found at Mitla function within a continuous unbroken line of weaving traditions.
Exported transnationally, these carpets can be purchased all around the globe, where their high quality of technique, combined with creative originality, and now the resurgence of the use of natural dyestuffs make them a desired commodity from Toronto to Tokyo. This process of transnational production and distribution creates an inter-influenced production mode, where both design and production are inter-mediated through market demands, as well as the creative inspiration of the artisans themselves. The current modes of production of Zapotec weaving can be seen as a success story, as they have proven to be lucrative for the weavers. (Which is not always the case within artisanal industries.) The weavers of the Zapotec Nation have managed to bridge global desires for their product, all the while maintaining an autonomy and continuity of creative expression. Resulting in a very high quality product, and an expression of autonomous history that can be observed in both decorative elements as well as in material composition, and natural dyes.
When I walked through these ruins, some 2000 years old, I heard a distinctive sound. As Mitla is a architectural site located in the middle of a thriving Puebla, sounds of the village life surrounding the ruins can be heard. And on that afternoon I heard along with a rousing bailero, the familiar clickety-clack of a weaving loom. As I looked above the crumbling ancient walls of the architectural site, I could see into the second story of an adjoining house, and there it was: a treadle loom actively creating a new handmade textile, to the modern rhythm of a romantic Spanish song.

Historical background information was gathered from site visits to workshops in Santa del Valle and Teotitlan del Valle and guided tour of the regional museum at Santa Ana del Valle.

@Mark O’Connell 2019, no reproduction without permission or citation.

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