Collaborations are extremely popular in the fashion industry, even though they often consist in a prominent and powerful fashion brand or label teaming up with somebody famous, like a hip artist or a trendy celebrity. Superfertile’s Creative Director Kali Arulpragasam opted instead for a real and rather unusual collaboration.
Known for her jewellery collections aimed at raising awareness towards social, financial and political issues such as the world food crisis, countries affected by war, animals in danger of going extinct, capitalism, and the Sri Lankan Civil War, Arulpragasam decided this time to work with an indigenous minority, the Huichol or Wixárika people, a native American ethnic group living in Wirikuta, their Sacred Territory that covers an extension of 140,212 hectares.
For all her previous designs and collections Arulpragasam did quite in-depth researches, but for the new collection developed in collaboration with the Huichol she literally went a long way. Leaving London last January, Arulpragasam moved to Mexico and with, no knowledge of Spanish, she tracked down the Huichol and started working with their artisans.
During the following months she developed with them a series of unique beaded designs characterised by intricate and highly symbolic motifs employing traditional crafts and techniques. Arulpragasam entitled the collection "Gold Diggers", a name that tries to bring awareness about the pressures the natives have been going through.
Though a federal court ordered last year the suspension of all mining activity, there are still a few companies (First Majestic Silver Corp, Universe Project, Revolution Resources, La Maroma, Frisco Group) with concessions in the municipality of Catorce. In a nutshell, mining and the exploration activities of mining companies in the sacred territory of Wirikuta are still on, despite the territory being included in 1998 in UNESCO’s World Network of Sacred Sites.
A survivor of the Sri Lankan Tamil genocide, Arulpragasam knows what it means to see a culture wiped out by people in power and decided to give voice to the voiceless with a project that ties in art, craft, design and fashion, highlighting not just political, social and environmental issues, but also the damages imposed by wealth, power, privilege and racism on minority groups. So far she has definitely won a battle in granting the Huichol more visibility: the "Gold Diggers" collection is currently on showcase at the Museo Frida Kahlo, while two pieces were also included in the permanent collection of the museum.
When did you first develop an interest in the work of the Wixárika people?
Kali Arulpragasam: I came across the works of the Wixárika people for the first time 6 years ago, after my "“Tourism" collection was part of a charity auction at the Phoenix Museum to raise money for Haiti. I was in a small shop in Redhook, saw a beaded panther head and was completely blown away. It was love at first sight. I asked who it was by and the assistant said it was by some artisans in the mountains of Mexico. After that, I went back to London and continued with my life and work. For 6 years I felt this constant yearning to find them and often went onto the Internet to look for information about these people called Huichol or Wixárika - the latter is the correct term they use to indicate themselves. In January this year I had this urge to close my studio, get on a flight to Mexico and find them by myself wherever they may be in the states of Nayarit and Jalisco.
What did you do when you arrived in Mexico?
Kali Arulpragasam: I did an artist's residency for three weeks, then I got a bus to Puerto Vallarta to try and find my way around. The Wixárika people live in the Northern Western parts of Jalisco and I spent the first three months - from February to April/May - just getting to know the artisans who would come down from the mountains and sell their art to the tourists in Puerto Vallarta. I started to make friends with the Wixárika artisans who were there. The Wixárika people are very secluded and protective of their culture, because they've been attacked for hundreds of years by all types of colonisation, imperialism, diseases, exploiters and gold diggers. Every type of threat has come to them and they have managed to hold on to their culture, religion, language and costumes. In their culture everything is still so pure as it was from the beginning of times.
Did you find it difficult to reach out and make them understand you weren't there to exploit them?
Kali Arulpragasam: I didn't speak a word of Spanish, but we communicated all the same through art, curiosity and respect. We come from different languages, cultures and religions, but, when the universal language you speak is love, you can understand each other. The visual language of this project can certainly be communicated without words and through love and art. In today's world we don't really get and give time to understand cultures, while I knew I had to give them time. So I spent the first three months building trust, studying their rituals and wardrobes, and researching. The Wixárika are very private people, because they have been under exploitation and threats by wealthy powerful foreigners and, even in their own country, they are subject to the racism of wealthy land owners. They have respect of other people and they were open to me, the only reason why they don't trust you is because they have been exploited. Because of time constrictions and pressures as designers we end up studying these cultures from our living rooms, looking at pictures on Google, printing them and putting them on our boards to start a collection. I didn't face too many difficulties with them because I was very open and wanted them to understand I wasn't interested in money and fame, but I was interested in helping them with my concepts and skills in creating a collection that added value to a culture very much de-valued and disregarded also by the local political forces. These people are so spiritual and create a very personal form of art, I would say the purest form of art since they do it to communicate with the gods. It was obvious that, if I wanted to enter their community, I couldn't be disrespectful, but I had to give respect to gain respect back.
Why is the collection called "Gold Diggers"?
Kali Arulpragasam: Before arriving I wasn't really aware of what the Wixárika people were going through as there is very little information about them. When I arrived I finally understood more about the situation: silver mining companies are buying lands to dig them up for silver, and they have cast their greedy eyes on the sacred land called Wirikuta in Mexico. Mining companies inject cyanide into the ground, and this process pollutes the water system, killing life. If this happens to the Wixárika people also the peoyte, the cactus that grows in that area and that they use to communicate with their gods, will be poisoned, severing the tie between them and their sacred land. The Wixárika people have to pass through four areas to complete their rituals and journey towards their gods and one point, Isla del Rey, was sold to tourist developers for $10 per square metre, while another one is being sold for one billion Canadian dollars. I was amazed because such an ancient culture that has been existing for centuries and that belongs to the world and not just to Mexico, is being given away, sold and destroyed. The name of the collection is therefore a reference to the greedy powers who have an eye on this culture - be they tourist developers or mining companies, these arrogant and selfish fortune hunters do not realise the damages they inflict on these cultures.
Each piece in this collection is unique, how did this collaboration work design-wise?
Kali Arulpragasam: These pieces surely can't be replicated, they can only be hand-made in Mexico by the Wixárika artisans using techniques that have been around for one hundred years and that are used to tell a visual story through a work of art or a wearable piece. The collaboration happened very naturally; for the first few months I looked at the various different groups of people who could have been given different tasks in accordance with their speciality. For example, a young woman named Gloria is good with 3D flowers, while there are artisans who are better at other things, like 2D effects. I tried to understand what they are comfortable with at different levels and, from there on, we both pushed each other. We grew day by day, trying to find solutions to different problems and issues. Some ideas were difficult to put into practice at the beginning, but new ideas always are. It took us a long time to complete some of the most intricate pieces such as ponchos and scarves, but things got easier after the first designs were finished. Communication got easier too and we've been trying to exchange words and teach things to each other. I also speak Tamil the oldest Indian Language, which is close to Sanskrit, and the Huichols suggested me to learn Spanish, but I said I wanted them to teach me Wixárika words. So, they asked me in return to teach them Tamil words! In a way that's understandable since we both preserved our cultures, even though everything around us has been crumbling or has been destroyed. In my case, the Tamils have been violently massacred and the culture wiped out by the government in Sri Lanka.
Which is your favourite piece out of this collection?
Kali Arulpragasam: Each one is my favourite, I'm attached to each of them. I love the coloured Mexican leaves, but I find the black ones also very strong as they symbolise in which ways the life of these natives will be affected if the land and the waters will be poisoned by cyanide, which is used by the miners to break down the silver. Some of the pieces hint at different types of threat: the Wixárika have very secret and colourful symbols, but, in some of the designs, we left empty or blank spaces, lifted the colours or gave the impression they were fading away to hint at the dichotomy between a limitless territory with no boundaries and a place with freedom of culture and religion and a restricted place in which the territory has been damaged and consumed by greed. In this way the collection also represents the struggle of other indigenous cultures all over the world, so it assumes a global meaning. I myself have witnessed the same thing with the Sri Lankan Tamils being wiped out in a violent way - first they blew up our historic library, then the temples, houses, and museums; then they killed the young men and raped the women, attacking our history, identity and our DNA - and the sadness of attacking a culture and killing its identity, art, religion and territory is immense.
The Wixárika also collaborated with you on the lookbook: can you tell us more about it?
Kali Arulpragasam: The photoshoot included in the lookbook tries to tell the story of these people, revealing who they are, where they live, what they wear and what they create. All the models I chose wear their own clothes, the locations were the places they live in - in Nayarit and Jalisco - there was hardly any re-touching done and no hairstyle artist involved, with very little make up. I did the scouting, I chose the models and the location, researching into the areas before and during my production. But what you see is what I wanted to show - the truth. You could argue that the lookbook is a sort of journalistic documentation, since it's very rare seeing collections being photographed on location by the people who made them, in their environment and celebrating their own culture. Usually you get your products made and then you put them on a model. This is more of an attempt at connecting with the natives and pulling them in, rather than looking at them from the outside, passing by and taking some photos or making a detached film. The way I work is different and it has to be precise: every shot must make sense and deliver my message and my vision.
You just said that the lookbook has more of a journalistic value, so would you describe this collaboration as going behind art, craft and fashion to focus also on other issues such as anthropology and ethnography?
Kali Arulpragasam: You can read this collection on many different levels. In the past I always tried to push my work in different directions, tackling also political, social and educational issues. I think design can help us bringing awareness towards certain issues, documenting what is happening right now on this planet. As an artist, I can include these topics in my work, talk about them and question the state of things. Collaborating with these native tribes who are under threat because of people's greed allowed me to become more aware of what these peaceful and humble natives went through and how important it is to respect the ancient heritage of Mexico. People who go and help the natives are subjected to threats and intimidation by the gold-diggers.
The collection has also been showcased at the Frida Kahlo Museum, how did you arrange that?
Kali Arulpragasam: I've been trying to go and visit the museum for a long time, since Kahlo is a goddess to me and her museum is a temple, but this time her spirit must have been really guiding me! One day while doing a research on the rituals of the Wixárika people, I took a break and was in a bar in Tepic with my driver and met a person who introduced me to someone working at the Casa Azul. I had an appointment with them, went back to Jalisco to work, and then it all happened. Maybe the conjoined forces of Frida Kahlo's spirit and of the gods of the Wixárika people helped me bringing the collection to the attention of the museum. We displayed 12 pieces there, 8 of them will be showcased until January 12th 2014. We launched the showcase with a press conference that included a panel of Wixárika people with two of my artisans as well, since it was important to give them a voice. It was amazing also because we had quite a few Mexican students with us and I hope it inspired them to be proud of their culture, voice their concerns and not ignore the threats to their territory.
Did the museum decide to display any of the pieces in its permanent collection?
Kali Arulpragasam: Yes, the large scarves. The biggest pieces - "Non-Endangered Religion" and "Endangered Religion" - will be part of the permanent collection at the Museo Frida Kahlo, the most spirited heritage driven museum in Mexico. They will be on display in a room under Frida Kahlo's Bedroom and Studio, among her collection of Mayan sculptures. It is amazing to know that the priceless treasures the Wixárika people and I created will be in such an important museum in Mexico for eternity!
Do you feel that fashion can genuinely help us preserving endangered cultures?
Kali Arulpragasam: Fashion for me is communication. It's about communicating to the world who you are and I believe that there are good and bad forces in the world. The powerful groups that own all these fashion houses and brands believe in a social and financial pyramid in which only a few people are prosperous and all the rest work as slaves to maintain other people's wealth. That's wrong, but, luckily, there are good people who are always questioning issues and showing the beauty of the world and the amazing results you can achieve when cultures work together creating new things with real human value. I certainly did not come here to advance the gold-diggers of Mexico, but to create art with the Wixárika people in a battle that saw me joining forces with a native tribes against the gold-diggers. The main aim was showing people the value of the Wixárika and I think we have won this battle for them, but also for me as a Tamil.
Where will you be selling the pieces?
Kali Arulpragasam: Superfertile and the Wixárika people have the rights to reproduce these pieces. We will take orders and I will be working with my team of Wixárika artisans to make the designs. With this project I have also introduced a business model to help the indigenous people: I've given them the right to continue these pieces to encourage world collaboration, giving them the chance to evolve and expand. I hope they will continue to use and produce these pieces and it is extremely rewarding to know that, after I'm gone, they will develop these ideas, progress and continue for the rest of their existence, this makes me feel proud. I think the time has come to toss aside the most commercial aspects of the fashion industry that have produced so far mountains of waste and pollution, and focus on properly investing in a culture generating projects revolving around interaction and collaboration to rediscover traditional skills and ancient techniques that are dying out and that we, as designers, can incorporate in new pieces keeping in this way alive the genuine treasures of the world. I hope this project can show what a real collaboration should be about.
Do you feel this collaboration has also been a sort of journey of self-discovery for you?
Kali Arulpragasam: I decided to do this project almost out of a desire and need, because I wanted to know who these people were, but, out of that, came something that is helping that culture and that has changed me deeply. When I came here I only packed a suitcase of clothes since I thought I was only coming to Mexico for three months and left my possessions on storage in London. I sort of stripped myself of all these materialistic things and went on with my life. On the spiritual level I felt enriched by this experience. The Wixárika people have shown me a lot of things: first and foremost to create beautiful work for the well-being of the universe and to give voice through design and creativity to issues that are voiceless, and not because you want to put them in a small gallery for the joy or a few wealthy people drinking champagne. I feel this has been a very spiritual journey that prompted me to grow up a lot, making me realise I'm the servant of the gods and not of manufacturing and commercial people. Besides, this is also the first time a Sri Lankan Tamil has collaborated with an ancient tribe from Mexico, so it's also a magically historic moment.
Is this a revolution?
Kali Arulpragasam: I'm often asked "Are you going to start a revolution?" and I always answer that I'm an artist, not an activist. I will never stop putting things out like this project. This is a revolution by art and not by violence, I protest about bad things going on in the world, using my tools and skills to let the message seep in. Whatever I create, wherever I may go, I will give voice to the voiceless and the de-valued. I think I'm strong and brave enough to do it.
What projects do you have for the future?
Kali Arulpragasam: I would love to continue working with indigenous people and bring their techniques back into the modern world. I would like to bring back the show to Europe, since I want it to go round the world and let more people know the story of the Wixárika people and be blessed by their gods.
Superfertile + Wixárika's "Gold Diggers" is at the Frida Kahlo Museum until 12th January 2014.
Photos: Superfertile + the Wixárika people.
1. "Gold Diggers" Collection - Detail
2. "Non-Endangered Flowers"/"Endangered Flowers" Necklaces
3. "Non-Endangered Art" scarf
4. "Endangered Art" scarf
5. "Endangered Art" scarf
6. "Faded Art" scarf
7. "Non-Endangered Butterflies" Necklace
8 and 9. "Controlled Art" (Black) scarf
10. "Controlled Art" (White) scarf
11. "Target Endangered Humanity" scarf
12. "Non-Poisoned Nature" Necklace
13. "Non-Poisoned Nature"/"Poisoned Nature" Necklace
14. "Proud Identity" Necklace and "Lost Identity" Bangles
15. "Non-Endangered Parrots"/"Endangered Parrots" Necklaces
16. "Non-Endangered Religion" scarf - Detail
17. "Endangered Religion" scarf on display at the Museo Frida Kahlo
18. "Non-Endangered Religion" scarf
19. "Endangered Religion" scarf
20. "Target Endangered Humanity" scarf
21. Kali Arulpragasam at the Museo Frida Kahlo
22. "Gold Diggers" Collection - Detail
Member of the Boxxet Network of Blogs, Videos and Photos
Member of the Boxxet Network of Blogs, Videos and Photos