Collecting Culture

Article excerpt

Byline: Por Bill Brubaker Special to The Washington Post

Last spring, I gave a college lecture on my 30-year passion for folk-art collecting. Afterward, a student approached me with a question: Would I ever quit?

Id just told the audience that my house is filled floor to ceiling with more than 2,000 pieces from 75 countries. Even our closet doors have been pressed into service as art space. But I couldnt keep the disbelief out of my voice when I responded: Quit collecting? Not if I can help it!

And sure enough, there I was once again, in a remote corner of the Guatemalan highlands late last summer, crammed into a public minibus with my wife, Freddi, our 18-year-old daughter, Gabriela, and about 20 Ixil Maya commuters, all headed to a village named Chajul. We three foreigners on board were well into our latest folk art collecting adventure this one, ferreting out fine examples of the handwoven Mayan womans blouse known as the huipil.

Across Guatemala, a Tennessee-size nation of 14 million where the 6 million indigenous Maya speak more than 20 languages, the designs woven into huipiles vary from town to town. Some are decorated with human figures, others with animals, flowers and birds, including the brilliantly colored quetzal.

All are made from two or three woven panels with a hole cut in the center for the neck. Id seen photos of the huipiles made in Chajul some are embroidered with whimsical double-headed creatures.

Our journey to Chajul a mere 80 miles northwest of Guatemala City but a full days drive on winding mountain roads would be rewarding. Before heading there, though, we would make stops in a half-dozen other towns in the highlands, soaking up culture and scenery while pursuing our passion.

Guatemala is one of my favorite folk art collecting destinations in Latin America, along with Mexico (especially the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas), Peru (Cuzco and Ayacucho) and Bolivia (La Paz, Sucre and many other towns on the altiplano, or high plateau). What these nations share are large indigenous populations that have clung to tradition, especially in their dress. The finest weavings from these regions enrich museum collections around the world.

For us, the thrill of collecting goes beyond the hunt for stuff to hang on our walls. Over the years, weve been invited into the living rooms of mask-makers in Indonesia, painters in Haiti and basket weavers in Ethiopia, to cite just a few examples. Weve met these artisans spouses and kids and smelled what was on their stoves (or charcoal pits) for dinner.

Even though, in most cases, we didnt speak their languages (I know a bit of Spanish and Gabriela is fluent), communication has rarely been a problem. At times, weve been helped by a bilingual guide. But usually the artisans work and our obvious interest in collecting it speaks for itself.

Finding the good stuff in Guatemala can be as easy as strolling into an upscale shop in Antigua, the cobblestoned tourist hub, or as challenging as taking a muddy trek (or a crushing minibus ride) to a far-flung village. And theres a wonderful compromise: the outdoor artesania markets that seem to be everywhere in Central Americas largest country, most famously in Chichicastenango, an easy 2 1/2-hour drive from Antigua.

As we prepared for our first journey to Guatemala in 18 years, we learned that violent crime had become an issue as drug cartels have moved in. The major trouble spots are Peten, a province north of the Mayan highlands, and Guatemala City.

So, in addition to investing $10 in a cloth money pouch, which I wore under my jeans, we swore off using public buses, opting for shared minibuses on short trips and private drivers and tourist shuttles on longer hauls.

Our first destination on the two-week trip was Lake Atitlan, a picturesque region with volcanic mountains (long inactive) and Mayan villages, less than three hours northwest of the Guatemala City airport. …