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Wayúu Art: Weaving Life in a Thousand Colors

In the La Guajira region of Colombia, the Wayúu community understands, interprets, and represents life with fabrics that tell stories through symbols and hundreds of colors.

 Text and photos: Vicky Santana Cortés

Hens run back and forth pecking at the ground under the hammocks strung from the arbor, while several children gambol behind a white goat nearby. The teenage girls help the older women weave, carrying baskets containing colorful balls of Carmencita thread, which glides between their fingers until a crochet needle finishes the stitch.

Further along, under a tree that protects him from the La Guajira midday heat (100 °F), a man sits alone weaving, unflappably still, not even moving his head when little insects buzz around his hat.

Here, under an arbor in the Kanashmahana hamlet in the Aremasain region —a half hour from downtown Riohacha, the capital of La Guajira— I’m amazed by the stories, phrases, and deep knowledge of Wayúu weaving expert Cenaida Pana Epieyú.

Hailing from the Pariyén hamlet in Uribia —the indigenous capital of La Guajira— Cenaida says she is a born artisan. With skin burnished by the desert sun, a fierce stare, and deliberate speech, 64-year-old Cenaida belongs to the Epieyú clan, one of the twenty-three clans of the Wayúu people. At her side, Magnacia Epinayu, a 43-year-old La Guajira native with a broad, dazzling smile, tells more stories of weaving, an art she has passed on to her daughters; the whole family makes a living selling bags on the Riohacha boardwalk.

These women, like thousands of others in the community, learned the art in childhood by watching their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers weave; they perfect the tradition during the “seclusion,” a Wayúu ritual that women must undergo upon reaching puberty.

Located in the middle of the desert, this hamlet of single-story wood houses, a common corral, an orchard, and a cemetery, resembles so many others scattered throughout the La Guajira region. Each hamlet is inhabited by twenty to sixty families from the same clan. They socialize, celebrate, and weave under the arbor.

It All Started with a Spider

For Cenaida, weaving represents much more than mere “craft.” She thinks it should really be called art, “…since these are unique pieces made exclusively by the Wayúu and no one else,” she emphasizes.

Wayúu legend has it that both the technique of weaving and the designs spring from the ingenuity and industriousness of Wale’kerü, a spider who showed the community how to weave in exchange for a donkey or goat. At dawn, the inhabitants of the hamlet would see the sashes, bags, and hammocks that she had woven overnight. Not only did Wale’kerü use her mouth to shoot out strands of thread already prepared for weaving, she also used the movements of her legs to trace geometric patterns that the people could decipher.

The first woman to learn the secrets of the art of weaving from the industrious and generous spider taught others, and the art spread to the entire community.

Ninety-eight percent of Wayúu live in La Guajira, Colombia’s northernmost point, on the border with Venezuela. Cenaida emphatically points out that everyone from Palomino (the nearest town to the La Guajira border) to Nazareth (in upper Guajira) is familiar with weaving.

Hammocks were the first objects to be woven. “The hammock is our bed. We are born, procreate, and die in them. It is our living room, dining room, and a place of eternal rest, since we die and are buried in them,” notes the Wayúu expert weaver.

Three elements determine the authenticity of a Wayúu fabric: it must feature traditional ancestral designs, display the vivid colors typical of the region, and have been made by a member of the community. Although they use threads in hundreds of hues, the most prevalent colors are red, green, orange, brown, and fuchsia.

Cenaida regrets a certain change: “Since it doesn’t rain anymore, we can’t plant the cotton we used to use. Now we use commercial thread.” Still, this has not affected the quality or the beauty of the weaving. Bags, hammocks, sashes, funerary cloths, blankets, and sandals are among the better known items; they are also the ones most used by the Wayúu.

But it is perhaps the crocheted bag that is the best-known and best-selling item both in Colombia and abroad. The colorful designs feature symbolically significant stylized geometric figures that represent not only the community’s everyday lives —a turtle shell, a donkey vulva, cow intestines, the branches of the roof, horse hoof prints in the sand, the wood hook that supports hammocks— but also elements of their cosmogony.

Wayúu art has become an important export, especially popular in the markets of the United States, México, and Spain. In 2011, Wayúu weaving was awarded a Certificate of Origin, which protects the intellectual property rights of this indigenous community of artisans.

With the support of Artesanías de Colombia, especially through its design and innovation labs, Wayúu weavers have succeeded in improving and innovating without losing their ancestral designs. The National Education Service (SENA) provides further support by offering the community training in accounting, marketing, and finance, helping the weavers to market their products more effectively.

“We have been blessed with a knowledge of weaving and design, but the arijunas [the whites] have shown us how to get organized,” says Cenaida. Now syndicated in “workshops,” they have established a federation that seeks a stronger international presence.

The master artisan now enjoys traveling around the hamlets of La Guajira, bringing her knowledge and love of the art to children and youth in the hope that Wayúu art will live forever.