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November 03, 2016

Artist Anita Paillamil empowers other Mapuche women by reconnecting them with their culture

The Artist Leadership Program (ALP) of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) aims to rebuild cultural self-confidence, challenge personal boundaries, and foster cultural continuity while reflecting artistic diversity. The ALP's goal is to recognize and promote indigenous artistic leadership. At the same time, the program seeks to enhance the artistic growth, development, and leadership of emerging student artists and scholars through community art workshops in the artists' communities. Selection for the program is based on the artists’ proposed research, proposed workshops or public art projects, digital portfolios, resumes, artist statements, and letters of community support. Here, artist Anita Paillamil shares some of the important things she gained from the program.

Anita Paillamil at the Museo Regional de la AraucaníaTextile artist Anita Paillamil (Mapuche) outside the Museo Regional de La Araucanía in Temuco, Chile.


My name is Anita Paillamil, and I am Mapuche. I live in the town of Nueva Imperial, in the rural area of Lliuco in the Araucanía Region in southern Chile. My main job is to create and reproduce Mapuche traditional textiles, made with sheep's wool and dyed with natural elements such as leaves, mud, flowers, and fruits. Also I dedicate myself to teach this art to Indigenous women who for many reasons have been left with no knowledge of textiles and who today feel a need to reconnect with their ancestors through textile art.

261561 + 176668
Mapuche woman's ligchamall (dress) and trariwe (belt). Dress: ca. 1910; central Chile; wool. Belt: 2000; purchased from Fundación Chol-Chol, a non-profit organization focused on economic development for Mapuche people, Temuco, Araucanía Region, Chile; wool yarn, dyes. 17/6668 & 26/1561. NMAI Photo Services.

I applied to the National Museum of the American Indian to take part in the Artist Leadership Program because tangible and intangible Mapuche culture is losing its impact due to young people's lack of motivation to learn it. Our parents belong to the generation that encouraged their children to stop practicing their culture because of shame. As a result so much knowledge and so many stories were lost. I was fortunate—everything I know I learned from my mother. So for me as a Mapuche woman and instructor of this art, it is very important to reconnect with our culture. Only then will I be able to transmit it to the different generations of Mapuche and non-Mapuche people, ensuring that the traditions will not be lost.

When I started my research at the museum's Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland, my main goal was to examine the collection of trariwes, or women's traditional belts, identifying iconographic patterns that were lost in the textiles that are produced today. My goal was to be able to reproduce the patterns, working together with the women of the group Wallontu Witral to which I belong and of which I am president. The trariwe is one of the most sacred pieces for us as a people, and I thought that during the trip to Washington, I would only get to see trariwes. When I got to the Cultural Resources Center, however, and started my project, I was impressed by the number of objects in the collections and the care with which they are treated. That was something I did not expect, because here in rural communities we see very old textiles thrown on the floor or hung on a fence. Also I do not speak English, and I was a little worried that I might not be able to communicate and work independently. I thought it would be difficult, but it was not, because the museum's whole team was very willing to help me at all times.

ALP artists 2014–15 at the CRC
Individuals artists who took part in the Artist Leadership Program for 2014–15 (left to right): Keevin Lewis (Navajo), the museum's outreach program coordinator; Lisa Rutherford (Cherokee Nation), Anita Paillamil Antiqueo (Mapuche), Jacob Butler (Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community), and Irma Alvarez Ccoscco (Quechua). National Museum of the American Indian Cultural Resources Center, Suitland, Maryland.


To all the artists who are applying, especially those who do not speak English, do not to be afraid of the language. The feeling of being there with some of your own living culture is invaluable, and the team is always looking for ways in which you're right! Do not be frustrated if you cannot be selected immediately. Do try again, because you can always count on the support and guidance of Keevin Lewis, the Artist Leadership Program's outreach coordinator and now a very good friend. It is also a unique opportunity to re-meet your own people.

Many moments I experienced during my stay in Washington were very significant, but what I think I remember most was my visit to the pre-Columbian collection at Dumbarton Oaks. I was not able to finish that visit because I felt very bad—not physically, but of the spirit. Looking at the objects and feeling the energy that was in that place it was as if there was part of me there and perhaps something that belonged to my family, my direct ancestors.

White wool black dye
Anita's community workshops explored traditional Mapuche dyeing, among other techniques. To create black, white wool is first boiled with maqui tree leaves, which turn the wool yellow. Oily mud from a local swamp is then added to turn the yellow wool black.

This made me think that this time I am living is something unique, something very important, and that reconnecting with our culture is a task that must continue. One of the ways to assure that is through my community art project. My goal is to share that experience with all who feel this attachment to nature and the land that gives us life, because it is important to preserve and disseminate the knowledge of our grandmothers.

Thanks to my trip to the museum, from February 16 to 20, 2015, I conducted many activities in different communities in my area, retransmitting my experience in Washington, much of what I could see in the museum's collections, as well as my own feelings as a Mapuche woman. About 200 people were involved in this project, mostly Mapuche women who have been my students. Now they’re continuing to develop traditional textiles in their own communities. Among the most important activities was the rescue of natural dyeing to give white wool a black color—important knowledge for Mapuche culture because black represents security. Also during the week of my community art project we had very important discussions about the protection of our textile iconography, as it is part of us as a people and belongs to and is characteristic of our culture.

I think the most important aspect of my experience in the program is that I have gained more confidence in my work, and more appreciation for it at different levels. I feel my role within my culture is to continue working so that knowledge is not lost—teaching women, children, young people, and all those who are interested in learning. When I was in Washington, I realized that this is part of my purpose in life—to preserve traditions, spread awareness, and support Mapuche women who are somehow reconnecting with all this ancestral knowledge.

—Anita Paillamil (Mapuche)

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