For my second summer exhibition review, I went to see Made in Mexico: The Rebozo in Art, Culture & Fashion at the Fashion and Textile Museum. Publicised as a first, this exhibition attempts to consider the rebozo, a shawl worn by Mexican women since the 17th century, through displays that consider historical context, cultural identification with well-known Mexican artists such as Frida Kahlo, social functions and the influence on contemporary art and fashion in Mexico today.
Given that the Fashion and Textile Museum is housed in a building designed by Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta and that many of the earlier designs by the museum’s founder, Zandra Rhodes, are inspired by Mexican culture, it is not a surprise to find the exhibition here.
There is certainly a celebratory feel throughout the space as artists, designers and anthropologists display their enthusiasm for the rebozo by providing photographs, films and contemporary interpretations alongside material examples that cover every possible fabric and motif.
The main room is given over to a dynamic display of these beautiful coverings, demonstrating the diversity of Mexican female society. There is a rebozo here for everyone, from plain to fancy, soft to hard, flat to sculptural, raw to recycled.
The rebozo can be made with pompoms, silk, feathers or glass beads. It can be woven from silk, wool, cotton or even constructed out of teabags. A rebozo can be both abstract and figurative, sharing stripy details or offering up appliquéd people. A rebozo can identify you with both a particular region of Mexico and the country as a whole.
There are fantastic images by Tom Feher of women weaving rebozos, such as Dominga, which show how these complex garments are made using a relatively simple back strap loom. Although the practice of wearing these shawls originates from the Spanish conquest and the emphasis on women covering their heads in church, their production is clearly the result of methods developed by earlier indigenous people of Mexico. As a result, the rebozo is an object of interest for collectors, artists and anthropologists as they continually seek to identify its cultural significance.
However, there is another reason for having this exhibition other than having a celebration. Production of rebozos has gone from involving a third of the Mexican population to less than forty people scattered across the country. And of those left, there are only two who use the traditional back loom while the rest use a foot loom, introduced through colonialisation (1).
The craft of the rebozo is clearly in decline and current generations seem less interested in learning the skills and knowledge required to make these emblematic objects. The display of contemporary art and fashion inspired by the rebozo suggests that their importance is not lost and Mexican designers today are keen to continue indigenous skills and materials.
I particularly enjoyed the garments designed by Carmen Rion and Beatriz Russek, known for their collaborations with Mexican indigenous weaving communities and who have created some striking modern designs. While the exhibition highlights the significance of artists re-interpreting the rebozo, the highlight for me was a film of weavers talking about the process of making a rebozo. They described a sense of ‘urgency’ felt when weaving as they became closer and closer to finishing the rebozo and became more and more curious about whose shoulders it might finally embrace. I was transfixed by this narrative as I imagined what it would be like to weave these objects, spending up to sixty days on one rebozo, thinking about who might this shawl belong to one day. Capturing what it feels like to produce something seems critical when inspiring current generations to value and utilise historical skills and knowledge in the future.
(1) Virginia David and Hilary Steele, The Rebozo: A Mexican Tradition, Fibrearts, vol35 no1 60-1 Summer 2008, p60-61