Sunday, May 7, 2017

Cuban Textile Encounters

"Hecha a mano! Handmade! Alles Handarbeit!" - When walking down the narrow alleyways of the crafts markets in the central Cuban town of Trinidad, visitors can hardly avoid the overzealous stall sellers advertising and praising their goods. The majority of the stalls are manned by women and feature items of pulled and drawn threadwork as well as embroidery and the occasional crochet and patchwork objects. The women highlight in multiple languages the handmade nature of their work as the unique selling point. Most pieces are done in white thread on white linen or cotton, but some also offer items with coloured thread on white background. Popular motifs are the so called 'Flower of Trinidad' and the 'Star of Trinidad'. 

I was given the fantastic opportunity to spend three weeks in Cuba and to visit Trinidad and other places as part of a scholarship offered by my university. Little is known about Cuban needlework history or current trends and practices in the field, though some contemporary Cuban artists like Aimée García and Celia Ledón have embraced fibre within their artistic practices. The needlewomen of the Trinidad craft markets readily report that their work goes back to needlework techniques introduced to Trinidad by Spanish colonizers from the seventeenth century onwards. The very small collection of eighteenth and nineteenth century textiles in the Museo Historico Municipal Trinidad seems to confirm this. However, it remains unclear to me why practices of whitework and threadwork came to inhabit such a continuously prominent position in Trinidad specifically when Spanish colonizers settled all across the island. Its prominence today is certainly partly due to the thousands of tourists that visit Trinidad ever year and serve as potential customers to the needlewomen. Yet, this is also the case in many other Cuban towns such as Viñales, Varadero, and the capital city Havana. And while craft objects such as small wooden boxes and hummingbirds, leather sandals and jewellery made of seeds and cow's horn are sold all over the island, the threadworked and embroidered table cloths appear to be rather unique to Trinidad. Indeed, Casa de la Obra Pía in Havana which houses a small museum of sewing machines and needlework in Cuba does not particularly address any tradition of white- and threadwork, but displays a collection of ‘standard’ embroidery samplers and bobbin lace artefacts similar to the ones common at the time in the UK and continental Europe. Perhaps this is just part of an orchestrated effort to attract more visitors to Trinidad? Maybe, though the beautiful colonial style town next to the tropical forest of Topes de Collantes seems to have enough on offer as it is.

One thing that struck me about the textiles on offer in Trinidad is that while their handmade character is repeatedly stressed, they do not offer much in terms of individuality of design. Instead, they feature standardised patterns and designs and one can barely tell one woman’s work from that of the other. In fact, I suspect that some of the women are only the sellers and not the makers of the textiles, although they of course assure you that they have made each and every object in their stall themselves. Some can actually be seen working on pieces as they wait for customers. I have, however, also seen museum guards work on table cloths similar to those on offer in the stalls as they sit and observe the tourist pass through the exhibition rooms. It seems fair to assume that these cloths are being produced for sale and that the women are partnering with stall owners. The prices charged for the pieces are ridiculously low given the fact that they are clearly handmade. A large table cloth with matching napkins can easily be purchased for around 30 to 40 Dollars. Sadly, this is reflected in the quality of some of the pieces which upon closer inspection show the occasional loose thread or sloppily finished raw edge. The more surprised I was to see large numbers of middle aged German tourists buying the rather traditional looking table cloths. A good look in their mothers’ linen closet would most likely procure items very similar in technique and style and of potentially higher quality. On the passing of their mothers, however, these handmade textiles are too often thrown out or given away, which is how they regularly end up in my possession. Yet, purchased for little money in a picturesque town on a Caribbean island the handmade embroidered and threadworked table cloths seems to acquire a different kind of value.

I am extremely grateful to the scholarship’s donor and the University of Kent for making this trip possible and hope to develop some of the themes and ideas collected during my time in Cuba in more detail in the future. 

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