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Sandra Monterroso on view at Denver Art Museum

Sandra Monterroso, Colorando las Hebras, 2011. Video performance. Courtesy of the artist.

Sandra Monterroso: Colorando/Decolorando las hebras

By Paula Contreras

February 27, 2024

Paula Contreras is Curatorial Assistant - Ancient Americas at the DAM.

The Arts of the Ancient Americas gallery serves as a testament to the ongoing dialogue between the past and the present. Interventions by contemporary artists show us how ancestral belief systems, styles, and labor resonate today. Two video performances by the artist Sandra Monterroso, Colorando las Hebras (2011) and Decolorando las Hebras (2011), installed in the central gallery, document the laborious process of dyeing and washing cotton by hand, a tradition practiced by Indigenous Maya women for centuries.

In her work, Monterroso, a Guatemalan artist of Maya Q’eqchi’ heritage, explores the dynamics of Indigenous community, culture, and natural resources in a postcolonial world. The catalyst for this artistic exploration came from a deeply affecting moment in her life, when she witnessed her grandmother, Maria Maas, speaking Q’eqchi’ on her deathbed. The revelation of this previously unknown heritage propelled Monterroso to seek a deeper connection with her cultural roots and strengthen her bond with Maya Q’eqchi’ elders.

Textile techniques are taught from generation to generation, becoming part of the community and heritage. Monterroso’s grandmother, aunts, and mother had moved to Guatemala City as seamstresses, bringing with them their skill as dressmakers. Her artistic practice pays homage to that maternal inheritance. Initially, she was drawn to language, but textiles became a vehicle for expressing the interwoven themes of personal and political.

For millennia, Maya communities have produced woven textiles that embody community identity, creativity, and wealth. Textile production—spinning, dyeing, and weaving—is largely women’s work. In understanding textiles as a form of material culture that ties communities together, it also burdens women with sustaining and maintaining these traditions while simultaneously relegating these occupations to domestic work. In her practice, Monterroso articulates how the recognition of textiles as artistic production is reflective of larger social movements advocating for Indigenous and women’s rights.

Presented as a diptych, Monterroso’s videos employ the production and maintenance of textiles as a metaphor for Maya women’s identity and struggle in contemporary Guatemala. Monterroso films herself dyeing, in one video, and washing, in the other, one hundred pounds of cotton fiber. The work focuses on the physical labor involved in this arduous process. Her actions evoke that of thousands of Maya women, past and present, who washed their family’s clothes in rivers. Also, during the 36-year Guatemalan civil war (1960–96), so many bodies of assassinated women were thrown in rivers that the rivers became polluted. In the aftermath of this violence, Monterroso’s actions become a metaphor for the fading/discoloration of history and of memory.

The vivid yellow dye that Monterroso washes from her cotton in Decolorando is sourced from turmeric, a pigment that had a short period of use in Guatemala during the 1800s. The pigments commonly used in her art, like indigo, turmeric, annato, and cochineal, are chosen for their symbolic meanings for Maya and several indigenous communities. In Maya cosmology or worldview, yellow symbolizes both the southern cardinal point and birth.

In her artistic practice, Monterroso focuses on Guatemala’s political and colonial legacy and foregrounds contemporary Indigenous communities. Through her work, she advocates for the acknowledgment of Guatemala as a living descendant of the Maya, struggling and thriving as a community. Recent efforts to decolonize museum spaces have advocated for textile production to be considered as a contemporary artform rather than a devalued craft. For their part, Indigenous artists like Monterroso advocate for the same recognition as other artists. While the DAM has been a leader in collecting textiles by Indigenous makers from Native American communities and throughout the world, the holdings in Latin America are sparse. This intervention begins to bridge that gap.