Journal from Oaxaca: Color, Movement + Textiles

I recently found myself in Oaxaca, Mexico (pronounced ¨Wha – Ha – Ka¨) once again.

Oaxaca is a beautiful city high in the mountains full of art, music and life. It is a place where textiles are a very visible and celebrated part of the culture and identity. I have been traveling here regularly for over 7 years. Each time I return I find something else that is new, surprising and intriguing.

The state of Oaxaca has 16 distinct indigenous groups, each with their own language, culture, arts and textiles. Every year at the end of July the state – and many small villages – hold festivals called Guelaguetzas in which a delegation from each of the 16 ethnic groups performs a portion of one of their traditional dances.

Reflecting the diversity of the various cultures, some dances are somber and quiet while others are wild and bawdy. The dancers wear traditional dress, which is usually hand-woven and/or embroidered and often made by the dancers themselves. Many of the dances, especially Flor de Piña from the Tuxtepec region, seem choreographed just so that the dancers can show off their beautiful handwork.

This year – more than years past – there has been an explosion of art, culinary and musical events happening in the streets all over the city of Oaxaca including an amazing multi-media video projection which covers the entire front of the cathedral in the zócalo (the main plaza). The objects in the video are animated to interact with each other and with the building itself.

The program highlights the music and the arts of the region. The hand made traditional textiles were a major feature in the projections.

I’ve been bringing students here to Oaxaca to study culture, art and textiles for quite a few years. But at some point I realized that because I could not bring the whole world down here with me, making a film could provide an opportunity to bring a bit of Oaxaca to the rest of the world.

So last summer (2010) I traveled with a film crew.  The goal was to make a documentary that would not only highlight the various types of textiles and techniques used but would also convey the feel of the liveliness of the streets, the calm focus of the home weaving studios and the complex political and economic climate.

For 2 weeks the crew and I traveled to 7 different villages in the valleys and mountains around the city of Oaxaca. It was an amazing experience to have a chance to talk to the artisans and hear their passion, curiosity and how much the making of their art interacts with their lives and their cultures.

The on-site filming in the homes and studios, which were all outdoors to some extent or another, was itself was quite an experience.

Oaxaca is very noisy! Most interviews were interrupted multiple times with fireworks, trucks going down the road, loudspeaker announcements from the town square or donkeys braying so loudly we couldn’t hear each other speak. A lot of clips couldn’t be used because we were all laughing so hard!

I was the only gringa and my crew were from various parts of Mexico. The chatter at the meals during the breaks in the filming was fascinating. The crew and the families were all curious about each other so there were a lot of questions and storytelling whenever we took breaks. I learned that in one village the bride’s family has to prepare 100 turkeys for the wedding feast and in a different village they make a wedding-sized quantity of mole (a chocolate sauce for meat) in a vat the size of a small bathtub.

I love the pace of things here. We work, we talk, we eat – then work more, talk more and eat more. And there are always fabrics and looms nearby and there is always music playing. My talented videographer, Alex Reyes from Mexico City, captured more than 20 hours of beautiful footage of our experiences here.

Last winter, I spent countless hours in a small room back in Madison with an editor going over those film clips from Oaxaca, frame by frame, thousands of times. I had to cut down 11 hours of interviews to about 20 minutes. 20 hours of video images and 1000s of photographs had to be cut down to 1 hour 15 minutes of visuals. Hearing the music, the artisans voices, seeing the dances, the colors and the textiles, helped me feel some of the warmth and vibrancy of Oaxaca during the long, cold, icy Wisconsin winter.

The end result is Woven Lives/Vidas Entretejidas.

This last summer (2011) I was back in Oaxaca again commissioning work from some of the artisans who were in the film. Their textiles will be the base on which I build a new body of conceptual work for exhibition. I went with samples, yarns, drawings and specifications and left after 3 weeks with a suitcase full of handwoven wool, silk, cotton and tencel. I am hoping these beautiful fabrics and the work I create from them will help to keep me warm through the next Wisconsin winter.
Carolyn Kallenborn is Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the Design Studies Department.  Since 2004, Kallenborn has been working with Zapotec weavers in Oaxaca, Mexico. The inspiration for her own artwork comes from her experiences in Mexico and learning with the artists and craftsmen there.
Tormentas y Sueños (Storms and Dreams)
, Kallenborn’s conceptual installations using the skills of Oaxacan textile artisans will be exhibited at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca in July 2012.

Documentary website:
Carolyn Kallenborn website:


  • Astrid Bennett says

    November 3, 2011 at 11:32 pm

    I'm ready to go... When can we visit? thanks for the tour, especially with the videos and music added.

  • Candace Edgerley says

    November 29, 2011 at 1:51 pm

    Thanks for sharing the color and music of Oaxaca!

  • Janice Schwarz says

    May 24, 2013 at 8:29 am

    I know this was posted sometime ago. If you ever take groups to visit I would be interested and could probably encourage a few friends also. I had the opportunity to visit this area in the '80's and really enjoyed my visit. I am a member of SDA and attended all the Conferences held in KC. Have missed the last two for family reasons. I live in San Diego, CA

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