Book Review: Faces of Tradition

To treasure a traditional handwoven textile is to know that such a thing is far more than a mere piece of cloth—it tells a story. It has an artisan creator, who lives this story in their community and culture, and who has imparted a bit of themselves into this cloth, whether it is simply or extravagantly made. Indeed, to view such a creation without appreciating its story, as a mere textile utterly detached from the weaver, the community, and the culture that created it, is to strip it of much of its beauty and meaning.

Which brings us to the fine book Faces of Tradition: Weaving Elders of the Andes.  Written by Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez and Christine Franquemont, with lavish photography by Joe Coca, Faces of Tradition introduces us to the weaving communities of the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco. It is through the stories and portraits of each community’s elder members, who have passed their cultural traditions down to their children and grandchildren and have been vital in the recovery and preservation of the stories and textiles, that we gain an appreciation of these woven treasures in the context of the stories behind the cloth. 

Faces of Tradition begins with engaging essays by the authors and introductory words from Linda Ligon, their editor and publisher, each of whom have deep ties to these elders, their communities, and their textiles. Together, the writers set the stage skillfully for the portraits and brief life stories and interview anecdotes that follow. Joe Coca’s portraits beautifully capture the elders’ wisdom and experience, their humor, patience, sorrow, and serenity. Scarcely an image fails to compel one to pause, to see as well as to read their story. We are invited to wonder what wisdom we would learn, sitting in conversation with these elders. Or, given the barriers of language and introduction, perhaps merely quietly weaving or spinning together, listening to the sounds of our work and of the living world around us, of children and grandchildren and community, the legacy of a life well lived.

Not every story is comfortable; not every elder has had an easy life. Behind the words of many are echoes of poverty, mistreatment, prejudice, and loss. But shining through is their collective wisdom as keepers of their ancient, living culture.

Faces of Tradition is a tantalizing introduction to the culture of the Andes, of the people behind the textiles. It is an invitation to meet the people and communities presented to us in its pages and to experience, learn, and begin to understand their collective wisdom and strength.

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