***MYTHIC VISIONS IN THE NEWS! Be sure to read the Philadelphia Inquirer's November 17, 2003 article that examines the Huichol shamans' use of hallucinogenic plants and how American scientists are considering the potential medical benefits of these substances.

Mythic Visions: Yarn Paintings of a Huichol Shaman, New Exhibition Opening November 8, 2003 at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, Sheds Light on the Spiritual Perspective of Mexico's Huichol Indians

Though the vibrant yarn paintings of the Huichol Indians of northwestern Mexico have achieved a worldwide popularity in recent years, few outsiders know of the rich religious and cultural stories they contain. Mythic Visions: Yarn Paintings of a Huichol Shaman, a new exhibition opening November 8, 2003 at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, features 31 yarn paintings by renowned shaman-artist José Benítez Sánchez. Text, photographs of the Huichol people, and other Huichol art and artifacts provide a rare glimpse into the complexities of the Huichol people's worldview. The exhibition runs through April 30, 2004.

Sunday, November 9, 1:00 to 5:00 p.m., the Museum offers a FREE public celebration of the new exhibition, with live Mexican music, children's activities, tours of the Mesoamerican gallery, and a talk by Huichol scholar, UPM Research Associate and Mythic Visions exhibition curator Dr. Peter T. Furst. For a complete schedule of the afternoon's activities, click here.

Though Huichol people have been using yarn or string to convey prayers to their deities or to create protective amulets for centuries, "painting" with yarn is a relatively new art form. The practice started in the 1960s when Huichol artists were searching for new arts and crafts to sell to tourists. Today, yarn paintings—vivid works of textile art in which strands of brightly-colored yarn are applied to boards thinly coated with beeswax—are an important source of income for many Huichol artists and their families.

Mythic Visions focuses on the work of one shaman-artist, José Benítez Sánchez (shown here on left), considered the leading Huichol artist currently using this medium. He is well known for the fluid, curvilinear style he pioneered in the 1970s. His skillfully rendered yarn paintings offer a seamless flow of interlocking elements that fill the entire space. According to curator Peter T. Furst, Benítez's wide-reaching fame comes from his unique ability to translate his ephemeral religious visions into a two-dimensional art form. "These fleeting visions are of the Huichol world as it came into creation in a mystical natural environment that has no boundaries between the present and the ancestral past. It is the otherworldly visions, triggered by the use of the sacred peyote cactus, which inspires shaman-artists like Benítez to 'paint' in yarn." Though his work has been shown at art galleries in Mexico, Europe, and the southwestern United States, this is the first time that Benítez's art has been exclusively featured in a museum exhibition.

Despite the fact that peyote is not native to the Huichol heartland, it is essential to Huichol spirituality and cultural survival. Each year, small parties of Huichol people make a 300-mile pilgrimage to a desert in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi to gather peyote, whose complex chemistry mediates their visions, when the plant is ingested. Huichol people call this desert Wirikúta, sacred home of their ancestors and the multitude of deities in their pantheon.

The exhibition's narrative text provides information about the Huichol people, their spiritual beliefs, and the pilgrimage to the sacred peyote that is so central to their ceremonial practice. About a dozen related Huichol objects from UPM's collections, including votive bowls, back shields, prayer arrows, and small votive figures, help set the art form in cultural context.

Exhibition text will be translated into Spanish, available as a handout. For groups with advance bookings, Spanish-speaking and English-speaking Museum docents will offer combination tours of Mythic Visions and the Museum's recently renovated Mesoamerican gallery, which features Precolumbian materials from Mexico and Central America; for more information on group tours contact the Education department at 215/898-4015.

A new 120-page, large-format hardcover book, Visions of a Huichol Shaman (shown on right), written by Peter T. Furst, accompanies the exhibition. The book, which provides cultural background and perspective on the Huichol people as well as analysis and interpretation of the vivid yarn paintings, is richly illustrated with more than 68 full-color figures and two maps ($29.95, University Museum Publications). Visions of a Huichol Shaman is available in the Museum Shop, from Museum Publications' website, or from University Museum Publications' distributor at 800-537-5487 (phone) or 410-516-6998 (fax).

A Research Associate at the University of Pennsylvania Museum since 1987, exhibition curator Dr. Peter T. Furst has conducted field research in Mexico among the Huichol people, Venezuela among the Warao Indians, and throughout Mesoamerica in Precolumbian art and archaeology, religion, and shamanism. In 1968 he curated the first exhibition of Huichol yarn art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. He is author of more than 120 books and scholarly articles, including many on Huichol art, religion, and mythology.

Mythic Visions: Yarn Paintings of a Huichol Shaman
will be available as a traveling exhibition beginning in the fall of 2004.

This exhibition and its related programing have been made possible, in part, through generous contributions from the Eugene Garfield Foundation, the Philadelphia Foundation, the Wachovia Foundation, the Mexican Society of Philadelphia, and Theodore and Nancie Burkett. El Hispano and Al Dia newspapers are media sponsors of the exhibition.