Soledad’s sampler: dilemmas we face conserving historic textiles subjected to deceitful intervention
Keynote Speaker: Alejandro de Ávila B., Museo Textil de Oaxaca
Wednesday, November 8th, 2017
Museo Soumaya Polanco
Recently we came across three Mexican textiles made out of linen fabric ornamented with beads and silk, which must date to the mid-1800s. The collector who owned them, interested in exchanging them for works by a contemporary artist we befriended, assured us that the three pieces had been embroidered by Soledad Juárez Maza. Intrigued by that claim, we began to do some research. Biographical data about Soledad are meager, but we found out that she was the fifth daughter of Benito Juárez García (President of Mexico from 1857 to 1872) and Margarita Maza Parada. She was born in Oaxaca in 1850, and in 1893 she married a man nine years her junior in Mexico City. We confirmed, furthermore, that Soledad had artistic inclinations: an oil-painted still life with cats, which she finished in 1881, has been preserved at the National Palace.
The first piece that we received from the collector is a small tablecloth embroidered with chaquira (tiny glass beads). It highlights as its main design a repetitive motif that is frequent in Mexican samplers from the 19th century: a deer with prominent antlers, turning its neck after picking a flower with its muzzle. The center of the tablecloth displays the national emblem (an eagle perched on a cactus devouring a serpent) and the inscription “RM I SERVE MY OWNER B.J.G. 1862,” flanked by laurel and olive branches. Evidently, RM stands for Republic of Mexico, and B.J.G. for Benito Juárez García. Months later after we received the table cloth, the collector sent us a small sampler, embroidered also with chaquira, which in this case covers the linen cloth in its entirety, along with a large sampler featuring various techniques of drawn work and embroidery using silk floss in several colors. The first sampler bears the initials S.J.M. on one corner, and the date 1861 on the opposite angle. The second sampler shows the complete name Soledad Juárez Maza and the year 1862 worked in cross-stitch.
At first we were enthused about the possibility of acquiring a group of textiles intimately linked to such a relevant figure for Oaxaca and for Mexico as President Juárez. When we examined them with a magnifying glass, however, we realized that the inscriptions are a recent intervention. The samplers are “authentic” in the sense that their materials, techniques of manufacture, designs, stains and other signs of wear match all the characteristics of Mexican examples dating to the mid 1800s in the collections of the MTO and other museums, but somebody took on the task of adding the fake signature and dates. In the first example, we could see how some of the original glass beads that filled the ground for the designs had been removed and replaced with black chaquira to spell out the letters and numbers. In the second sampler, it became evident to us that the type of embroidery thread differs in the inscription, in addition to the fact that the tension of the stitches and the style of lettering do not match the rest of the work.
We feel in both cases that the interventions detract from the value of the original textiles, not only because they forge the information but because the placement, the proportions and the type of script clash with the elegance of the embroidered compositions, carefully conceived and painstakingly executed by their makers. My participation at the 2017 NATCC will focus on the conflict we faced as we debated how to conserve these pieces, since we found evidence that the signature and dates were faked as recently as 2016. The two samplers are both exceptional pieces: we have not seen any comparable examples in their quality of manufacture and their iconographic richness. We reached a Solomonic decision to preserve the interventions as they are, but we will publish images of both pieces where the inscriptions are eliminated using Photoshop. The title of this paper echoes “Soledad’s rebozo”, a Mexican film issued in 1952 where our old garment of modesty becomes an icon for the struggle between modernity and tradition, between social equity and ingrained corruption. I will end my presentation with a reflection on a similar note: the recent commercial success of antique textiles, linked to our growing dexterity to clean and restore them, has facilitated, it seems to me, a greater incidence of falsifications and “improvements,” which hinder our search for certainty as we try to understand history.
ABOUT THE KEYNOTE SPEAKER:
"My family roots lie in Oaxaca, San Luis Potosí and Finland. I was born and grew up in Mexico City, where I attended the German school from kindergarten through high school. I received a Bachelor's degree in anthropology and physiological psychology from Tulane University in New Orleans, later earned a Master's in psychobiology and then a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of California in Berkeley. I have held teaching and research positions at three academic institutions in Mexico, and established the first office of the World Wildlife Fund in our country. My involvement in environmental and cultural activism centers in SERBO and PRO-OAX, two non profit organizations which I helped establish. I am the founding director of the Oaxaca Ethnobotanical Garden, and the curator, adviser and research coordinator at the Oaxaca Textile Museum, having proposed the creation of both institutions before enrolling in the doctoral program at Berkeley. My interest in plants and Mesoamerican cultures goes back to a childhood spent near Chapultepec, the 'hill of the grasshopper,' a magnificent park since Aztec times that houses the National Museum of Anthropology. When I was a teenager, I made myself an apprentice at a cotton weaving workshop in Oaxaca." Alejandro de Ávila B., February 2017.