Today we would be kings: Frida Larios' New Maya Language
In this article originally published in the 19 issue of Design Magazine, Frida Larios recounts her journey to revive the visual language of the ancient Maya. Through her design work, Frida aspires to promote part of this ancient culture and the iconographic meanings, education and play, whether it is by instigating conceptual thinking through a child’s game, clothing or artworks, which to-date have been acquired by collectors around the world.
My journey to revive the visual language of the ancient Maya started in 2004 when I was studying towards a masters in Communication Design at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design in London, located only two blocks away from the British Museum which holds some of the most important lintels in the Maya world. I was the first Salvadoran woman to study at Saint Martins. How could I not look for my own roots within an institution, and city, with marked avant-garde tendencies? It was my opportunity to show my peers and now the world how the Maya are one of the founding six pillars of the civilised world, inventors of the notion of zero and of one of the most accurate calendars in history. There is also a lack of recognition of their intelligent and advanced hieroglyphic language’s art form, within Mesoamerica (modern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador) itself, and beyond its boundaries. Now, as an ambassador for INDIGO (Icograda’s International Indigenous Design Network), it is my privilege to promote part of this ancient culture through my design work.
My New Maya Language is a unique system, in content and style, which rescues the ‘dead’ written language created by the Maya across Mesoamerica as far back as 300 BC. My vision for the New Maya Language is to recreate, re-compose and develop contemporary applications in different media: art, product and fashion design, brand identities, information design, wayfinding and education systems for archaeological sites and public spaces, as well as children’s toys. Through these diverse applications I aspire to promote iconographic meanings, education and play, whether it is by instigating conceptual thinking through a 0–12 year-old child’s game, T-shirts or simply by creating appreciation through my artworks, which to-date have been acquired by collectors around the world. Antonio Avia, Indigenous Education Director for the Organisation of Iberoamerican States had this to say about my artworks: “… your work presents another form of seeing, understanding, recreating, and above all, employing again in daily life, millenary means of expression. I am fascinated by this new vision of the glyphs.”
Before being historians, mathematicians or astronomers, the Mayan scribes were artists. Their writing not only documented the political life and other historical affairs, but were also works of art which manifested through different mediums: stone sculpture, ceramics, murals, calligraphic manuscripts, garments and utilitarian products. This makes me think that there is not much difference between a practicing artist or designer today and the Mayan scribes, right? The answer is: No. The difference is that our profession is not as valued today as in ancient times when, like Mayanist Michael D. Coe says, “artists could be kings.” It was indeed a royal profession.
I aim to preserve the ancestral artists’ spirit at the time of creation, highlighting, and not merely reproducing their strokes. Aptly, renowned Harvard Peabody Museum’s epigrapher Alexandre Tokovinine described my work as follows: “Even though there has been a growing body of scholarly works devoted to the subject of Maya calligraphy, few artists systematically sought their inspiration in Maya letters beyond mere reproduction of certain glyphs and glyphic patterns, usually in the context of contemporary indigenous art. Frida’s project stands apart as an attempt to explore and reinvent Maya calligraphy as a symbolic and aesthetic system from an artist’s viewpoint. The New Maya Language creates its own world that blends Maya imagery and symbolism with Frida’s unique vision in a series of works which would make an ancient calligrapher proud.”
One of my other goals with the New Maya Language is for it to remain democratic and accessible, not only to northern hemisphere’s academics who are the ones who command the hieroglyphic writing knowledge, but to common Mesoamerican citizens. Above all I want it to be inclusive of native inhabitants of the region so that they have the opportunity to recreate themselves with it. A lot of these populations are illiterate and the New Maya Language touches their cognitive and emotional fibers. It is a language without words that makes them feel included in a world where the letters of the alphabet are their foremost barriers.
I believe that designers in Central America – and in other developing regions – should immerse themselves in their historic roots to reinforce design with an individual identity instead of obsessing themselves with influences from Anglo-Saxon countries. There are indeed parameters at the time of designing or international design cannons, which in fact were born in the Anglo-Saxon world. But anchoring inspiration and identity in indigenous heritage is very different to searching for inspiration based on European or North American influences. Why not look for inspiration in what is ours, which, by the way, is very different to the rest? Ancient indigenous cultures had magnificent artistic development, anchoring themselves in their natural and social environment and respecting it. I firmly believe that if Central American designers had been able to continue to reflect their indigenous culture until our present day – a development defrauded by many conquests during the course of over 500 years – the roles would be reversed and it would be the Western world looking for reference in our culture. Today, we would be kings.
The bookI wrote, illustrated and designed the 120-page New Maya Language book so that people could learn about the original language of the Maya in a simple and practical way and to decode my new interpretation to others. The main chapter provides the formula for each of my pictograms, original hieroglyphs on the left page and the new hieroglyphs or result on the right. Finally I showcase various design applications.
The foreword to the book is written by Harvard’s post-doctor Alexandre Tokovinine, who states: “Many signs of the New Maya Language retain similarities to their ancient counterparts. Yet the most fascinating part of the book is a series of works that borrow from the grammar of the Maya symbolic language to innovate completely new hieroglyphs corresponding to various objects, actions, and even abstract concepts. Frida’s works demonstrate that Maya glyphs still have the power not only to puzzle and astound, but to encourage new forms of artistic expression, that the Maya art and writing are alive as long as artists look at it as a source of inspiration and creativity.”
Green Child PuzzleThe symbolic pictogram called Green Child (or Mother Earth), consisting of a six-piece sustainable wood block puzzle, was originally designed and inspired by the birth of my son Yax (his name means the resplendency of the colours blue and green in Maya). The corn sprouting from a child’s ear symbolises Mother Earth opening up to the creation of life and preservation of our planet’s seeds. I included translations in Maya, Spanish and English at the back of each block piece.
ArtThe New Maya Language inspired me to create original artworks which I paint in gouache on high-quality watercolour paper. Many of these have found homes in different parts of the world.
Hacienda San LucasWhen the time came, after residing in London and living the city life, I decided to raise my now two-and-a-half-year old son at my husband's family eco-lodge, Hacienda San Lucas, in the mountains of Copán Ruins, Honduras. This offered me the opportunity to study the ancient hieroglyphs in their original habitat and become inspired by one of the most beautiful places on earth, overlooking one of the major Maya archaeological sites. We now live in Berkeley, California where my husband is a fellow at UC Berkeley Journalism Graduate School, but I am back at Hacienda San Lucas for the summer to meet-up with my muse for my next fashion and pictogram collection.
GaiaGaia is the ceremonial and yoga center at Hacienda San Lucas overlooking the Copán Valley, and one of the major Maya archaeological site’s in Mesoamerica. The space was in need of differentiation from the main centenary-old Hacienda house, since many special events and weddings take place there. I designed a new brand identity inspired by the New Maya Language. A beautifully reclaimed wood-carved sign is currently being manufactured to be placed at the foot of the Gaia Hill, all in preparation for the major Maya Long Count Calendar ending on 21 December 2012.
WildHeart VisionWildHeart Vision is a media organisation based in Helsinki and Copenhagen that aims to gather the largest collection of indigenous knowledge from around the world. The organisation commissioned me to develop a pictogram, website (www.wildheartvision.com) and branded communications. The pictogram used is called tz’ak, a Maya hieroglyph that means ‘total’, ‘whole’ or ‘complete’. The word is represented by the sum of two parts, which in the Maya spiritual and physical world, where perceived to be either complementary or opposing, one could not exist without the other. WildHeart Vision’s logo depicts the stars and the moon corresponding each other in the night to embody the guidance of the ancestral wisdom carriers.
IdentitiesThe New Maya Language system has been applied in the development of various identity and visual communication projects.
Los Sapos archaeological siteGraphic quality and available production budgets are constant constraints in the development of signage for public locations in most developing countries. The thousand-year-old Los Sapos UNESCO World Heritage archaeological site in Honduras needed a culturally relevant and affordable wayfinding design solution. I designed a single infographic carved in local stone by local artisans that now guides visitors along their way to the historic site.
New Maya Language accessoriesI worked with local Maya stone-carvers to develop a unique style for my signature accessory line composed of jewellery, belts, bags and shoes based on my Maya symbology and use of ancestral local resources. The designs, apart from the use of leather and suede, utilise different shades of jade encrusted on limestone extracted from the same place where the Maya historically mined for their monuments.
Harvesting Hands fashion collectionSan Francisco-based Explode La Mode approached me to complement my accessory line with fashion designs for their 2011 runway show in the heart of the famous Mission district. This was a significant trans-discipline career move for me and I addressed it with the same ethos of previous projects, using my graphic design background and the New Maya Language to treat pattern drawings. The result was a design-oriented, 100% handcrafted fashion line featuring New Maya Language pictographs, allowing clients to wear a story: the metaphoric language and history of the Maya as interpreted through my eyes. The concept behind the collection is planting and harvesting seeds, building a home with your own hands and nourishing yourself and your family through eating beans on self-made ceramic vessels. I intentionally commissioned Salvadoran women to lovingly hand-sew and patch the garments to give the items unique dimensions and patched texture. This collaboration resulted in a fashion range that is hand-made, earth-toned in colour and modern – marrying Mayan traditions with modern easy-to-wear sophistication.
© 2013 Frida Larios
Photos by Tyler Orsburn
Reprinted with permission from DESIGN>MAGAZINE, ©2013 Silvercrest Pty Ltd. All rights reserved. This first appeared in DESIGN>MAGAZINE #19.
About the authorFrida Larios is an Ambassador for INDIGO–the International Indigenous Design Network. She holds a Masters in Communication Design from Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, University of the Arts, London, where she was also an Associate Lecturer for several years. She currently directs Frida Larios cultural design studio in San Francisco, serving clients in fashion, accessory, toy, information and type design. Her award-winning New Maya Language ancient hieroglyphics redesign has been widely exhibited, collected and published around the world.