On our recent co-collecting project in Guåhan with Humanities Guåhan we spent time in the workspaces of indigenous Chamorro blacksmiths, carvers and weavers. The next blog in our ‘inside the artist studio’ series delves into the practices of two weaving practitioners, James Bamba and Mark Benavente. Both artists have collaborated on several projects and through their teaching efforts have helped to revive indigenous Chamorro weaving.
We met with James in his outdoor studio in the central village of To’to surrounded by his tools, drying plant materials and a number of woven items, some still in progress.
James began weaving at the age of 15 and was taught by his Uncle Pedro to make a guagua (two ring basket). He was also taught by several elder family members to weave indigenous items such as the che’op (long carry basket) and katupat (rice pouch).
James works with coconut leaves and akgak (pandanus) leaves. To develop his knoweldge of akgak weaving James has taken instruction from books and knowledgeable weavers from Palau, Chuuk and other Micronesian Islands. His akgag work varies from indigenous baskets and hats to business card holders, hats and sleeves for drink bottles. The demand for his work has led him to develop his own weaving swatches demonstrating different widths.
James has an in-depth knowledge of different varieties of agkak and their distinctive qualities. During our interview he invited us to take a closer look at varietes of akgag leaves pointing out the difference in colour, thickness and texture. This intimate knowledge of materials is evident in his elaborate weaving patterns that incorporate the natural qualities of his materials.
All of his objects are made by hand and with great precision. Part of his fine weaving is achieved by his use of the si’i, a triangular sliver of metal used in several stages of the weaving process. In the preparatory stages, the si’i can be used to cut the sharp thorns along the edges of the pandanus leaves. When weaving it can be used to carefully tuck in edges or put warps and wefts into place.
Weaving by sight
In addition to nimble hands we discovered that James has a great eye and can weave by sight. During our interview he held a long oval shaped woven purse filled with beetle nut and other personal items. We later learned that he had reverse engineered it by carefully studying the weaving structure of a Yap purse owned by his friend.
For a recent weaving exhibition with fellow weaver Mark Benavente, James reconstructed indigenous Chamorro items using historical photographs as a reference. Like many weavers, he adopts a mathematical approach to weaving and carefully calculates the amount of materials required to achieve desired designs.
Mark Benavente is the grandson of Master weaver Tan Elena Benevente who taught him to weave his first guagua (two ring basket) at 26 years of age.
We met with Mark at the weaving centre at the Sagan Kotturan Chamoru – Chamoru Cultural Centre in the coastal village of Tumon (Tomhom) where he volunteers as an instructor. For our visit Mark set up a table of his works that demonstrated the breadth of his practice.
Pushing the boundaries
Mark works with a variety of materials including palm fronds and pandanus leaves which he often combines with synthetic materials such as coloured paracord and sliver clasps. Mark often fuses current trends with indigenous weaving methods to create unique items such as these embellished sunglasses.
For Mark, weaving is an experimental process that requires ongoing problem solving that can lead to transforming and creating new weaving techniques. In talking about his fluid process he commented that ‘there is no wrong way to weave’.
As we browsed through his collection we took note of his extreme care for detail such as the finely woven toggles used on his bracelets. We also noted his use of fabric dyes to incorporate colour and embossing to add texture and pattern to natural materials.
Mark’s practice is fuelled by questions that pose ongoing creative challenges. One of his most recent questions, ‘how small can I make it?’ sent him and colleague James Bamba into a healthy competition of miniature woven objects. Both weavers went back and forth sending each other images of their recent creations;
Sharing the knowledge
The passion both artists share in pushing the boundaries of Chamorro weaving is matched by their commitment to promote and share their knowledge with other budding weavers. In addition to his work at the Sagan Kotturan Chamoru, Mark also teaches weaving at several public and private schools.
James has mentored many young weavers and is currently working with five apprentices. He holds monthly gatherings where they work together to gather and process materials. Like most collective art forms these gatherings make light work of arduous tasks whilst also providing a place to share knowledge.
For James, the ethos of sharing is founded upon chenchule, an indigenous support system of exchange where people share concerns and care for each other. By weaving together the collective fosters an enviornment that ensures weaving and indigenous ways of working continue.