Photos of the Huichol People and Their Sacred Practice of Mexican Beadwork
Born in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, Jamaican-British photographer Christian Cassiel currently resides in London. He’s a visual artist who uses photography as a form of documentation whilst travelling and learning about communities in various parts of the world. His fascination with communities and travel derives from a sense of awe he had for the outdoors as a child. From a young age, Cassiel had, what he describes as, “an innate connection” to nature and spent his childhood exploring woodland areas. In his childhood imagination, he pictured himself becoming a biologist. The writing, however, that’s required to fulfil such a role acted as a deterrent for Cassiel.
Fast forward to the age of 13 and he began his foray into photography, exchanging his time wading through ponds as a child for this new, documentative craft instead. Photography emerged as a strong passion point for Cassiel, who found he could channel his awe of the natural world through the lens of a camera.
Now, as a professional photographer and curator of the London studio Seed, Cassiel uses the craft to navigate the world. During his travels, he connects with communities, learning about their traditions alongside the cultural and historical context of their locations. His last few projects have seen him travel to Mexico, documenting the damage created by industrialised farming in the village of Tonahuixtla, Puebla, and the spiritual art form of Huichol beadwork practised by a community of women in Potrero de Palmita, a village in Nayarit. His images are softly drenched in golden lighting, often featuring amber-hued portraits of his subjects taken after sunset or candid photos of interactions taking place inside homes or under cloudless skies in the outdoors.
We caught up with Cassiel to trace his trajectory documenting the latter. Below, Cassiel talks Huichol beadwork, how he embeds himself within communities and the limitations of photography as a craft in itself in capturing cultural traditions.
How did this photography series begin? How did you come to be connected with these women?
From November to March I learned that monarch butterflies would be migrating in their millions from Canada and the US to hibernate in the forests of Michoacán, which is an ecological phenomenon I’ve always wanted to be able to witness and document. In the west of Michoacán you will also find the Parícutin volcano – which is the world's youngest – suddenly surging from a farmer’s cornfield in 1943. Making that climb was the closest I came to dying during the five-month trip – a story for another time! Besides climbing volcanoes and chasing butterflies I also wanted to develop my architectural and interior portfolio, and Mexico City has an incredibly rich design and art history.
What was your experience travelling to Potrero de la Palmita like?
In addition to my work as a photographer, I am the curator of a studio known as Seed. Within Seed, I gather and curate an eclectic collection of found and antique objects, making connections between the objects and places I photograph. These items are crafted from an array of natural materials, including clay, wood and textiles.
As I delved deeper into research of the pieces I collected, an interest emerged to document indigenous art forms. Through this documentation, I want to shed light on the ancient artistic practices and hopefully play a part in the preservation of these invaluable techniques.
During my visit to Oaxaca, I had the privilege of connecting with the talented designer Elise Durbecq. Elise had cultivated a special relationship with a group of women from the community. Her generosity extended to inviting me to accompany her on her next trip to the town, where she kindly introduced me to these women and their community.
Travelling to the town was a whole adventure in itself. Elise was already in the city of Guadalajara so had to catch a two-hour flight from Oaxaca. From Guadalajar we had to drive, and the next morning after negotiating with some sketchy car rentals, we headed further west to Aguamilpa Dam. Upon reaching the dam, there was a small boat we took to the other side of the lake to get to Potrero de Palmita.
For our readers who don’t know, can you explain the beading style?
The Huichol beading style, pronounced "wet-chol", is an art form that involves encasing three-dimensional objects in a single layer of beads, akin to crafting a mosaic. This distinctive technique is characterised by its vivid colours and geometric patterns.
Each beadwork piece tells a story, rich in symbolism, sacred imagery and ancestral wisdom. It serves as a tangible bridge between the physical and spiritual realms for the Huichol people. From animals to sacred symbols, these intricate designs are a testament to their deep-rooted cultural and religious traditions.
Can you explain to our readers who the Huichol are?
The Huichol, an indigenous tribe hailing from the Jalisco and Nayarit regions of Mexico nestled amidst the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains, proudly trace their ancestry back to the ancient Aztecs. They assert their origins in San Luis Potosí, with historical evidence suggesting their presence in their ancestral lands for over 15,000 years, dating back long before the Spanish invasion and subsequent colonial rule.
Despite the tumultuous history that brought violence and cultural shifts, the Huichol people have tenaciously preserved their pre-Colombian shamanic traditions and ceremonial practices. This remarkable resilience is, in part, owing to their geographic isolation. Today, about 18,000 individuals identify as Huichol. They share linguistic ties with the Hopi people of Arizona, both speaking Uto-Aztecan languages. The Huichol language, known as Wixárika, is a unique and vital aspect of their cultural identity, and in their native tongue they refer to themselves as Wixáritari, signifying "the people".
Huichol spiritual beliefs are expressed through their artwork, which often features depictions of nature, animals and sacred objects. Central to their religion is the concept of animism, the belief that all things – including objects, places and creatures – possess distinct spiritual essences. Deer and wolves are thought to be capable of communicating with humans; arrows carry prayers; serpents are both rain-bringers and conveyors of embroidery skills; and pumas are regarded as messengers of the Gods.
At the core of their spiritual worldview stand four principal deities: the trinity of maize (maxra), the Blue Deer (iku), and peyote (hikuri) along with the Eagle, are central figures in Huichol cosmology. Ritual consumption of peyote, known as hikuri, is a profound practice that enables the Huichol people to establish a connection with their extensive pantheon of ancestral deities.
Can you recall some of the spiritual visions that were communicated via the beadwork?
On the first day in the town, Elise gathered the women to discuss some designs she wanted to have made after hours of discussions and drawings, while I took a few photographs from the side. Elise then asked the group if they had any questions. Only one woman did, which was to ask if she could touch my hair (which is loc’d), to which everyone else responded by jumping up asking if they could do the same.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve had this experience among indigenous communities, and I’ve always been fascinated by the universal language of human touch as a way of communication and understanding. I wasn't able to speak enough Spanish and this small gesture allowed the group to feel more comfortable with my presence.
What has this experience taught you generally? And what has it taught you about travel?
Every time I find myself within remote communities such as this I’m reminded just how diverse the world is and how many cultures there are to learn about. It’s a very humbling experience, especially if you’ve spent a lot of time in a place like London, which is like a giant bubble in which you come to feel like nothing of importance exists outside of it.
There’s definitely a travel etiquette which I’ve come to learn as a photographer when documenting indigenous cultures. I’ve seen how easy photography can be used to convey negative and sometimes damaging narratives.
I've dedicated a considerable amount of time immersing myself in various communities. While I've managed to create some beautiful photographs and share moments that hold significance, a culture with such a rich and complex history cannot be adequately encapsulated within the confines of a few days. To truly convey the essence of these narratives and the people behind them, you have to invest weeks, if not months, of genuine engagement. With this new awareness, I intend to create deeper photographic narratives that delve into the intricacies of diverse cultures around the world.
What was it like photographing these women? Were they open to you photographing them or were there any obstacles you had to overcome?
The language was the obvious first barrier to overcome, but after time and experience I’ve come to naturally develop a way to communicate almost without words, although remembering a few key phrases when directing definitely helps.
On the first night of my arrival into the village there was a party in one of the compounds; music and dance is another tradition that brings the town together. I remember that evening feeling welcomed into the community, and carrying that energy when taking photographs the following day.