Artist Spotlight: Ámbar Past's Tribute to Mayan Women

The artist book Incantations by Mayan Women

In her own words…

Ámbar Past (Mexican, b. United States 1949)

I live among the Tzotzil Maya in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, where mud huts are filled with ritual poetry for making magic. Many of the verses refer to ancient books that were destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors yet remain in the collective unconscious of the Maya. The ancient Maya had a highly advanced written language and filled libraries with great collection of books. Women are thought to have been contributors to his culture of literacy; artifacts exist that depict Mayan women reading glyph books, and scholars believe some women functioned as scribes.

Ámbar Past, "Incantations by Mayan Women," 2005, Translated from Tzotzil into Spanish and English by Ámbar Past, silkscreen and offset, 10 x 10 in., Gift of Lynn M. Johnston

The Spanish destroyed most Mayan volumes, leaving only three or four complete books that survive today. Incantations by Mayan Women may be the first book written, illustrated, printed, and bound—in paper of their own making—by the Maya in more than 500 years, and it is the first volume of Mayan women’s poetry ever published.


It took more than 30 years and 150 people to make Incantations by Mayan Women, an anthology of Mayan women’s songs and spells that are illustrated by the authors’ own spirit paintings. The cover depicts the Mayan goddess Kaxail and was designed and cast by Norwegian sculptor Gitte Daehlin. It was reproduced by the Mayan people of Taller Leñateros (Woodlanders Workshop) using recycled cardboard stained with coffee.

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