Mapuche tribal traditions embedded in bar-code tapestries

Guillermo Bert literally weaves ancient folklore into tapestries with the help of Chilean weaver Anita Paillamil.
(Ronald Dunlap, unknown)

Who knew ancient pictograms used by a Chilean tribe of hunters and gatherers would dovetail aesthetically with bar code graphics that store information for drivers licenses, plane tickets and hospital bracelets? Artist Guillermo Bert, that’s who. “The pixelation, the geometric pattern, the black and white repetition that you find in bar codes is very similar to traditional South American textiles made by the Mapuche tribe in the south of Chile,” Bert says. “The similarities really blow my mind.”

Bert, a Chilean native who moved to the United States in 1981, showcases this unlikely synchronicity at the Pasadena Museum of California Art’s “Guillermo Bert: Encoded Textiles” through Feb. 24. The exhibition features blankets that render tribal lore as contemporary “QR” code.

Framed by astronomical iconography and X-shaped symbols representing the healing canelo plant, each textile piece centers on a story by one of the Mapuche villagers that Bert interviewed during a series of visits to southern Chile two years ago. He then condensed each transcript and scanned the resulting 20-word story into a device that turns text into bar codes. Blown up and printed out, those checkerboards-on-acid served as templates for Chilean weaver Anita Paillamil, who re-created the abstract patterns on blankets approximately 4 by 8 feet. (The pieces will go on sale after the exhibition finishes its run.)

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Bert, who produced murals for the NoHo Arts District, has used Universal Product Code patterns as the basis for his own paintings. With “Encoded,” he’s working with bar code in a different way by exploiting its data-storage capability to preserve tribal traditions.

The tapestries literally weave stories by members of the Mapuche tribe, including poet Graciela Huinao, medicine man Machi Juan Curaqueo and alienated office worker-turned-totem carver Flavio Salazar.

“Mapuche culture had been stepped on for so many years that they were almost ashamed to be an Indian,” Bert says. “Now we’re seeing this renaissance of the culture, and younger people are becoming interested in its cosmology, tradition and the weaving itself. My quest is to re-insert this cosmology into a more modern world by using wool taken from the sheep, dyed with natural dye and put in the loom, then marrying that with the latest bar coding and cellphone technology.”

The textile graphics function as free-standing artworks but also embed a deeper narrative layer for curious, tech-savvy art patrons. Bert explained that you can download the NeoReader app, hold your mobile phone up in front of the blanket, scan it, decode the bar code and read the story in either English or Spanish.

Bert hopes the project cracks open a conduit between centuries-old indigenous traditions and modern art consumers. “Because identity is digitized in the 21st century, I wanted to reverse the process and capture Mapuche stories in these bar codes as a way to preserve the culture. Since I come from Latin America myself, I’ve always been comfortable in hybrid concepts where you combine two elements that don’t really belong together so they become a new thing.”


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TIMELINE: John Cage’s Los Angeles

PST: Art in L.A., 1945-1980