Leaving Home: Socratic Dialogue with Mayan Art

Elementary and Middle School

This teaching activity is from the article and lesson, Crossing Borders Through Art by Lynda Tredway.

Paula Nicho Cumez, named by some as Guatemala’s most important Maya woman living artist, provides images in her work that could be used in a discussion or Socratic seminar to “unpack” the feelings of leaving one’s home country. 

Mas Allá del Universo (Beyond the Universe), 2005, 24" x 32"
Private collection San Francisco. cat. PNC-007

Here is the opening question for the image above: 

Which adjective best describes the image of woman as angel leaving her country and going across la frontera?Note: You can change the adjectives to other synonyms for grades K-3.

  • Resolute (showing determination and purpose) 
  • Ambivalent (not totally sure about her choice) 
  • Transported (being carried away) 
  • Nostalgic (yearning, homesick)

Here is another image from the same series:

Cruzando Fronteras (Crossing Borders), 2007, 24" x 32"
Private collection San Francisco. cat. PNC-010 

About the Artist

Paula Nicho Cumez is one of the most recognized Maya painters in Guatemala and also on the international level. She is a leader in her community. She describes her life and work as follows:

  Paula Nicho Cumez

Paula Nicho Cumez

"My story begins in San Juan Comalapa on January 15, 1955. One of ten children, I grew up in a hard working family. My father was a farmer, my mother a weaver. She taught us the art of weaving, as she wanted us to know a craft in addition to what we learned in school. From the time I was a child, I had a great liking for the arts. In school contests, I always took one of the top places in drawing or painting. It was my grandfather, Francisco Cúmez, who motivated me to sign up for painting and drawing classes. He was a sculptor and saw something in me that he encouraged. 

I studied with an excellent master painter, Salvador Cúmez Curruchich, and he taught me so much more than I thought I could learn about this fascinating world of painting. Through my classes, I fell in love with my teacher and today he is my husband. He continues to show me a great deal about art and life. We share a life based on effort and work, and together we started an art supply shop. When I met him, I left the weaving arts that my mother had taught me to dedicate my time to my true passion, painting. 

Now that I've grown and matured as an artist, I spend part of my time teaching the things I've learned throughout my career. I teach my family and friends to draw and paint. This is something beautiful for me, because I feel that I'm giving back a part of all I learned from Salvador. 

My inspiration for creating a work of art comes from many sources – our native women, my culture, my town, my life and the sacred Maya book, the Popol Vuh. Woman is the basis for society and, if this base is solid, we can use it to build a better Guatemala. My knowledge of weaving can be seen in many of my paintings. Most of my ideas come to me in dreams. 

I began my career as an artist in 1985 and since then, I've dedicated most of my time to painting. For me, it's a way to express my feelings, ideas and fantasies. My greatest dream is to one day have a personal museum. I've been able to share my time with painting, raising my children and spending time with my friends. I think they see me as an example – a good friend who is kind and honest. 

I still remember my first painting. I depicted a tradition in our town, the Dance of the Moors. This is a traditional folk dance evoking incidents of the Spanish conquest of Guatemala. I also recall that I sold that painting during my first exhibit. 

One the moments that marked me most and inspired me to struggle for the empowerment of native women was a school activity for September 15, Independence Day. We had to march in a parade with our school uniforms. My mother was very excited because she had woven me a traditional huipil blouse for me to wear. But the teacher didn't want me to march with our regional dress. That hurt me a lot. My mother had worked hard to weave it for me and the teacher – who didn't share our traditions – wouldn't let me wear it. The incident inspired the painting 'My Second Skin,' because that's how I view our traditional dress, like a second skin. I've always worn our skirts and huipils and I'm proud of my roots." 

Paula Nicho Cúmez's life inspired the short film Del Azul al Cielo directed by Ana Carlos, that tells the story of how she faced the aftermath of the civil war.  

Cúmez was the only Maya woman invited to the opening ceremonies of the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institute (Washington, DC, 2004) and one of her paintings forms part of their collection.

Source: Novica.