Designer Frida Larios has created a pantheon of mythical graphic creatures inspired by images found on on ancient Maya codices and ceramic vases dating from c. 250 AD. Today, her creatures can be found on the uniforms of elite athletes and in a museum exhibition in her native El Salvador.
In July 2014, PRINT featured Larios’s New Maya Language, which she began designing in 2003 as a masters’ thesis project at Central St. Martin’s College of Art and Design, London. After her series of 23 pictoglyphs was completed and became the basis of a children’s book and a range of whimsical products locally crafted in El Salvador, Larios again drew upon her Maya heritage to create stylized icons of animals, birds and sea creatures—Animales Interiores—that represent attributes including strength, loyalty and tenacity.
“These nine creatures of the animal kingdom rule the mythological underworld,” Larios explains. “They live in underwater caves in the depths of the Central American jungle. Each of them is charged with a unique energy and can become our spiritual companion, our nahual, in moments of light and darkness.”
A competitive athlete herself—she played beach volleyball for El Salvador from 1996 to 2010; in 1998 the team won a Central American Games gold medal—Larios was commissioned by the El Salvador Olympic Committee to create uniforms for its athletes to wear in the 2015 PanAmerican games in Toronto. She designed electric-blue and white shirts, skirts, dresses and pants with geometric patterns, featuring the dog (loyalty), toad (adaptation), turkey (battle-readiness) and fish (tenacity). Here’s a video that demonstrates the artistry and craftsmanship that went into their design and production.
“An athlete’s uniform is his shield, his armor and identity. Pre-Columbian mythology fills us with history’s stories and national pride that we need to preserve,” said Eduardo Palomo, president of the El Salvador Olympic Committee. “Team ESA had the opportunity to wear exactly that, thanks to the concept created by Frida.”
If the gods are with the Animales, they will also be on uniforms that inspire Team ESA’s athletes to compete even more ferociously during the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio this August.
Now a resident of Washington, DC, Larios, an Ambassador of LatinAmerican Design, spent most of last summer in El Salvador preparing a solo show, which opened at the Museo de Arte de El Salvador in August. The Animales were exhibited as three-dimensional, laser-cut, LED-lit sculptures.
Each visitor received a bilingual “codex” brochure designed by Larios and written in poetry by Vanessa Nuñez Handal of Guatemala.
As just one example:
La luciérnaga no es insecto,
aunque la aplasten o
le arranquen sus alas.
Es una estrella
que bajó a la tierra y se quedó,
para indicar dónde yacen
Not a lowly bug to crush,
its wings to tear
She is a fallen star
A celestial being come to earth,
marking for us the resting place
of departed souls.
(English translation by A.F. Ward)
Larios has created the new interactive site, yourinterioranimal.org, which introduces you to each creature and its archeological origins and meaning. The behind-the-scenes section features videos of the process by which each animal was created, many drawn from illustrations in codices—early books with handwritten content.
She is currently developing applications, including an elementary-school learning kit, that will give the New Maya Language new relevance and meaning.
“Even during the Maya Empire, the Maya script was not accessible to the non-elite population, a problem that persists in modern times,” she told delegates at ICO-d’s International Design Congress in October 2015 in Seoul, South Korea. “It is a dead script researched mostly by western-hemisphere academics. The New Maya Language is designed to be an empathetic universal visual language, which can familiarize Latin American children and adults—and immigrants to the U.S.— many for the first time, with the symbolism and unique organic visual style of the Maya heritage. It can be used to overcome literacy challenges among indigenous peoples and help teach Spanish as a second language.” Prototypes of the learning kit are in production, as well as another ambitious new project, “Maya Meets Maori,” an indigenous design pathway across the Pacific.
The essays in Design Literacy range from the late 19th century to the present and are organized into eight thematic categories–persuasion, media, language, identity, information, iconography, style, and commerce–which follow a loose chronological order. The one-to-three page pieces are perfect for a quick stimulating read as well as for design students looking for a compact self-study course on the practice and appreciation of graphic design.