Issue 75: Drachen Archives: Painting with Papel China

Many of you don’t know that I have another artistic passion – distinct and different from creating kites in ripstop nylon or paper – it is ballroom dancing and I’m finally feeling (after ten years) that I’m learning what the hell I’m doing! I had the opportunity, recently, to spend two days in San Diego with my professional partner Michelle Hudson and her coach, Toni Redpath.

Toni has been seen on all the current dancing shows, either as choreographer or judge, and she’s a former three-time US Champion. Michelle and her husband Eric, have been US Rising Star Champions and US Finalists, so for me to dance with either of these women is more than a little intimidating. But the reason I bring all of this up, is that when you’re lucky enough to meet people like this, and, more importantly to spend time with them, you see that they have taken their art to a new level. It’s the reason they were champions and it’s the reason they are the face of their sport.

Only a day after being with Toni and Michelle, I was in Antigua, Guatemala, two days before the “Day of the Spirits” celebration on the 1st of November. Drachen Foundation board members Ali Fujino and Jose Sainz had arrived a day earlier and were ready to drive to Sumpango to get a preview of some of the Barriletes Gigantes (giant kites). Teams, made up of friends, families, or neighborhoods, produce kites for a number of competitions; some are 3 to 5 meters in diameter, while the largest are between 12 and 15 meters. The festival, which has been a formal competitive festival for the past 15 years, is really only one part of the important cultural significance of the Day of the Spirits.

This is a day celebrated in native cultures before European arrival in the New World. Today, family groups clean and decorate ancestors’ gravesites, picnic, and fly kites in the city cemetery and they hope that the deceased can travel down the kite lines to visit the living. In seeing the kites of Sumpango, I had the same feeling I had had days before with my dance stars. Here is a place where the art of paper appliqué has been taken to new levels.

When first confronted with the kites of Sumpango, I was impressed by the simplicity of the materials – no paper made expressly for kite making, no special glues, heavy and thick bamboo. Instead it is a place where utility, economy, and innovation rule. Thousands of sheets of tissue paper, or papel china (Chinese paper) is the primary graphic ingredient, (many of the 15 foot kites can take up to 4,000 standard sized sheets of tissue paper of the type we know and purchase for gift wrapping in the states) but by the time it makes it to the sail of one of the giants, it has been backed by a tile-work of black or white typing paper, a grid of clear plastic tape, and gallons of white glue (resitol). The sophisticated gluing and layering techniques of the papel china separate the artistry of the Sumpango kites from others in world kite cultures. Just as the intricate cut-out appliqué techniques of Malaysian waus raise them to this artistic level, so does the gluing technique of teams in Sumpango. As it is with ripstop nylon, there is a distinctly limited color palette of papel chine.

To expand this palette, single colors are glued together, light colors glued over dark, dark colors glued over light, and sometimes, the glue pattern itself is used to distinguish texture and detail. In the work of the Arturias Yac family, you can see the extremes that these techniques can achieve. They were, for me, examples of taking their art to the next level. Here are subtle techniques and their attention to detail that are sure to be copied by others and will, in the long run, raise the artistry of the city’s kites. This is a time when there are many pressures influencing the kite tradition in Sumpango: bamboo is becoming increasingly scarce, paper costs continue to rise, political unrest is a constant.

Future festivals may be characterized by fewer giants and many more medium-sized kites. I suspect that if this is, indeed, the case, a premium on craftsmanship will drive the artistic levels even higher. As art tends to be a format for history, both social and political, the tradition of the kites being used to ferry the dead up and down has become a format for the Indians to protest their treatment by the Guatemalan government. Their platform for political free speech, the barriletes gigante, is and will continue to be, a loud voice for the oppressed.

Scott Skinner

Drachen Foundation 6 minute YouTube film:

The Sumpango website:

*All Photos Courtesy of the Drachen Foundation (photos by Scott Skinner)