Exhibition of the crafts of the south/southeast

El Sur/Sureste, su materia y su artesanía is the third and last of a series of temporary exhibitions at the Museo de Arte Popular, located near the Alameda Central in Mexico City. The series aims to highlight the connection between Mexico’s biodiversity (one of the greatest in the world) and its variety of handcrafts.

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The first two concentrated on the north and center of the country. The definition of “south/southeast” starts not too far south of Mexico City, and in reality overlaps politically with the center of the country, sot the exhibition contains items from states such as Veracruz, Puebla and Guerrero. With two of Mexico’s three main handcraft-producing states, Oaxaca and Chiapas, the south of the country in general is defined by having better preserved many of Mexico’s indigenous heritage. 42% of Mexico’s indigenous population living here on about a quarter of the territory.

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Shell mosaic depicting a Veracruz landscape by Eduardo Sanchez

 

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Weaving samples of styles from the Los Altos region of Chiapas by Magdalena and Maria Lopez Lopez  at the exhibition

The region is also home to most of the country’s biodiversity, both because of its tropical nature and that much of it is still very rural with states such as Campeche, Chiapas, Guerrero and Yucatan still 60% or more covered in wild vegetation. The collection and exhibition is a collaborative effort with the Museo de Arte Popular along with FONART, the department of biology of UNAM, several state govenments and environmental groups.

Sea turtle specimin and wood samples from native trees of the region.

The exhibition not only shows exceptional examples of various handcraft traditions, but also exhibits tying their development to local plants and animals, along with the various ethnicities of the region such as the Mayas, Chontals, Zoques, Mixtecs, Zapotecs and more.

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Weaving on backstrap loom in Santo Tomas Jalieza, Oaxaca

The most important items on display here are textiles, pottery and wood items, owing to the wide variety of raw materials for these activities.

The exhibition opened on 25 March and continues until 25 June 2017

Continue for photo essay of the exhibition.

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Lacandon ceremonial huipil from Chiapas, made of tree bark.
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Sheet tin piece “Palmatoria” by  Tirso Juventino Cuevas Velazquez of the city of Oaxaca
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Coiled baskets by Gonzalo Rodriguez Jeronimo of Tapotzingo, Nacajuca, Tabasco (not Sonora!)
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Fish figures from a local reed called “mutuzay” from Tapijulapa, Tabasco
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Crown made from carved bull horn by Martina Nadal Chuc of Campeche
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Details of a lacquered gourd by Francisco Coronel of Olinala, Guerrero
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Huipil by unknown artisan from the Los Altos region of Chiapas

Electronics to paper mache

In general, handcrafts are strongly distinguished from art, although both are creative. In Mexico, that division is not always so rigid. In fact, there are three categories: arte (art), with what we generally call “handcrafts” divided into two important categories “artesanía” and “manualidades.”  Both artesanía and manualidades are items created by hand in a non-industrial manner, but “artesanía” has a higher status for cultural, historic and/or artistic reasons.

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Mural with traditional Mexican pottery by Diego Rivera at the Secretary of Public Education building in Mexico City (Credit:Kgv88)

There have been interactions between the artist and artisan communities of the country. In 1920s, several artists worked to promoted traditional Mexican handcrafts through documentation and political action. From then until the present, artesanía and artisans regularly appear in Mexican art. Artisans have also blurred the lines, using traditional techniques to create exquisite pieces and taking classes in painting and sculpture to take crafts in new directions.

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Carlomagno Pedro Martinez with barro negro pottery mural at the MEAPO museum in Oaxaca (Credit: Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art)

It is not necesarily the material that attracts artists, but rather the shapes, forms and traditions that have been developed with the materials. This includes the humble paper mache or cartoneria.

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Carolina Esparragoza

Carolina Esparragoza s a modern scuptor who has worked in varous mixed media, including electronics, such as a set up of cinescopes for a exhibit called “Memorias” (Memories) in 2015.

 

But she holds a special place in her heart for the low tech cartoneria. It has a long history in Mexico City and some other parts of Mexico. One of the traditions associated with cartoneria is the making of Lupitas. These were hollow paper knock offs of more expensive porcelain dolls made principally for sale at fairs and festivals, popular from the 19th century until they were ultimately replaced by even cheaper plastic dolls in the mid 20th century.

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Traditional Lupita dolls at the Carlos Derramadero workshop in Celaya, Guanajuato

They are still made and generally sold to collectors or to those who had one in their youth, but it is a dying trade. Fascinated by the dolls, and the opportunities they presented for creativity, Esparragoza got funding for the “Miss Lupita” project. The idea was to recruit both experienced cartoneria makers and members of the public to create dolls, using traditional techniques, but with new designs and themes.

 

The project culminated in a kind of “beauty pageant” held at the Talavera Street Cultural Center in the historic center of Mexico City, where the dolls were presented and participants had a chance to talk about their experience making the dolls. The goal of the project was to promote the dolls as a way to teach the value of arts and creativity to the general public. In total, 134 dolls 45cm tall dolls were created depicting dancers, lucha libre figures, mermaids, Godzillas, prostitutes, goddesses, catwomen and a number depicting famous woman such as Frida Kahlo. Each received names such as Siempre Viva, Hanami, La Memoria and others. One was named Andy in tribute to Andy Warhol.

Fotos courtesy of the artist and the Miss Lupita project.

This project ended in 2011, but in the Fall of 2016, Esparragoza set up a new series of workshops for the public. This time the theme was “calaveras or calacas,” animated skeletal figures which are ubiquitous for Day of the Dead (Nov 2), and capture the Mexican attitude towards Death. The name of this project was Rueda tu calavera (Spin your skeleton), which took traditional cartoneria skeletal figures and mounted them on platforms used to animate traditional Mexican toy figures. Adultos and children took six classes with the aim of creating figures that depicts famous figures from Mexico’s cinematic history, all of which able to move using the gears and levers of the platform.

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Fotos courtesy of the artist and the Rueda tu Calavera project.

Projects such as this show not only is even the most humble of Mexico’s handcrafts traditions important to its culture, but show that an artistic sense in an intrical part of “artesanía.”

Carolina Esparragoza was born in Mexico City in 1977 and is a graduate of the prestigious La Esmeralda National School of Painting, Sculpture and Printmaking, She has had professional exhibits of her work in art objects, installations and multimedia since 2000 in Mexico and Argentina.

All photos by Leigh Thelmadatter unless otherwise indicated.

 

 

Artisans’ Day Mexico 2017

March 19th is Artisan Day (Día de Artesanos), when the country celebrates its artisans and handcrafting heritage. This heritage is strongest in areas where indigenous and colonial-era culture has been best-preserved.

LtoR: Talavera pottery, wood toys and a silversmith polishing at the Museo Nacional de Culturas Populares

The majority of cultural institutions related to handcrafts and/or folk culture in Mexico have events on this day, including exhibitions, conferences, dances, fairs and more, often extending into the following weekend, sometimes longer.

LtoR: Peacock “tree of life” from Puebla, jaguar figures from Chiapas and colonial style wood horses from Guanajuato.

A large but typical event associated with the day occurred at the Museo Nacional de Culturas Populares, a federal museum of Mexican folk culture located in the Coyoacan district of Mexico City. Collaborating with the federal agency FONART, the museum held a fair to exhibit and sell tradtional Mexican handcrafts, with 86 artisans from 19 Mexican states participating. There were a large range of goods from textiles, lacquerware, stone carvings, copper, glass, leatherwork, paper mache (cartoneria), toys, tin objects and more.

LtoR: Mazahua embroidery and artisans, wire and reed jewelry from Tabasco and mother-of-pearl incrusted boxes from Hidalgo.

Día de Artesanos is also a good occasion to premiere a new event aimed to promoting a handcrafting tradition.

Mexico very first national reunion of mask makers is taking place on weekends from 18 to 31 March. Organized by Mexico City mask makers and brothers Eduardo and Carlos Garcia, the aim of the event promote and raise the status of mask making in the country.

This first edition exhibits masks made from wood and wax, has a number of talks but the main attraction is the exhibitions of the various dances that the masks are associated wtih. This is only right as it is impossible to divorce the making and wearing of masks in Mexico from the festivals and rituals they are associated with.

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Maestro Alejandro with one of his masks

The artisan of honor at this event is wood mask carver Alejandro Vera Guzman from Santiago Juxtlahuaca, Oaxaca. He specializes in masks depicting the devil for a local dance aptly named “Dance of the Devils.” But these are no ordinary masks. Devil masks are common in Mexico. To obtain their scary or shocking appearance, most artisans rely on bright colors, depictions of blood and/or grotesque features. However, most of Vera’s masks have relatively minimal distortion. Their impact instead comes from their fierce looks. The reason for this is that Vera considers what he does as art, rather than just something to sell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

La Guina

Ojo Seco is a typical rural community in southern Guanajuato. With only around 2,000 people it is built around an old hacienda and its economic identity still centers around the raising of cattle and goats, with one of the main landmarks in the center of town being the communal watering trough. The town holds no surprises as to a location for traditional textile handcrafts.

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Near the center of the small town

With one possible exception.

LaGuina008 (2)Jorge Herrera is her legal name, but she prefers to be called La Guina (“gee-nah”), a pet name given in childhood. She greeting me wearing the full traditional garb for women of the Celaya region, white blouse, large silver earrings, black patterned rebozo, fringed underskirt and red wool overskirt with black embroidery. However, this is not everyday wear, but rather worn on this day for promotional effect. This garb is rarely worn nowadays, only very occasionally for certain festivals. As a young child, she began to do handcrafts with the women in her family, starting with embroidery.

Indeed, embroidery is the mainstay of handcrafts in this area of Celaya, with just about any other textile tradition having died out, replaced by cheaper manufactured goods. Women in Ojo Seco and other communities in this area embroider napkins, tablecloths, curtains, and clothing items, especially rebozos. Originally, this was done for family with the occasional sale but today, most items are made to earn a little extra money. One notable embroidery style consists of a series of densely-packed stitches of high loops on one side. When elements are filled in, these loops are trimmed so that the height above the cloth is even, with an effect similar to that of hooked rugs. Well done pieces of this type do not have a true “wrong” side, it’s simply a question of how much loft the user wants to be shown.

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Right/wrong side (take your pick) of embroidery for a pillowcase at the Guina Herrera home/workshop
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Cross stitch on a rebozo

While most women in Ojo Seco and nearby communities make embroidered items to occasionally sell, it is the Herrera family that has turned it into a business. Guina, her mother and sister work in various parts of the family compound, a series of interconnected living spaces that has been in the family for generations and still houses multiple generations. The decision to take the craft more seriously about 6 years ago was Guina’s, inspired in part by support for the family’s work from the Celaya Casa de Artes. This support comes through their sponsorship to attend various handcraft and cultural events, mostly in the Celaya areas, but they have also traveled as far as Patzcuaro and Mexico City. Through this, they have begun to build both domestic and some international clientele, occasionally shipping items to the United States and Europe.

But Guina’s passion for textiles does not stop with embroidery. When she was 12, she found someone to teach her to art of weaving rebozos on a backstrap loom, which had died out in southern Guanjuato decades earlier. Today, the family weaves both on backstrap and wooden pedal looms, mostly to make rebozos, but also some morrals (a kind of carrying bag) and fajas (a wrap belt). Weaving is done in cotton, follow by wool and acrylics.

(Left: two knotted throw rugs and Right: Guina with a woven and embroidered rebozo)

About 25 years ago, Guina read about the making of Oriental style knotted rugs in Temoaya, State of Mexico and learned this craft as well, mostly through reading and trial-and-error.

Recent contact with tourist markets have prompted the family to create new merchandise, most notably the creation of rag dolls dressed in the traditional garb of the region.

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La Guina is not only a craftsperson and innovador, but also an unofficial historian for Ojo Seco. She is full of historical knowledge of the area, its traditions and legends, including very interesting ones related to local people fighting off marauding bandits and tales of treasures buried in the surrounding low mountains.

(Left:Guina at pedal loom, Center: pottery and arrowheads from nearby hills and Right: Guina demonstrating the common watering trough fed by the main local spring)

LaGuina002The family’s economy is traditional, based on some livestock, the making of cheese and other dairy products along with the handcrafts. (I highly recommend queso fresco made with goat’s milk, much better than the cow’s milk version.) But there are signs that Ojo Seco’s days as an agricultural village are numbered. First, it lies just off a major highway, and second, several industrial parks have been established here, whose employment the younger generations much prefer. One thing that keeps Guina going despite the low pay is the desire to preserve local crafts and traditions, with the hope that some of the next generation will keep these techniques alive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hands for making and performing

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(credit: e-tlaxcala)

Huamantla is one of many hidden gems in Mexico, even though it is only 2 hours northeast of Mexico City. If known by foreigners, it is associated with images of bull-running and giant flower carpets related to the Huamantla, the annual festival in August for the city’s patron saint. However, just off the main square, there is a very special museum which hold another hidden treasure a national museum of puppets.

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While there may have been a form of puppetry in the pre Hispanic period with the use of figurines for ceremonial purposes, the art form in Mexico as we know it today is almost entirely derived from European tradition. It was (and still mostly is) a marginal form of entertainment, mostly for street shows and children. But there have been exceptions.

(Various puppets of the Roseta Aranda collection at the museum)

One came in the 19th century, when a family founded a traveling puppet show called National Puppet Company of the Roseta Aranda Brothers. Founded in mid century, it lasted more than 100 years traveling extensively not only throughout Mexico but also performing in parts of the United States and even in some other countries. At its height, the company not only entertained children and commoners, but also politicians, intellectuals and artists. Over that time, the company made 5,104 marionettes of various types of wood, along with mountains of wardrobes and other paraphenalia.

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Set paraphenalia from the Roseta Aranda company

Another surge in prominence occured in the first half of the 2oth century, after the end of the Mexican Revolution. From the 1920s to the 1950s, the federal government invested heavily in the arts, much of which was to promote a new sense of Mexican identity, one that also promoted the legitimacy of the new social order. The best-known of these efforts was Mexican Muralism, but there were other areas as well. Lola Cueto (1897-1978) was a Mexican artist of this period, who learned the making of puppets along with her husband, sculptor Germán Cueto in Paris. However, only Lola pursued it after their return to Mexico. While she was also a printmaker and painter, she became best known for work in the making of puppets and sets. Most of her work sponsored by the federal govenment, with shows to promote basic literacy.

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Cloth bull puppet by Lola Cueto at the museum

The National Puppet Museum was founded in 1991 in a centuries-old house just off the main square of Huamantla. The basis of the museum is the collection of the Roseta Aranda Brothers company, but its mission is much broader than just preserving this remarkable collection. It is dedicated to preserving all of Mexico’s puppetry history, demonstrate its place in the world and promote the crafts/art of both puppet making and puppet theater.

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100+ piece marionette orchestra by María Luis Sámano
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Giant serpent puppet on a stairwell of the museum.

The museum has 18 halls over 3 floors. Only a very small portion of the Roseta Aranda collection is exhibited (with its special section). Instead halls are dedicated to the history of puppetry in Mexico with items dating as far back as the Teotihuacan period to the present. The displays include puppets of wood, cloth, foam and other modern materials, arranged indivually or in scenes. Mexican puppets include those depicting various indigenous people, local Huamantla celebrities, the Roseta Aranda brothers, historic figures such as Benito Juarez and icons such as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. There are also rooms dedicated to puppets from other parts of the world, modern and antique from places such as Japan, China, Canada, Scotland, Poland, Cuba and various African countries.

It is a working space as well with shows, restauration activities, a research library, audiovisual and areas for children’s workshops.

It is well worth a visit when you are in Huamantla.

Location:

Parque Juárez #15, Colonia Centro, Huamantla

Telephone

01 (247) 472 1033

Hours

Tuesday to Saturday 10:00 to 17:00
Sunday : 10:00 to 15:00

Cost

$20.00 pesof for adults
$ 5.00 for children

(Photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise noted)

Black clay as art

While the town of San Bartolo Coyotepec, Oaxaca has a number of notable artisans who work with its famous barro negro, two names are absolutely essential. Doña Rosa, profiled earlier in this blog, and Carlomagno Pedro Martinez.

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Parish of San Bartolo, barro negro pots adorn the gate and fence columns.

Doña Rosa may have invented and popularized the now-dominant technique  which makes the finished product a highly-polished black, but Pedro has expanded what can be made, reaching into the realm of art.

Pedro is the son of two local potters, but no relation to Doña Rosa. His highly unusual first name comes from the fact that his was named after Charlemagne, who his paternal grandmother admired greatly.  The kingly name is contrasted by his demeanor. He is a man of few words, modest, who is happiest working and talking about the art and culture of his region.

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Skeletal figure before firing at the Pedro workshop

He began working with the clay as a small child but developed a preference for the creation of figures, imitating Aztec warriors, Mexican soldiers and other figures he saw in books. The ability to stretch into art came when he was 18, enrolling in the Rufino Tamayo Workshop in the city of Oaxaca (named after a famous Mexican muralist). His work soon attracted notice, eventualy winning awards on the national level such as the Premio Nacional de La Juventud Presidencia de la República in 1987. This led to a scholarship to study art in the United States.

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Carlomagno and sister Adelina giving a talk in the family workshop in San Bartolo.

Like many artisans, Pedro finds inspiration in the life and culture of Oaxaca, especialy his hometown. But unlike many artisans, he sees working in clay as a means to express his emotions, much like painting and writing, rather than just making things to sell. One common theme that appears in his work is death and Mexican attitudes towards it, meaning that it is not depicted as something horrible or grotesque. This expressiveness has earned him commissions allowing for large works, including murals such as the 2008 work that covers a portion of the Baseball Academy in San Bartolo.

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Tzompantli, by Pedro Martinez, in the MEAPO museum of Oaxaca

Despite the loftiness of his pieces, the environment in which they are created and techniques are very similar to those of his parents. The workshop is part of the main family house, not much more than 4 cinderblock walls and a roof (though significantly larger than most workshops). Pieces are worked on old wood tables and if spinning is desired, Pedro still uses the traditional proto-potters wheel of the region. This is simply a plate balanced over an inverted curved plate or bowl, which requires skill in turning.

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Proto potters’ wheel in the workshop of Pedro Martinez

Pedro’s reputation is such that when the state of Oaxaca decided to open its handcraft museum over a decade ago, it was placed just off the main square of San Bartolo and Pedro was named its director. To this day, Pedro divides his time betweent the museum and comissions for works for museums, galleries and other organiziation in Mexico and abroad.

 

All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia or Leigh Thelmadatter unless otherwise noted.

Featured image courtesy of the Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art.

Weaving tradition

Off the beaten track and yet conveniently located next to a highway, the town of Santo Tomás Jalieza is called the “Pueblo de los Cinturones” (lit. Belt town) because it is best known for its traditional weaving using backstrap looms to make garments such as rebozos, huipils, jackets, napkins, tablecloths bags and more.

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Thomas the Apostle parish

The name Jalieza is from the Zapotec language and means “under the church” likely refering to the parish of the Apostle Thomas that dominates the center of town. The town’s origin is unknown, but it was considered second in importance in the Central Valley region of Oaxaca when the city of Monte Alban was at its height.

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Vendor with woven goods in the handcrafts market

Today it is one of many towns and villages in the warn and dry valley that extends south from the city of Oaxaca, many of which specialize in one or more handcrafts.

It is a very rural town with agriculture still the main economic activity, raising basic staples such as corn, wheat, fruit and cattle. There is also some production of the strong liquor, mezcal. Spanish is dominant, Zapotec is still spoken, especially in homes. Like many other communities, weaving was a domestic occupation, primarily for auto-consumption, later with some sales outside the home. In the 20th century, tourism became a very important industry for this region, and today most crafts are produced for the tourist market.

While Jalieza does weave with other fibers such as wool and acrylics, it is best known for its work in cotton, an important fiber since the pre Hispanic period. The continued use of the backstrap loom is testament to the ancient roots of this tradition. The basis of the tradition was the making of traditional garb, which is based on a blouse, a skirt and a wrap-around belt/girdle. Colors and patterns of traditional women’s dress in the Central Valleys tend to indicate where the wearer is from. For example, women from Jalieza wear red woven belts. They are also noted for the making and wearing of wool skirts for special occasions. The making of these garments, in their numerous variations are also made for others in the Central Valleys, with some sent as far as Guatemala. However, the wearing of local indigenous dress has all but died out, only occasionally visible during certain festivals.

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Woman starting a wrap-around belt in the handcrafts market.

 

Most of the items for sale are a mix of traditional and modern influences.Very elaborate pieces may show images such as those doing the dance of the feathers, but most have geometric and/or simple animal designs. One effort the local government takes is to promote the local textile production. There is a permanent handcrafts market on the main plaza of the town, surrounded by a number of stores which are also dedicated to sales of the same. In this market, especially on weekends when it is fullest, women can be seen working on new pieces on their looms while they simultaneously call out to potential customers.

Unfortunately, sales to these tourists have been very poor, especially from 2006 to the present, because of various teachers’ strikes, which have gained the region a reputation for violence. While all sectors of the Oaxacan economy have suffered, artisans such as these, who live far from any incidents that have happened, can hardly afford the loss in sales. One very simple and direct way to support artisans such as these is to visit these towns and buy directly from them. Jalieza and other towns lie on one of several tour routes and are worth the trip, especially in combination.

Still artisans have not given up and still manage to get goods to markets, relying on middle men and major tourist events such as the annual Guelaguetza festival in July.

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Beautiful monsters

Leave it to Mexico to turn the stuff of nightmares into colorful decorations. After all, this is the land that laughs at both death and the devil.

Alebrijes are brightly colored figures that range from only a few centimeters to up to meters tall. However, the name really refers to two separate but somewhat related handcrafts.

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Pedro Linares and one of his sons, circa 1970 (credit:Judith Bronowski)
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Puppet show recounting Linares’ dream story at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City
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Alebrije with skeletons by Susana Buyo (from Buyo’s website)

The original alebrijes got their start in Mexico City, evolving from the cartoneria/paper mache work of Pedro Linares (1906-1992). The romantic version of the story has monsters with parts of various animals appearing in the fevered dreams of Linares while he was deathly sick, whispering “alebrijes, alebrijes.”  For decades Linares and family stuck to this story, but by the early 1990s research by Susana Masuoka demonstrated that the figures evolved from “Judas figures,” images of the devil made to be destroyed on Holy Saturday. Eventually the family dropped the story as the historical account, but as myth it remains important. Some alebrije makers such as Susana Buyo give them otherworldly attributes such as guardians against bad luck. They even featured for a very short time as protagonists in a cartoon series for children called “Brijes.”

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Creating a monumental alebrije for the parade at the Fábrica de Artes y Oficios Oriente, Mexico City

The paper versions for the most part keep their “monster” aspect, often integrating elements of insects along with other animals and are still painted in bright colors, often with intricate designs. In 2006, the Museo de Arte Popular began an annual parade of monumental-sized alebrijes, with groups of professional and amateur craftspeople vying for prizes. It is by far the museum’s most popular annual event, with local and national media coverage. These alebrijes are made up to 3 meters tall (any higher and they cannot pass under telephone wires) and up t0 10 meters long. They come with fanciful names, often from Nahuatl, and sometimes with backstories and costumed human entourages.

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Alebrije with costumed attendant at the Monumental Alebrije Parade

The other alebrije tradition grew out of the wood carving traditions of the Central Valleys of Oaxaca. Although a number of local sources here insist that Pedro Linares had Oaxacan roots or familial connections, this is not the case. The Oaxaca version is credited to Manuel Jimenez, who was influenced by the work of Linares. Jimenez’s version is almost always of one recognizable animal, although some may add wings or horns. Carved from a soft local wood called copal, they are also brightly painted with designs which have become so intricate that some artisans have taken to using syringes filled with paint to make fields of tiny dots.

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Mother cat alebrije by Fatima Fuentes of San Martin Tilcajete (credit:Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art)
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Alebrije artisan Jacobo Angeles of San Martin (credit:Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art)

These have become popular with tourists, not only because of their tamer nature but also because Oaxaca is a major tourist destination. While made in various parts of the Central Valleys, there are two communities particularly known for their production: Arrazola, where they originated, and San Martin Tilcajete. However, there is a downside to this craft. The Mexico City version uses waste paper, but the Oaxaca version uses a natural resource which has been heavily depleted, leading to strong regulation regarding the cutting of trees. Some artisans, such as the Angeles family in Tilcajete, have led reforestation campaigns. Another tactic is to take advantage of the painting, which really gives the pieces their value, to decorate other items such as small boxes, crosses and bottles. This is particularly common in Arrazola.

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Painting a small wood box, alebrije-style, in Arrazola

All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia or Leigh Thelmadatter unless otherwise noted.

 

 

Carnival costume in Mexico

Mexico does not come immediately to mind when thinking about Carnival/Mardi Gras, but it does has a number of important events and unique traditions. According to Mexico Desconocido, there are ten important Carnivals in the country: those in Mazatlan, Veracruz, Campeche, in various small towns in Morelos, Mérida, Huejotzingo, Puebla, Pinotepa de Don Luis, Oaxaca, Chamula and Huistan, Chiapas, Tlaxcala and Ensenada, California. However, there are quite a few more.

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Carnival parade in Veracruz (credit:Saulo ren)

Those in major cities such as Mazatlan, Veracruz, Campeche and Ensenada are very similar to those held in the famous locations of Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans, though Mexican themes show up in parades, especially floats. Giant colorful monsters called alebrijes, based on a handcraft of the same name, have also begun to be seen regularly in these events.

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Though not common, costumes mocking authority still appear

Perhaps more interesting and more “authentic” are the carnivals held in small towns in certain areas of the country. Carnival has a complicated history in Mexico, alternately supported and banned (mostly for making fun of authorities and upper classes) during the country’s history. For this reason, the small-town carnivals have developed mostly independent from one another, often integrating local dress, music and other customs. Most importantly, the traditional dress, masks and other paraphenalia are almost always made by either the participants themselves or by local craftspeople.

 

The largest of these “small” Carnivals is in Huejotzingo. Most of the 4-day event is very loosely based on the Battle of Puebla, focusing on four “armies” distinguished by dress style, wearing masks meant to depict Europeans and stage rifles which use real gunpowder. The vast majority of the participants are divided into four groups, depending on what section of the old town the participant lives or is otherwise connected to. Two  of the group represent the invaders: Zuavos and Turcos and the other two the Mexican defenders: Zacapoaxtlas and Indio Serranos. Each has a specific style of dress to wear and all carry handmade wooden prop muskets/rifles, which blast real gunpowder (but no bullets). These costumes are not cheap, costing participants up to 30,000 pesos or more depending on materials and complexity. Almost all participants, wear bearded wax masks which originally designed for dances where Europeans were depicted.

 

Carnival celebrations in Morelos almost always center on dancing figures called Chinelos, men in heavy embroidered dress-like garment, tall hat and mask. The masks and dress of Chinelos originally developed as a means to make fun of Spanish colonial overlords and their fancy dress by the indigenous, but over time Chinelos has evolved to their own particular style. Chinelos appear in other celebrations year-round (particularly popular at weddings and certain processions) but are essential to Morelos carnivals.

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Chinelos

In Tlaxcala, dress varies. Masks are often of Europeans but what distingushes them is use of indigenous-style headdresses and other elements.

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At the Tlaxcala Carnival (credit:Fernando Tlx)
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Traditional charro costumes, man in tradtional mask in Acatitlán, Mexico City

In Mexico City, there are no city-wide celebrations (again because of past prohibitions), but a number of communities which were at one time rural and disconnected from the capital, have preserved carnival to varying degrees. These include Santa Maria Acatitlan (on east end of town) and Peñon de los Baños (now bordering the city airport). Since these communities have become part of the city, many  of their carnivals have lost some or much of their traditional character, with carnival costumes mimicing those in other major cities and/or using pre-fabricated ones related to pop culture. The traditional costume for Acatitlan is based on the charro. Those in Peñon de los Baños are similar to those of Huejotzingo, especially the use of Renaissance-style garb, wax masks and prop guns. The reason for this is that this neighborhood experienced a large influx of migrants from Huejotzingo in the 20th century, which had a great impact on its development. While based on the Puebla tradition, costumes here vary much more, as they are not constrained by four, well-defined groups of participants with very specific roles to play.

More traditional costumes of Peñon de los Baños with variations, including some very non-traditional elements.

Carnival 2017 ends 28 February, with most of the main events happening on that day. Carnival 2018 will be from 10 to 13 February.

All photos by Leigh Thelmadatter or Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise noted.

A plate for your bread?

Acambaro is a large town in the far south of the state of Guanajuato. Like many places here, its  name is from the Purhepecha language (“place of magueyes”) as it was part of the Purhepecha (or Tarasco) Empire, centered in what is now Michoacan. A line of mountains separates it from its neighbor and the area has gone its own way, most notably losing much of its indigenous character.

The town is best known in central Mexico for its traditional bread. The region favors the growing of wheat, and the specialty is the slightly sweet “pan grande” or “big bread.”

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Varieties of pan grande (Credit:Union Guanajuato)

The pre Hispanic identity of the region lies more with the local archeological site of Chupícuaro, which had a distinctive pottery style, and was particularly noted for its figurines.

Chupicuaro figues and bowl (Credits: Daderot and Sailko) 

After the Conquest, the highly resiliant clay of the area was still used, but its working devolved over the centuries to the making of simple utilitarian items, mostly pots and cazuelas for cooking. Even this died out before the end of the 20th century as local wares could not compete with cheaper cookware from other places.

This region of Mexico is poor, still dependent mostly on agriculture and bread making with many families here having one or more members working in the United States. For this reason, a priest by the name of Salvador Rangel, with the support of the federal government, helped to established a high-fire ceramics cooperative in 1985. He selected the site in the barrio of La Soledad, which was the center of the former ceramics activity in Acambaro, called it the La Soledad Cooperative.

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La Soledad Cooperative on Calle La Soledad in the neighborhood of the same name.

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For the first six years of its existance, it was a large operation with 800 members, almost all women. But cooperative organizations are difficult to maintain, with problems in making major decisions, and managing finances. In 1991, membership began to drop, in part due to retirements and over the next decade or so a number of members became frustrated and quit. By 2000, there were only 10 members. By 2007, only three sisters remained, Margarita, Clara and Isabel Ramos Lopez.

For a decade, they have kept the workshop and legal organization alive, often working for only minimum wage in Mexico… about $4 USD a day, with a bit more during certain times when they can do more selling. One problem is that since their work is high-fire, it is a bit more expensive to produce (particularly gas for the kiln), making it difficult to compete with other pottery..

However, things have been looking up for the business over the past couple of years. In 2014, they were invited to exhibit and sell their work at an event in the nearby city of Celaya, Guanajuato. Here, one of their pieces won a prize, and just as importantly, attracted the attention of Virginia Hernandez of the Celaya Arts Center, who has since worked to promote the cooperative. This has since led to invitations to sell at various fairs in the state, including the Feria de León (Guanajuato), getting sponsorship from federal and state authorities.  The exposure has even been bringing visitors to the workshop in La Soledad.

L:Margarita Ramos Lopez with kiln, R: Batch of newly-fired pieces (credit: La Soledad)

Authorities have also been supporting the workshop through grants for materials, equipment and training. For decades, the cooperative fired their pieces in a brick kiln, but were able to replace it with a special fiberglass one in 2014, receiving training from the Arts Center of Salamanca, Guanajuato. It is smaller, but uses much less gas and fires in about half the time. The federal government sent them to train with experimental ceramicist Alberto Diaz de Cosio in Mexico City. These and more local classes have allowed them to start experimenting in both form and decoration, from making small changes to their stand-by wares to developing new products.

lasoledadcooperative050The base of the cooperative’s production is still utilitarian wares such as plates, cups, mugs, teapots shotglasses, etc., still using the same local clay sources exploited by the ancient potters of Chupicaro. Many of the designs have remained with only some evolution, in particular, the dot and stripe patterns which are created by spinning a piece while holding a paintbrush steady or using a small circular sponge on a short stick. The most common colors are blue, reddish-orange and back on a white or off-white background, but other colors can be added for special orders. These pigments are from commericial sources, but they make their own glaze.

However, the last few years have seen new forms and new decoration. Decorative pieces are making their way into the inventory, from small dove napkin holders, to skulls for Day of the Dead and egg and seashell shapes purely for decoration. Some of these new forms come from other handcrafts, such as wood carving. One of the newest and most innovative is the making of decorative mask pieces, started only about 6 months ago. Decorative influences here include pre Hispanic motifs, especially lines and geometric patterns, to drip to minimalist, Japanese-inspired pieces. It’s important to note that none of the pieces are meant to be recreations of Chupicuaro or any other pre-Hispanic pottery.

Despite the struggles and low pay, the three sisters are dedicated to keeping the cooperative and the making of ceramics alive in Acambaro. They love the work, and do not want to leave the area or their families. Margarita states simply that she wants to die doing this. And despite problems in the past, they still believe the cooperative model is best for the business and for Mexico, and their main hope for the future is to rebuild La Soledad. To this end, they will continue to expand on their work and look for new opportunities, including the recruiting of new members.

(L: Margarita glazing a small teacup, UR:Clara decorating a sugar bowl and LR:Clara molding a decorative mask)

You can contact the cooperative by telephone at 417-172-3696

All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.