Handcrafts and the president

In Mexico, unless you live in a cave, you know that Mexico’s new president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (colloquially called AMLO) was inaugurated on December 1 of this year.  Now this is not a political blog, but handcrafts made their way into this event.

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Credit: elpopular.mx

AMLO was the first president to ask for and receive the “staff of command” (bastón de mando) from Mexico’s indigenous communities. The idea behind the staff and the ceremony is to remind the government and the rest of Mexico’s population of its indigenous peoples, which are often marginalized. The staff was hand carved of cedar in Tlaxcala, and is adorned with ribbons of various colors which symbolize the cosmology of Mexico’s 68 recognized indigenous ethnicities.

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Credit: El Quadratin

Behind the stage, there were meters-tall panels in various colors and patterns. These were also made in Tlaxcala, by artisans in Huamantla which is known for the making of temporary “carpets” of sawdust, flower petals and other organic matter for processions. These panels were made by arranging dried corn husks that were first colored with aniline dyes. The artisans worked 16-18 hour shifts for 22 days to make the 72 panels measuring 360 m2. The task required over 750 bundles of husks. This “vertical carpet” is the first of its kind and of this size, but it certainly will not be the last. The impression the panels made, along with the significance of the ceremony almost guarantees that panels like this will be created in the future.

Inaugurations are all about symbolism, representing what the incoming elected official has promised for the coming term. Im cynical by nature, but I cannot help but hope a little that this very prominent display of handcrafted talent will translate into something good for Mexico’s artisans, especially the indigenous ones.

 

 

 

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Piñata party just outside of Mexico City

675px-Pinatas_pinata_stjärnaPerhaps Mexico’s most iconic and most widespread handcraft is the making of piñatas. Despite the growing popularity of Day of the Dead and the paper mache forms associated with it, the piñata remains king of things made with paper and paste. There is no town in the entire country that does not have at least one person who makes them at least part time. Those who make them are called piñateros, not the general term for paper mache artisans, cartoneros.

Originally, piñatas were made with old clay pots that were decorated. If you look hard enough in the State of Mexico, you can still find a few workshops that make these. But for both economy and safety, the piñata is now made with paper mache.

While they are fantastically popular with birthday parties, the most traditional use for piñatas is at Christmas, more specifically during the posadas, reenactments of the search of Mary and Joseph for lodging before Jesus is born. This use was established in the town of Acolman, State of Mexico, the birthplace of the Mexican piñata, which hold a festival every year in honor of its native handcraft.

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Statue of monk breaking a piñata in Acolman

The 33rd edition of the feria de piñatas is held from 14-15 December 2018, and centered on the Acolman monastery which introduced the breaking of the piñatas as an evangelical tool, replacing a similar tradition formerly dedicated to the Aztec god of war. The event is regionally very popular bringing attendees from various municipalities here north of Mexico City.

The festivas has various activities over the weekend, with horse racing, the selection of a fair queen and various artistic and cultural activities. But the star of the show is the exhibition and sale of piñatas and other handcrafts, as well as an offering of regional cuisine. It is also worthwhile to note that the town of Acolman has been named a Pueblo Mágico, primarily because the huge early colonial monastery has been kept in very good condition… along with the piñatas of course!

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Acolman monastery in Acolman, State of Mexico

 

Mexican Dreamweavers

42645327_2388223821217796_4239816054743760896_nMexican Dreamweavers is an organization of foreigners on the coast of Oaxaca that supports local artisans in various ways. It works with two cooperatives based in the Costa Chica region: a women’s cooperative that focuses on weaving and  the other for men that makes a special purple dye and carves coconut shells. The main idea of ​​the organization is to give artisans access to markets that they otherwise would not.

The organization has its origins in the teachers’ strike in Oaxaca in 2006, when tourism to the state dried up Patrice Perillie is an immigration lawyer. The weavers in the area initially came to her to ask for help to go to the United States, but she told them that their weaving work was too important, so she would work to help them stay.

Her insistence on helping the weavers make a living with their skills came in part from a fortuitous experience. While visiting the city of Oaxaca (inland), Perillie bought a huipil for a girl. Neither she nor the girl knew anything about it, but it was light and Perillie thought it would be good to use it on the beach of Puerto Escondido, where she lives. He found out about a project to paint Converse sneakers and went to investigate. She could not buy any of the slippers, since they were talked about, but she met the local weavers of Amuzgo. One of them informed him that this same huipil was from this area and could even tell who had achieved it. Perillie took this as a sign.

 

So, Perillie started selling out of her house in Puerto Escondido and the business grew.  In 2008, she worked with a group of foreign expatriate friends to create a craft fair in Puerto Escondido, an important tourist town. The fair was a success, not in the least because of the group’s ability to reach expats and other foreigners, a vital market for Mexican handcrafts. From this beginning over nine years ago, it has become a yearly event, held on the third Sunday of January.

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Originally the event drew tourists and others who were already in the area, but now there are people who travel specifically to attend. The organization also works to bring the groups’ work to other parts of Mexico and the United States, receiving  invitations to other events such as the Art Masters Fair in Chapala, Jalisco and the International Popular Art Market in Santa Fe, New Mexico, as well as non-handicraft events such as an exhibition dedicated to Frida Kahlo at the Botanical Garden of New York.

Although the Amuzco in Guerrero are better known for the working of native Coyochi cotton, Perillie insists that the coastal Mixtecs in neighboring Oaxaca are really the last to fully depend on growing, harvesting, spinning and weaving the fiber without buying supplemental commercial cotton.  Another distinction in their work is the use of a purple dye made from a local native purpura pansa mollusk. Not all purple garments are made with this dye, and those that are are significantly more expensive. The main reason for this is that the animal is endangered. The cooperatives have programs to manage the snail populations, including campaigns to dissuade local snail collectors to avoid these to sell for food.

By supporting these artisan you can help keep them at home weaving, instead of fleeing to El Norte to make a living. This is a reverse migration project of www.laabogadadelpueblo.org. For more information, you can contact Patrice Perillie by phone US (646) 290-5544 México (954) 102-1792 and by email at mexicandreamweavers@hotmail.com

Photos courtesy of Mexican Dreamweavers from their Facebook page.

 

 

From Taxco to Durango

Gualberto008Although only 3.5 hours away, the city of Durango is a world apart from neighboring Zacatecas. A Durango resident once told me that (heading north) “Civilization ends in Zacatecas and carne asada begins.”

Now, well-done carne asada is a wonderful thing, don’t get me wrong, but there is some truth to this statement. For some reason, the state of Zacatecas (while very much part of El Norte) has more southern influence in its culture than Durango.

One reason for this is that Durango lacked large deposits of silver and gold, the two metals that drove Spanish colonization. The city of Durango was founded with the expectation that the nearby Cerro de Mercado was a silver deposit, but instead held (and holds) an important deposit of iron. Nowhere near as glamorous.

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Almost all of the finer artisan activity in the state very recent in origin with more than a little influence slowly coming up from the center of the country. Gualberto Francisco Mota Martínez came to Durango 11 years ago after a long career in silver working in Taxco. His unusual first name has led to him being known as “Gualas” (play off of English Wallace, and pronounced the same). He is known by the name both socially and professionally.

His formation as an artisan is classic. He began as a child-apprentice at age eight at the workshop where his father was a craftsman. Instead of working exclusively with his father or any other craftsman, he became the shop zorra (lit. fox), the slang term for apprentices. This meant that he did tasks for all the workers.  He said the work was very hard, especially for such a young child, but it allowed him to learn from number of maestros, instead of being tied to the limited techniques and designs of one.

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As a young adult he moved to Mexico City, studied at college and had a career for a time, but he returned to silver, stating that “it’s in his blood.” He kept contact with all his former artisan maestros who became friends and colleagues. This was invaluable to him as he worked to attain his own style and niche in the highly-competitive silver working market in Taxco.  He achieved this not only with decorative design but in how he attaches elements of his pieces, particularly necklaces to hide the small rings. The result looks like the elements hang together magically.

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Durango does not have a silver working tradition. However, it is not far from a number of deposits in the states of Durango and Zacatecas, so silver is not completely out-of-place here.  The maestro was invited up to the area by a government project to teach silver working skills to disabled people, especially those who cannot speak or hear. Gualas worked on this project for only two years, with only a few students, until a change in administration pulled funding for the project. By this time, however, the maestro had become enchanted with Durango and decided to stay. Since then, he has worked as both a producer and teacher.

His teaching is based on his experience as an apprentice. He does not give formal classes but rather teaches as his students require. They decide on projects and together they pull from Gualas’s repertoire of 30+ techniques to work out how the design can be made.  Most of his student/apprentices are older and (semi-) retired, coming in and out of his workshop on Coronado Street in the center of Durango.

Most make commercial designs or some variations thereof. However, Gualis has worked in the past decade to develop artisan designs based off motifs he finds in Durango, both pre Hispanic and Spanish. Inspirations come from pottery, paintings and architectural details from the city’s colonial buildings. There is also a series with interesting mask designs carved into semi-precious stones, then set in silver.

He will do more commercial designs only if he has a relationship with the purchaser. Otherwise, he refers such requests to those he has trained. This has limited his business, as the designs have not yet caught on widely despite their quality. As in most cases in Mexico, the innovations are more popular with foreign purchasers than with national ones.

The maestro can be contacted via his Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/gualbertomota/ or by email at gualas84@hotmail.com

Taming emotions with alebrijes

Unlike the cute creatures featured in Disney’s Coco, the original alebrijes have inspired a range of emotions. Amalgams of various creatures, both real and imagined, decorated in bright colors, alebrijes originated not in Oaxaca, but in Mexico City.

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Puppet show depicting Pedro Linares meeting his first alebrije (Alejandro Linares Garcia CC-by-SA 3.0)

The creation of these creatures are correctly credited to a cartonero (paper mache artisan) named Pedro Linares, sometime in the mid 20th century.  The traditional story of their origin states that Linares came down with a very high fever. While in bed, he hallucinated various terrifying creatures, which kept whispering alebrijes. When he recovered, he worked to recreate what he saw in his visions.

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Alebrije by Pedro Linares (CC-by-SA 3.0 Children’s Museum of Indianapolis)

The real story is more mundane and convoluted than that, and it is easy to dismiss the dream story as a fanciful way to sell more alebrijes. However, there may be more to it than that. More than a few cartoneros attached more meaning to the creatures. One notable example is “alebrijista” Susana Buyo, who considers the creatures to be a kind of home or spiritual guardian, often telling a story about a boy that saw one of her alebrijes and exclaimed “That’s what I dreamt last night!”

L: Susana Buyo and student with alebrije in progress R: Close up of a Buyo alebrijes in progress.

Indeed, if the scary, ugly/beautiful creatures were merely the product of one man’s fevered imagination, they would not have the iconic status they do now. After decorations for Day of the Dead, alebrijes are the most important product for cartoneros, and the main reason why paper mache workshops can be found now in most cultural centers in Mexico City, spreading out into other parts of the country.

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Bermudez and an art class in Durango (used with permission of the artist)

The idea that alebrijes has some psychological reality for us (hinted at by the dream story) is further enhanced by the work of Durango native Prudence Bermudez.

Bermudez is an artist and artisan from Durango, whose mother and art teachers were a constant source of affirmation to her as a very shy child. Although she started college with the intention of studying business management, fate led her back to art and she received her degree in the field from the state’s School of Painting, Sculpture and Handcrafts.

With little opportunity in Durango, she took the chance to live and work in Buenos Aires from 2007 to 2014. Here, she was not only able to sell her painting, but she gained a new appreciation of Mexican culture and iconography seeing how foreigners responded to it.  It was also here that she studied psychology and art therapy, finding this to be her life’s work.

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Alebrije by Prudence Bermudez (used with permission of the artist)

In Argentina, she worked primarily with adults and in painting, doing a thesis on art therapy for adults legally incapacitated by stress.  The focus of this thesis was the use of paper (often symbolizing the office) to redirect negative emotions that stem from there.

Bermudez’s work with alebrijes and other forms of cartoneria is very recent. On vacation home in Durango in 2012, she found that her long-time mentor, artist and artisan Trinidad Núñez, had begun a program to introduce Mexico City-style alebrijes to Durango.  Taking advantage of what little time she had, she quickly learned the basics and continued to work with the medium in Argentina. She even began selling the creatures here, which were considered a kind of crazy curiosity.

Returning to Durango in 2014, she has begun working as an art therapist. Much of this work is still with traditional painting, but alebrije-making is now part of her repertoire. She finds it useful for certain patients in particular, as the mish-mosh of animal parts can be used to represents various interconnected emotions.

While there are no studies to support this idea, it is still quite interesting nonetheless. Perhaps there are more to Pedro Linares’s “ugly” monsters than he ever envisioned.

Featured image – Artist Prudence Bermudez and daughter with alebrije – used with permission of the artist)

From brushes to clothing

Ixtle (sometimes spelled istle in English) is a term used to describe various fibers that have been obtained from native plants in Mexico since long before the arrival of the Spanish. It predates even the use of cotton, which was reserved for the elite. In the past, it was used for everything fiber can be used for, including clothing. The famous tilma (mantle) of Juan Diego, which bears the first image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, is made of ixtle.

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Ixtle products are traditionally sold at stores called jarcierias, which specialize in rope, brooms, bags and cleaning supplies. (credit Carmen Flores)

The fibers come from a number of plants. In the north and center of Mexico, various plants from the agave, maguey and yucca families are used, along with roots of a grass called sacaton.  These plants tend to grow in semi-arid parts of the country, on soils not suitable for agriculture. The states with the most production of ixtle and ixtle-based products, include Tamaulipas, Coahuila, Chihuahua, Durango, Zacatecas, Jalisco, Michoacán and Hidalgo. The most prized ixtle comes from the agave funkiana plant, which grows in the Jaumauve region of Tamaulipas. Fibers from the young, inner leaves yield measure from 50 to 100 cm long and are almost white and as strong as sisal (henequen).

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Agave lechuguilla (colloquially called shin daggers in English)
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Traditional tools used to extract fiber from leaves
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Doll knitted from ixtle by Matilde Hernandez at the Amealco Doll Museum

Some of the hardest (often called Tampico fiber) was introduced to the US in 1969 with the name of “The Original Tampico Vegetable and Dish Brush) as a household cleaning tool. Another important fiber which can also be called ixtle (or pita) is derived from a completely different plant, the aechmea magdalenae, which grows in southern Mexico. This fiber is most often used for piteado, a kind of embroidery on leather heavily favored by Mexico’s charro (cowboy) culture. The best-known community for this work is Colotán in Jalisco. The popularity of piteado means that much of what is for sale is not done by hand, but rather by machine and some is even imported from China.

The fibers from succulents are related to henniquen. A few types of ixtle produce soft cloth, but the vast majority produce coarse fibers which can range from burlap-like to fibers that are almost stick-like. Harder fibers are used to make brushes, lariats, cords and belts. Softer fibers are used to make carrying bags, nets and other accessories. However, most of the ixtle fiber that is harvested in Mexico is exported to countries such as the United States and Germany, which uses it in a number of cottage industries.

Ixtle products from Durango (left) and Guerrero

There are no statistics as to the annual production of ixtle fiber in Mexico as it is generally done by family and other small concerns. The extraction of the fibers is not done industrially, as the fibers are delicate until they have been fully processed. Plants are harvested when they are about 4 or 5 years of age. In the case of yucca, the leaves must be boiled or steamed for hours first. After that the process is the same; leaves are gently pounded to separate the fibers from the pulp, the laid out to dry in the sun. This work is poorly paid, and relegated to those times of the year when it is to dry to grow crops. Despite this, it is an important economic activity in certain rural areas of Mexico, particularly for the Otomi of the Mezquital Valley of Hidalgo, where it has cultural as well as economic importance.

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Modern lamp made from ixtle fiber at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City

The survival of the ixtle industry is very much in doubt. It is labor-intensive and relatively expensive to produce.  Many ítems formerly made from ixtle are now made with plastic strips or cord.

Featured image by McGau

Silver in a cowboy town

DSC_0015Taxco, Guerrero is Mexico’s best-known silver smithing community, but the reality is that the working of this metal (as well as gold) has been done in numerous parts of the country. Mexico City’s Franz Mayer Museum has an important collection of colonial-era silverwork both for ecclesiastical and secular uses. Much of Mexico’s silver working did die out, but efforts since the early 20th century have brought it back. Often this is due to the work of one person.

Jewelry is made in several municipalities of the state of Zacatecas, but one stands out: the small town of Jerez, just to the west of the state capital of the same name. It is best known for its cowboy culture, in particular its signature way of celebrating Holy Saturday by drinking while dressed in traditional charro finery and riding horses around the town. However, respect for tradition does have its serious side and has supported the return of a number of classic crafts.

Alfredo Perez Aguirre was born in Mexico City, but has deep roots in the town of Jerez. His mother was from here. The family moved back to Jerez when Perez was very young, so he grew up here. However, he comes neither from a charro or artisan family. His father was a housewife and merchant and his father worked as a landscaper and landscape architect. However, his father had some creative ability as he did some painting and sculpting.

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His mother had a jewelry store in town, but it was initially dedicated purely to resale. However, one problem the business had was not being able to sell a ring or some other piece because it was the wrong size. This is how Perez began back in the mid 1990s. He learned the absolute basics of cutting and soldering metals to resize rings. He then went on to repairing jewelry, making the business the only place in Jerez where such could be done.

DSC_0021One day a client asked for a custom-made piece to be made by him. At first, neither Perez nor his mother could believe that he could do it, but the client insisted. So he did, and that was the beginning of making his own work.

His development as an artisan jeweler was almost completely through trial-and-error. Over time, Perez developed both modern and traditional pieces. His inspirations are mostly from colonial Mexico and others that dominate the town of Jerez. One piece that is particularly in demand is his filigree earrings. Half-moon earrings are a common traditional design in central and north central Mexico. In Zacatecas, they are created with the use of twisted fine wires, often with very small accents, like flowers. These are Arab in origin, brought to Mexico by the Spanish. The making of these earrings in Jerez dates back over two centuries. The most traditional of these earrings are done in gold, and about 30% of Perez’s business is in this metal. But silver dominates in part because of cost.

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About 70% of Perez’s business is still connected to the town of Jerez. Some are to people living in the area, but much of this are those who have migrated to the United States and come back to Jerez to visit. Much of this business occurs during the Christmas holidays and in April, when Jerez celebrates its patron saint. These pieces go with the migrants back to the US as a piece of home. About 20% is international (Europe and South America) and the rest at national fairs such as the Charro event. Events are still extremely important to his business as he finds new clients this way, especially the international ones.

Perez is making the craft a family tradition.  One son, Jose Albert 18, has followed in his father’s footsteps, winning handcraft competitions starting in elementary school.

The maestro can be reached via his Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/alfredo.perezaguirre.5

Art and craftsmanship

GeneroMoreno015While I understand Género Alejandro Moreno Ramirez’s need to be taken seriously as an artist, it is a shame that his chosen media makes him a bit defensive.

Many artists and artisans cross the very fuzzy lines among fine art, folk art and handcraft, often enriching all of the various pursuits. Famous examples include Diego Rivera’s inclusion of folk art images in his paintings as well as patronizing several artisans whose work he admired.

Many artisans take artistic training as part of their professional development. And there are many who consider themselves to be both artists and artisans both for artistic as well as economic reasons.

But there is tension between the idea of “serious art” and “just handcraft.” It is even worse when said handcraft is associated as women’s work, especially that of housewives.

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Textile art is nothing new. The fine tapestries of the Middle Ages are considered to be art with no discussion. But it is true that the Western concept (at least) of true art is intimately tied with painting and sculpture in stone or wood.

Fine art, folk art, and handcrafts all have elements of creativity and craftsmanship to them. Artists need to master technique as much as cabinet makers do. Fine furniture makers, whether consciously or not, need to have an aesthetic sense. The distinction among the three is how it is judged by the culture… focusing on a message or feeling or more focused on execution of technique.

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In cases where both become important, we get the concept of folk art. There are cases in Mexico where handcraft designs make their way to a two-dimensional “canvas.” The best example of this is the amate paper paintings done by the Nahua people of Guerrero, who took traditional designs from their pottery to develop intricate works of art on a new medium.

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The problem for textile techniques is that 1) it is associated with women at home “wasting time” and 2) the resulting work of art is not as durable as paintings. Many paintings centuries old survive to this day. The same cannot be said for tapestries, no matter how well valued. Time is not kind to plant fibers without layers of paint to help preserve them.

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Be this as it may, textile is a fascinating medium which invites the study of how technique and imagination interact. Paint has limited variables, allowing for artists to tame it readily. The same cannot be said for fibers and dyes (especially natural ones). Even the best of weavers and dyers will have imperfections in their work. Those imperfections can be seen as a defect in the medium or an opportunity.

Only a true artist can see opportunity.

Moreno is not from an artist or artisan family, but like most artists discovered his passion for drawing and other creating in early childhood.  However, his road to his artistic vocation has been somewhat convoluted. He is currently finishing his studies in visual arts at the local university, but he studied and experimented with various paths before then. These included traditional painting, graphics and fashion design, found that none of them suited his talents and interests exactly. There is absolutely no tradition of textile arts in Durango, but Moreno was fortunate enough to discover the field in Guadalajara.

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He was worked with various techniques but has settled to two main ones, the dying of fabrics with natural materials and embroidery. Much of his inspiration comes from a number of Japanese textile techniques as well as western ones. Dying is with a heavy cotton material called manta, which is colored with natural materials specifically to create “imperfections.” The main technique is to take materials found in Mexico such as marigolds and cochineal insects, press them into the fabric and prompt the dying through the use of steam. This creates a series of stains in subtle colors. These stains become the basis and guide for the embroidery that is then applied. He mostly uses commercial embroidery thread for this, most likely because it provides a counter to the unconstrained coloring of the background. The goal is to create an image that is both expressive and harmonious.

 

What is fascinating about Género’s work is that it is indeed art. However, its artistic value comes from both expression and fine craftsmanship. It would not work any other way. It straddles the world of arte and artesanía in a way that the amate paintings cannot. In Genero’s work, all the media used is respected. In the case of the amate paintings, the paper is dominated by the painting. The paper is not respected in the same way. The initial idea to use it came from its ease in transportation and sale of such painting to tourist markets. The paper does give the paintings a folk art and ancient feel, but it appears more as a frame for the painting, rather than an integral part of the work.

Género’s work has value for both art and handcrafts, giving both new directions to explore.  It brings back the artistic element of the tapestry to needlework.

The artist can be reached at https://www.facebook.com/genaromorenor or through https://www.instagram.com/gen.genaro.gen/

(Photos from the artist’s Instagram account used with permission)

Finding handcrafts among cowboys

Mexico’s major handcraft-producing states such as Oaxaca and Chiapas have known for some time the value of having their better handcrafts for sale at major cultural events. States such as these have events dedicated solely to handcraft traditions, but often one of the better ways to find authentic handcrafts is to attend other kinds of cultural events as well.

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Most of Mexico’s major and best-developed handcraft traditions are located in the center and south of the country. This is not only because the Spanish conquered these areas first, but more importantly, these areas had major civilizations such as the Maya and the Aztecs, whose wealth and concentrations of populations allowed for the creation of what were essentially luxury goods for the elite. Here the Spanish simply added a new layer of such production and in a number of cases really didn’t even do that.

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Traditional filigree earrings by Alfredo Perez of Jerez, Zacatecas

The north of the country did not have major civilizations or major population centers until the colonial period. The Spanish found nomadic and semi-sedentary people, who were considered crude even by their southern indigenous cousins. Such lifestyles do not lend themselves to the creation of time-consuming luxury goods, especially those which require stationary installations such as kilns. There are a few exceptions, such as the Paquimé pottery found in Chihuahua, which has been reincarnated as Mata Oritz ceramics.

The state of Zacatecas is part of Mexico’s “wild” north, though the southern edge of such. It was home to nomadic peoples, almost all of which were wiped out in the colonial period despite fierce resistance. The Spanish dominated this area early in the colonial period because of the discovery of silver, establishing the city of Zacatecas in 1546.DSC_0058

Despite the lack of an indigenous handcraft industry, the Spanish had more time to transplant their traditions here. For this reason, there is more varied handcraft work overall to be found than in other parts of El Norte.

dsc_0042.jpgHowever, it is not as widespread or as well-developed as in the south, so handcraft fairs are rare and small. To see the best of what the state has to offer, it is necessary to go to events related to the culture’s strengths, such as the annual National Charro Congress and Championship which is held each October. The commercial pavilion is dominated by cowboy and charro gear, mostly but not always made in the state, but other elements of the state’s heritage can be found here, too. There are representations of many (but not all) of the state’s major handcraft traditions from leather, to various textiles to silver. It has a number of surprises, such as Huichols and their work, but notably absent was the state’s really fine cantera (volcanic stone) sculpting and relatively nascent paper mache (cartonería) work.

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The state has been more active in promoting and supporting its artisans, with programs such as Voluntariado, which seeks to give small artisans in very rural areas of Zacatecas a route for selling handcrafts, particularly traditional housewives making textiles.  However, efforts here suffer from the same problems as those even in the more developed states. There is little to no information available about the state’s traditions and their histories. In the state cooperative efforts, the creators of the items are not identified, nor even the place of origin. Emphasis is on immediate sales, not creating awareness, which hurts long term efforts.  Even questions to the people in charge of the booths and permanent stores in the capital yield the most rudimentary of answers, principally because they themselves do not know.

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That said, events such as this are fundamentally important, especially to the individual artisans fortunate to have a presence there. At the very least it is easy to determine which vendors are local to the state, from outside of it or are simply resellers. Those from the state proper do know their products and their history. For such serious artisans, events like this charro congress provide an outlet. Even if it accounts for only a small portion of their total sales,  it provides national and international visibility for their products.  One silversmith told me that international sales now account for up to 20% of his business, almost all contacts made through highly visible events such as this.

This year, the National Congress is on from 13 October to 4 November and definitely worth a weekend trip to Zacatecas, not only for the local products and food, but for demonstrations of some of the best of Mexico’s charros.

 

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Stage sets and artesanía

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Cactus at his home/workshop

For a handcraft or any other kind of artistry to stand out, there needs to be a personal and cultural connection between the creator and the creation. Straight out technical talent is not enough. That connection can be through family history, the material and/or the techniques used, but often this connection comes through the themes expressed in the work.

José Flores is best known by his nickname Cactus, prominent on his business cards. He is a native Durangan, born and raised in the city’s iconic Analco neighborhood. He does not come from an artist or artisan family; he came to be so through the movies.

Cactus lives in the modest neighborhood of Granja Graciela, but the interior of his home is an impressive reflection of his aesthetic sense and personal history. The garage has been converted into a kind of large foyer/bar area with a decoration style I’ll call not-quite-Wild-West. Kind of like Durango itself, it is the frontier but with a number of other elements of more “civilized” areas.

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I had a few minutes to look at several of his crafts, both completed and in-progress as I had gotten there before the maestro. Cactus’ wife pointed out a few of them. Without knowing much of anything about the creator, one type of craft stood out immediately – miniature facades of Wild West buildings recognizable from the cowboy movies of the mid 20th century.

That may seem odd for a Mexican craftsman. Cactus has been criticized for this work, especially with their signs and other elements in English rather than in Spanish. But knowing a bit about Durango and the artisan explains why this works in their favor.

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At the height of the Western in Hollywood, Durango experienced a heyday as a setting for many of these movies, starting with White Feather, shot here in the mid 1950s. This boom continued into the 1960s and 1970s, with John Wayne himself shooting a number of movies here, including The Sons of Katie Elder. Wayne even bought himself a ranch not far from Durango City. The movie companies used area towns and landscapes but also built sets recreating the classic scenes of one dirt road bordered by wood buildings representing saloons, post offices, general stores, etc.

DSC_0509Fast forward to the 1980s… Cactus grew up during Durango’s movie heyday and decided to become a movie set designer, studying in Los Angeles for a number of years. When he returned to Durango, there was still a movie industry but it had gone in decline along with the popularity of the western.  By the 2000s, many of the old stage sets had been abandoned or put to other purposes, including a tourist Wild West Show and one that has become a real town, with people living under the old English-language signs for 19th-century establishments.

Cactus worked on some restoration projects at some of the old sets at the turn of the century, but it became clear the he needed other sources of income. He has taken his artistic and design skills to produce lines of several handcrafts and some artistic works.

In addition to the facades, Cactus creates interior scenes and other miniatures such as log cabins and horse-drawn carts which keep more-or-less to the Western theme. Other works include small decorative chests and crosses. These tend to be Spanish in design but not Baroque. Rather they are simplified versions that at home in both Western settings and colonial Mexican homes. This also reflects Durango. While it is squarely in the North, it is also the outer periphery of the Central Mexican Plateau. Influences from farther south can be readily seen here in the architecture and the food.

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His artistic work runs from typical canvas paintings, to sculptures made from organic and recycled materials. The most interesting are his air-brush paintings, oddly enough. Forsaking gaudy colors and unrealistic space scenes, Cactus uses the technique to paint realistic images on old and cracked wood, most often salvaged from decayed buildings. He prefers this because this wood has character and he must “negotiate” with it in order to create an image. Indeed, one of his favorite themes in our conversation was the concept of “respecting the medium.”

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The artist can be reached through his web page at https://www.facebook.com/cactusoldwestart/