In Mexico, folk art is not limited to rural or indigenous communities. Although covered by hardly any artesanía publications, there are artisans in Mexico City and other urban areas, creating rather extraordinary works.
Mexico City’s borough of Iztapalapa is the entity’s largest and most populous, often a landing zone for people migrating from other parts of the country and even Central America looking for a better life. This also means that the area has been overrun with blocks upon blocks of grey cinderblock houses and other buildings, generally poorly made by the residents or landlords with little or no attention paid to aesthetics or sense of neighborhood. It is particularly poor and is not a stranger to crime, with a recent hanging of a dead body on an overpass, mostly likely by a drug gang.
Despite this, the borough is home to people dedicated to various handcrafts. Perhaps the most important of these culturally is cartonería, a kind of hard paper mache, which continues to be used in Mexico to create seasonal decorations, piñatas and more. One particular form which is indigenous to the city is the making of alebrijes… a kind of fantastic multicolored monster, which consists of representations of various parts of animals, real or imaginary. These are then painted in various bright colors, often with intricate designs.
Two artisans dedicated to cartoneria work in a small “pulquería” or bar that serves pulque, a mildly alcoholic, slightly viscous liquid fermented from the sap of a maguey plant. It used to be as ubiquitous in the city as beer, but today one needs to know where to look to find it.
You would never find the place unless you were looking for it, even though it is on the corner of Avenida República Federal and J. Espinoza streets, only blocks from the Peñon Viejo metro station. The pulqueria is little more than three cinderblock walls, partially roofed, but the front part, where customers enjoy their beverages, is covered only in a tarp. It looks like a strong wind could blow the place apart… and yet…
The interior speaks of the creativity of the bar’s owner Daniel Vera Sierra, along with his associate, Clara Romero Murcia. I met the two at the annual “Monumental Alebrije” Parade, where artisans create giant versions of these monsters, to parade from the historic center of the city over
to Paseo de la Reforma Avenue, where they are displayed on this street for the following two weeks. Their creation, called either Metamorfósis or Chanehqueh (guaridan in Nahuatl) stood out not only for its creativity, but by the fact that it was accompanied by a dozen or so people as an entourage, who dressed similarly and danced to bring attention to the creation. In addition, Clara’s very young daughter, in wings and a mask, was on the cart used to wheel the alebrije, stealing much of the spotlight. Metamorfósis now dominates the center of the pulquería, sitting among the tables.
Daniel began working with cartonería around 2007, but considers himself to be an artist, rather than an artisan. Indeed, the one solid wall of the pulquería’s customer section is covered in a mural done by him, as well as some smaller paintings on doors in other areas. Daniel’s artistic inspirations include Pink Floyd videos, pre Hispanic art, Salvador Dalí and other surrealistic artists. His interest in cartonería is more in the design and painting, rather than the actual construction and while he has sold pieces, he does not do this for a living. His main cartonería activity of the year is creating an alebrije for the parade, with 2015 being his third year of participation. For him the goal is not to sell the alebrije, or even to win one of the various prizes offered, but rather to see the reaction of the crowd to his work.
On the other hand, Clara is more the businesswoman and artisan in the sense that most of her work is made for sale. She makes traditional pieces such as Catrinas (a skeletal woman in elegant dress of the late 19th century), other Day of the Dead decorations, masks, costume pieces, paintings with cartonería elements and more. She began this work about 4 years ago, learning from Daniel, calling herself “the teacher’s pet.” However, she has also taught the master. Having taken a class in the use of recycled plastic bottles in handcrafts, she and Daniel now use this material to create a base for the paper to be laid upon, as well as to make a number of details in the final product. This is a rather new innovation in cartonería work, which traditionally used only paper, paste, wire or reed supports and paint.
Daniel sells works haphazardly, if someone sees something and wants to buy it. But Clara does market her work, almost entirely on Facebook, with most of her clients being foreigners, principally from the United States. She now has regular clients who order custom pieces. Clara calls cartonería “noble” in the sense that you take very humble materials, garbage really, and make something beautiful. People are not paying for the material, but rather the creativty and sensibility that she puts into each piece.
Despite its obvious creativity and completely non-utilitarian existance, alebrijes are still considered to be artesanía rather than art. But after seeing and hearing Daniel and Clara’s work, this is definitely one very grey area between the two.