There’s just something about the VW Beetle that says “get creative with me!” It is one of few car models that looks good with innovative paint jobs, both in terms of color and design.
While the concept of an “art car” has produced some… well… interesting decoration schemes, let’s be frank, most are just ugly collections of junk.
The same can definitely NOT be said about the Vochol, a VW Beetle (newer version), which was decorated with over 2,277,000 tiny plastic beads, sponsored by the Museo de Arte Popular (Folk Art Museum or MAP) in Mexico City.
To create the work four artisan families noted for their bead work were hired to design and carefully place each bead. By far most cover the exterior of the car where they were affixed with a special high temperature adhesive. This means that the car can be driven, but this has never been done. Bead work can be found in the interior as well, such as the dashboard and the seat covers, but it is the outside work that is the most eye-catching because here is where the main imagery is.
These represent the religion and culture of the Huichol people (more properly called the Wirrárika), an indigenous group which live in western Mexico, primarily in the states of Jalisco and Nayarit. The car’s hood has two snakes above clouds, which represent rain. the back has images of offering and a canoe steered by a shaman. On the sides there are images of the gods of the sun, fire, con, deer and peyote. The roof has a large sun and four eagles, representing the union between man and the gods. As the project was set to be completed in time for Mexico’s 2010 anniversaries of its independence and the Mexican Revolution, the front fenders contain the phrases “200 years of Independence” and “100 years since the Mexican Revolution” in the Wixarika language.
The of the piece, Vochol, comes from “vocho” (Mexican Spanish slang for VW Beetle) and “Huichol.”
The project was originally meant to be on display for the anniversaries, then to be set for auction as a fund raiser for the Museo de Arte Popular. But the popularity of the piece with the public was such that the museum changed its mind and instead has used the piece to promote Mexican handcrafts and Huichol culture. The car has exhibited nearly constantly since 2010, and has toured the United States, Canada and Europe, along with Mexico.
The piece has its own website and Wikipedia article (in five language versions), quite possibly the only individual Mexican handcraft piece to have such honors.
(All photos courtesy of the Museo de Arte Popular, unless otherwise indicated)
It is interesting to note that a number of women have been in the forefront of the rise and transformation of Oaxacan handcrafts, pottery in particular. The work of these women has been instrumental in keeping pottery-making a traditional source of income, ironically by transforming what is made.
Santa Maria Atzompa is well-known for its utilitarian and decorative pieces which are marked with the use of a dark-green glaze, called loza verde. This pottery used to be sold widely in Mexico and even into the United States, but as the glaze contains lead, it is now sold only locally. There is one exception to this, which is the making of chia pets, which were originally made as a novelty related to Easter.
Teodora Blanco Nuñez (1928-1980) began by making loza verde much like her mother and grandmother did, as this work has been traditionally dominated by women. As Atzompa is near the state capital, Doña Teodora sold at the 20 de noviembre Market there. However, the decorative detail of her work stood out, catching the notice of a foreign visitor in the 1970s, who not only bought her entire lot, but became her first patron, encouraging her to continue experimenting.
This experimentation meant slowly moving away from loza verde to unglazed pieces. Most of these pieces are of natural beige, either monotone, or more commonly, with accents of reddish-orange (a clay slip) and/or smaller accents in paint.
Teodora eventually became famous for the creation of female figures with rich decorative detail, which have been playfully called “monas” (lit. female monkey), “muñecas” (dolls) or just figures. These dolls are a mix of several Atzompa traditions. The first that stands out is the use of small bits of clay laid over the main body to create raised deocoration. This technique is called “pastillaje,” a term that comes from the decoration of cakes. A number of her pieces are also allegorical, derived from the local tradition of having animal figures that do human activities such as playing musical instruments.
Her work was admired by many collectors including Nelson Rockafeller, who eventually obtained 175 of her pieces. She received numerous national and international awards and addressed the World Crafts Council. Her work made her rich by local standards and assured that even with the disappearance of loza verde, pottery would remain important in this Oaxacan town. However, she remained a “campesina” (rural, farm person) all of her life, spending her earnings on farm animals and the like.
Doña Teodora trained her oldest daughter take over, as per local custom, but it was her oldest son Luis Garcia Blanco who had the greater interest, taking over the main family compound on Avenida Libertad. A number of other family members have dedicated themselves to the craft, including some who have gone on to recieve artistic training; however, none yet have achieved the same level of recognition as the matriarch.
(Featured photograph courtesy of Friends of Oaxaca Folk Art, all others Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise noted)
San Miguel de Allende was once described to me as the “Disneyland” version of Mexico… In the center of the city, everything seems almost perfect, clean, orderly all colonial or colonial style buildings in great condition… not to mention the large castle-like facade of the main parish church.
Gringos are everywhere here, and their presence has changed the city forever. While to a person, these retired expats love San Miguel, their presence in such numbers does take away some from the colonial city… that ironically their money helped to save from becoming a ghost town.
However, if you look beyond the signs for international cuisines and shopkeepers speaking English, “Mexican” San Miguel is still alive, thank you very much.
Arroyo is best known for his work with the creation of giant puppet figures called “mojigangas,” along with the preservation of their use in San Miguel’s various festivals and processions, both secular and religious. Although mojigangas had existed in San Miguel for generations, Arroyo’s work has extended their popularity them both in and out of San Miguel proper. They are now part of the city’s identity, especially those related to important celebrations in September (Independence Day and the city’s patron saint) and a unique use for weddings.
Arroyo is not from a crafting family, but was introduced to it through a childhood friend whose father, Genaro Almanza, was a local “santero,” a craftsman dedicated to the making, preservation and restoration of saint images, as well as caring for altars and other interior artifacts in churches. This is an important function in a city that has dozens of churches and even more chapels that date back to the colonial period.
Arroyo became fascinated by Almanza’s work and became one of his apprentices as a young child. Although mischievous by nature and chastised for things like making breasts too large on female icons, he was also Almanza’s favorite, becoming his “godfather” or sponsor for his first communion. In Mexico, this creates familial ties.
By the age of 17, Arroyo had been accepted into San Miguel’s guild of santeros, and able to take on commissions of his own, as well as be appointed caretaker of churches and chapels. However, his famous work with mojigangas did not come directly from his position with Almanza or santeros.
Arroyo was, and still is, a master of working with many materials. He is capable of doing everything from sculpting wood, plastering, painting with oils, acrylics, etc and more. His talents do not stop at those needed for his work with mojigangas and religious items, as Arroyo gave us a short tour of his home that included various improvement projects in brick, wood, glass etc and some pieces in ceramic that he has done simply for the pleasure of it.
His abilities also include working in cartonería, a hard paper mache. In the 1990s a French resident of San Miguel and puppeteer asked Arroyo to make two mojigangas for a festival in the El Valle de Maiz neighborhood of the city, a skeleton and a devil. These are traditional images for religious festivals, along with those of priests and more as the mojigangas representing good and evil in a dance.
Arroyo’s early creations were quite heavy, up to 50 kilos but since then he devised methods to bring the weight down such that they rarely weigh over 20. He also replaced the traditional hemp straps that hold the heavy upper portion onto the dancers’ shoulders with those made of inner tube, as they are not only more comfortable, but make the mojigangas bounce more. Even though many of the materials used to make mojigangas are commercially made, such as cloth and decorative elements, Arroyo emphasizes that the making of these puppets is not simply gluing pieces together. Indeed, the heart of the mojiganga is the cartonería work and painting, which gives each piece its personality.
Most of Arroyo’s fame is in the Guanajuato and Queretaro area, where he works on commissions teaches in various communities. He has made mojigangas, life-sized nativities and more as commissions, both in Mexican and for places like restaurants in the United States. This is the “business” side of his work.
One major aspect of the business side is the making of bride and groom mojigangas for weddings, a tradition that is particular to San Miguel. Wedding festivities include a procession of the bridal party in the streets of the city, including the bride and groom in full gown and tuxedo. Behind the couple dance these mojigangas. During our visit, Arroyo showed us two recently-completed mojigangas, designed to look like the bride and groom that commissioned them (pictured above). Looking at the photos, although cartoon-like, the resemblance was quite striking.
Arroyo is now the head of the family, still living in the family home on the steepest portion of San Francisco Street in the historic center of San Miguel, and this family helps with many of the commissions. But Arroyo sees the business side of what he does as important for the cultural work, economically supporting his continued work as a santero, along with advising communities with their traditions with mojigangas.
(All photos by the author unless otherwise specified.)
One thing that foreigners living in Mexico soon learn is that fireworks are a very important part of the culture, which may start or stop at just about anytime of the day or night. This is because their use is not limited to certain patriotic holidays, but are used in just about all community celebrations, especially patron saints’ days.
While certainly there are fireworks imported from China, there is still a vibrant tradition of local production. The center of this production was Mexico City, until a major warehouse which contained explosives (of what kind exactly is still disputed) caught fire, causing major damage and deaths in nearby residential areas.
This led to a ban on fireworks production and to a large extent, use, in Mexico City proper in the 1950s. This ban seriously disrupted the livelihood not only to families who produced fireworks, but also to those who produced cartonería (paper mache) as the most popular cartonería item was Judas Iscariot figures, created to be destroyed by the fireworks attached to them. (See the article on Leonardo Linares for more information.)
Fireworks use has returned to Mexico City, although perhaps not to the extent previously, as Judas “burnings” are still done only in certain events with special permission from authorities. But the firecrackers and small rockets are certain to wake up those who forget the local calendar of celebrations.
The making of these fireworks, however, has permanently been banned, and forced fireworks makers out… and primarily into neighboring Estado de México (lit. State of Mexico, commonly referred to as Edomex). Most are now produced in northern suburbs of the capital, with more in the Toluca Valley and some in communities scattered in other parts of the country.
The suburb of Tultepec, Edomex has the largest production and has proclaimed itself the capital of Mexican fireworks. It is home to the country’s main major fireworks market, as well as an entire section of the city which is dominated by small family-owned and operated workshops, La Saucera. Although fireworks making is regulated by federal authorities, especially those which explode, there are an estimated 500 artisans who work illegally in Edomex alone.
Most of what is produced is recognizable to non-Mexicans, firecrackers, rockets, sparklers (which can to be larger than anything permitted for personal use in the US), there are several ways of using them which are unique to the county.
The first is the aforementioned Judases. Although other countries have a ritual of burning Judas Iscariot in effigy, none put in the care in making the effigies like Mexico does, nor “burns” them by simply exploding them into pieces. With the decline of Judases in Mexico City, came the advent of “alebrijes” fantastic colorful creatures which were developed by Pedro Linares from Judases. In a perhaps unconscious homage to alebrijes’ origins, those made in Tultepec and nearby communities to be exploded the same way as Judases. While Judas burnings are no longer common, and no longer done by individuals (with the exception of the Linares family), the tradition survives at a number of community events, which are able to get the required permits.
A more common and more individual way of setting off fireworks is with the use of frames/figures called toritos, lit. “little bulls.” These range from small decorated frames made from reeds which can be worn or carried by an individual, to massive frames covered in cartonería paper mache on wheels. In both cases, the toritos are loaded with firecracker arrangements (which sometimes designed shoot out candy onto crowds) and are paraded onto the streets as part of religious festivals, especially for local patron saints. The exploding of fireworks onto these bulls is a kind of “sacrifice” meant to demonstrate gratitude to the saint or other figure for favors and protection received.
Castillos (“castles”) are similar, frames loaded with fireworks. However, these are meant to stay in one place, and can range in size from tabletop to heights of several stories. Because of this, frames can be made from a variety of materials, with the larger ones made of wood. The fireworks on these structures are generally meant to power moving parts such as wheels on the tower and visual effects most often to create a figure. There are two types. Those meant to be set off in the day and those for the night. The former generally have fireworks for propulsion, with the color and designs provided by crepe paper. The latter will have fireworks for both motion and visual effects.
Tultepec’s importance as a fireworks production and commercialization zone led it to become the site of the annual National Pyrotechnic Festival in 1989. The festival runs for ten days, with events dedicated to certain types of fireworks formations (toritos, castles, etc) along with cultural events such as concerts. The most important of the events is a Pamplona-style “running of the bulls” (really exploding toritos) in the city center. Second in importance is a competition of gigantic castillos at the nearby fairgrounds.
If you plan to attend the festival, especially the setting off the castillos, be sure to have an automobile or nearby lodging as various events ends long after public transportation stops running. Tultepec also has unpredictable weather, and March nights can get quite cold.
Despite the fact that by far, most of Mexico’s handcraft and folk art industry is supported by foreign tourism and collectors, the country does not really do enough to promote the communities that produce artesanía nor events related to them as tourist attractions in their own right. Too often, museums, galleries and government entities promote themselves as the means for acquiring authentic Mexican artesania, which is fine for these entities, but often not so much for the artisans themselves.
There are important art and handcraft events in Mexico that are worth going to, even if they are off the beaten tourist track… or waaaay off, in the case of Uruapan, Michoacan.
This small city and the surrounding area is an undiscovered gem. Surrounded by avocado fields (the main economic activity of the area). Uruapan is a colonial city that still has a strong Purhepecha identity, not to mention being close to the famous Paricutin volcano, which caught the world’s attention in the 1940s with its sudden formation. (I remember reading about it in primary school in the 1970s!) Another point in Uruapan’s favor is its coffee. Quite strong, but even more fascinating is that if you ask for it with cream at places like El Despacho coffee shop, you get cream liquor, in flavors such as chocolate or macadamia nut. Macadamias are second only to avocados here in economic importance.
Aside from not being on a beach, Uruapan suffers as a tourist destination because of Michoacan’s reputation for violence and being overshadowed by the better known nearby city of Patzcuaro. IMHO, the threat of violence is overrated, especeally for foriegn tourists. The rewards of visiting Uruapan (along with Patzcuaro) far more than make up for any small risk… certainly a risk no greater than visiting Acapulco.
Again, my opinion, but that risk/reward ratio tilts even further in Uruapan’s favor during Holy Week, when just about all of Mexico is on vacation. For Uruapan, this imporant week coincides with the start of the Palm Sunday Handcraft (open air) Market or in Spanish, Tianguis Artesanal de Domingo de Ramos.
Although Patzcuaro has a similar event for Day of the Dead, Uruapan’s is larger, and claims to be the largest of its type in Latin America. The event opens on the day before Palm Sunday and runs the rest of Holy Week, but the best to be had is on that opening weekend. The “tianguis” (Nahuatl word for market) fills the entire main plaza in the center of the city, which is sizable, with examples all the state’s major crafts traditions. While there are some stands selling cheap touristy trinkets, most sell quality wares. Real masterpieces can be seen at the Casa de Cultura for the annual state handcraft competition, where the awards are giving out the the governor of the state. Those pieces are also for sale, but are difficult to get since they get snapped up so quickly.
The activities do not end there. There is a parade and other events dedicated to showcasing the state’s major indigenous groups, fashion shows of traditional garments, a fair dedicated to Purhepecha food along with music and dance performances. The food itself is reason to go, and I recommend that you get to the stands as soon as they open, as they get crowded and sell out quickly.
Uruapan has major hotels in the downtown area near all the action, as well as an airport. Bus service is convenient as well from Mexico City and Guadalajara. If you somehow get enough of the artesania… the city has a number of interesting destinations, such as the colonial era architecture around the plaza, the Huatapera Museum, the San Pedro textile factory (still partially operational) and the Barranca de Cupatitzio National Park, whose waterfalls and springs should not be missed, even if they charge a bit more for entrance than the typical park of its type.
More photos (all photos in this article by Alejandro Linares Garcia, unless otherwise indicated)
Ramirez is a professionally-trained sculptor, whose work in wood, brass and other metals has earned him a prominent position in Mexico’s Salon de la Plastica Mexicana. The Salon is an honor society for Mexican artists, which has included the likes of Diego Rivera, Dr. Atl and Rufino Tamayo. Ramirez’s works have been described as a mix of Cubist and Impressionist, with a touch of magical realism. To my untrained eye, they have an Art Deco feel to them as well.
However, Ramirez’s work in snow and ice has taken quite a different track. A native of Mexico City, who still lives in his parent’s home in the working-class Guerrero neighborhood, the sculptor had never seen or touch snow until the mid 1980s, when he was in Quebec visiting friends. He found snow and ice to be magical and sensual. Mexico then did not, and still does not, have an organization dedicated to professional ice and snow sculpture, so Ramirez was on his own to figure out how to work with these mediums. He worked as an amateur with northern friends and when in Mexico, arranged with a local ice producing plant to work with blocks of ice there.
He went to the Winter Olympic Games in France in 1992 to find out that friends had entered him into the snow and ice sculpture competition held in conjuncture. Ramirez not only competed, he won a gold medal. This success led to invitations to participate other ice and snow sculpting competitions and in 1995 he was the captain of the Mexican team competing in Japan. For over twenty years until his retirement from this activity, Ramirez participated in just about all the major ice and snow sculpting events in the United States, Canada, Japan and Europe.
Well aware of his status of representing Mexico, Ramirez’s snow and ice work differed from that in other mediums, tending to be more patriotic, with a particular emphasis on pre Hispanic imagery. He broke ground for other Mexicans looking to try the “new” media, both in training and connections.
Ramirez no longer works in snow and ice, but he is still and active sculptor, who enjoys a good cigar, good food and good company. In fact, he introduced me to the first mezcal I actually liked!
The work of an original can be somewhat hard to find in Mexican folk art, with many communities’ emphasis on tradition. But sometimes, an artisan’s creativity breaks these bounds such that it cannot be ignored.
I must painfully admit that I have not always pushed myself to make those interpersonal connections that are so, so very important here in Mexico.
However, sometimes life gives you a second chance. I first saw Angelica Morales‘ pottery at the Palm Sunday Folk Art Market (Tianguis de Domingo de Ramos) in Uruapan in 2015. I was immediately drawn to her pottery as its beige background with black line drawings stood out among the many other ceramic wares. It is quite unique, using very basic Michoacan pottery pieces as canvases for Morales’ depictions of rural life in the Patzcuaro area. However, my introvert side got the better of me and I did not press for information about who made the wares when I bought the piece that now is in a prominent place in my Mexico City living room.
Fast forward to November of the same year, when my husband (the photographer) and I want to the Feria Maestros de Arte event in Chapala, Jalisco. Imagine my surprise to see this same pottery jumping out to greet me. This time I was determined to make up for my earlier error, with Morales being my first interview there.
Morales and her family is from the Michoacan town of Tzintzuntzan, one of a ring of traditional towns around Lake Patzcuaro. The largest and best known of these today is Patzcuaro, but in the pre Hispanic period Tzintzuntzan was the capital of the Purhepecha (or Tarascan) Empire, rival to the Aztecs. After the Conquest, the scattered population of the area was enticed to resettle through the work of Vasco de Quiroga, who not only offered protection from the worst of Spanish abuses, but worked to promote economic opportunities for the indigenous through trades. Because of Quiroga’s work, Michoacan remains one of Mexico’s main handcraft production center, and the Lake Patzcuaro zone dominates this production.
Morales is part of Michoacan’s pottery tradition, which is the most dominant. However, most of this production is traditional and there is relatively little innovation or variation among artisans’ work. This is one reason why Morales’ work stands out so well. The Palm Sunday Market is largest showcase of Michoacan’s handcrafts, and the work stands out collectively, it can be very difficult to distinguish work done by one artisan or another.
To do so requires the ability and desire to try something different. In the maestra’s case, this something different is her ability to make simple line drawing, which show artistry through the fact that they convey so much emotion without divulging much detail about the subjects. The effect is clean and well adapted to the simple pottery to which it is applied. Neither pottery or decoration detract from the other, but instead compliment each other.
The simplicity of the design allows it to be noticed from a distance as well. Morales states that she prefers working on flat surfaces, but she and her family have produced a significant number of vases and other curved pieces, which are decorated carefully, allowing the form of the piece and the design to still compliment each other.
Morales’ work has been gaining notice among collectors of Mexican folk art, but most of her sales are still through her home and local markets. She has been approached by foreign dealers, but they want production higher than she can or really wishes to deliver. This has the effect making her work somewhat exclusive, at least for the time being, until others begin to copy and adapt her ideas. But her work will always remain the original.
The change from rural to urban living can cause a kind of identity crises in families. However, some find creative ways to tap into the old to adapt to the new. Alejandro Camacho Barrera comes from a long line of people who worked the land in the south of the Valley of Mexico, in Xochimilco.
From before the Aztecs to until very recently, Xochimilco was an agricultural zone which spent most of its history supplying foodstuffs to a much, much smaller Mexico City, first using Lake Texcoco and as this dried up, canals, then roads. The explosive urban sprawl of Mexico City in the 20th century has has devastating effects on the people as well as the landscape, although Xochimilco struggles to preserve the vestiges of its canals, its festivals and its agricultural heritage.
Don Alejandro’s family story reflects this rapid change. He was an “ejidero,” one with rights to work and live off of an “ejido” or communal property, an arrangement which was formalized just after the Mexican Revolution to ensure that peasant-farmers would have access to land to make a living. However, after a long struggle, the government expropriated the land to establish the Xochimilco Ecological Park with the aim of preserving what little is left of the Valley’s green spaces. As compensation, the Barrio 18 subdivision was established, with each ejidario granted a small plot of land on which to build a house or sell as they chose.
The development of Barrio 18 has been uneven at the very best, with lots ranging from empty with weeds, to shacks to well-built houses that take up every bit of the small space. It is unusual in the sense that the lots have actual houses in a city where apartments are the norm. However, not all ejidarios have chosen to keep these lots. Its proximity to the Mexico City ring road, Periférico, has raised the value of the land, leading to a split between those who stay and those who leave.
For Maestro Alejandro, leaving was not a choice, as he identifies with Xochimilco and the traditions of his family. However, agriculture is no longer an option. Instead, he has turned to handcrafts, in particular the making of toys.
This kind of work is an extension of what his father and grandfather before him did. Both were carpenters, with his grandfather making “trajineras,” the flat-bottomed boats used on Xochimilco’s canals. This generation began with wood, specifically wood scraps to make toys, but have since expanded into working with other materials, with much of their toy production now in a hard paper mache called cartonería. Toymaking is important to the family not only because of income, but that it allows them to maintain their identity and the traditions of the area. Their production is based on what children in Xochimilco had as those of poor farmers, made from whatever extra materials were available. Their toys include Lupita dolls, puppet figures, miniature animals painted in bright colors, masks and more. Wood and fiber objects are shaped by hand. Most of the cartoneria items are made with molds, but the painting is done completely freehand, with no two pieces turning out exactly the same.
Alejandro works with his wife, Miriam and daughter Azul, to make the toys. About a decade ago, the family began winning awards in some of Mexico’s various competitions for artisans including first place in the toy category at the annual competiton sponsored by Mexico’s FONART, the major government entity promoting handcrafts.
Their work in cartoneria has led to expansion into the making of other items, such as alebrijes. They were invited to participate in the annual Monumental Alebrije Parade held in Mexico City, sponsored by the Museo de Arte Popular and were commissioned to make one for the Feria Maestros de Arte. Several of the family’s pieces are part of the permanent collection of the Museo de Arte Popular. In 2015, the workshop was profiled on a major Mexican television show (seen below).