Many Mexican handcraft traditions evolve and modernize, mostly due to the changes in market. But that is not always the case.
The making of coloful, fantastic monsters called alebrijes is a relatively newcomer to Mexican handcrafts, with two major variations… those made of hard paper mache (cartoneria) usually with parts from more than one real or imaginary animal and a second carved from wood and usually depicting a single entity. The first has its origins from Mexico City and the second is rooted in the rural traditions of Oaxaca.
Because of their newness and completely secular nature, the making of alebrijes allows much flexibility in design and even in technique. In the past 15 years or so, monumental paper mache versions have appeared and there is even an annual parade dedicated to them sponsored by the Museo de Arte Popular (MAP).
Another innovation can be attributed to this same institution. Several years ago, group of Mexican artisans attended a light festival in France and presented the notion of alebrijes to their French counterparts. The brainstorming that followed resulted in the idea of creating versions that would not only be lighted, but also movable, unlike traditional alebrijes, which are static.
These artisans collaborated with MAP and the National Handcrafts School in Mexico City to work out how such could be accomplished. The result are frames of aluminum and other light materials, which fits over a person, resting on the shoulders. The arms and legs of the alebrijes are controled by those of the wearer.
The skin of lighted alebrijes are made from plastic, material and/or fiberglass, translucent enough to allow the LED light system underneath to shine and accentuate the colors of the alebrijes. Although much larger than traditional alebrijes, they are limited to being not too much taller than a person, given the need to keep the weight down. The effect is similar to a mojiganga, a traditional giant puppet of paper mache, but much more 21st century.
While both alebrijes and mojigangas are painted in bright colors, the neon colors of the lighted alebrijes outdo tradition.
These giant puppet creatures are regularly exhibit at MAP during the monthly Night of the Museums event which takes place on the last Wednesday of the month. (Dates for the rest of 2016 are 31 Aug, 28 Sept, 26 Oct, 30 Nov and 14 Dec.) Despite their regular showing, the lighted creatures continue to be a big hit, with lines to enter the museum stretching over a block just to see the creatures move, and of course take selfies with them.
They are also lent and rented out for various public and private events, especially at night, which allows them to be fully appreciated.
All photos by Alejandro Linares or Leigh Thelmadatter
Held at the El Refugio Cultural Center in Tlaquepaque, Jalisco, it is not geared towards tourists and collectors but rather wholesale buyers, especially foreign. While members of the public can enter for a fee, the event is not generally promoted through the mass media.
Instead, the buyers are retailers, with about 60% from Mexico, but the event works to attracts buyers from Canada, the United States and Europe with all information and services in Spanish and English.
Promotional video in English
It was founded about 30 years ago, starting with only 20 vendors. Today, it can attract up to 200 from over 20 Mexican states, making it one of the largest and most important events of its kind in Latin America. Some states, like Guanajuato, sponsor a number of their artisans to participate. All vendors are traditional artisans and/or small producers, and all products are 100% made in Mexico.
While there are traditional and indigenous designs to be found, the events does seem to favor to those who adapt and modernize these designs. The event offers the annual ENART Award, given to artisans with the best and most innovative designs. This seems logical since the event is located and sponsored in this region of Mexico, whose crafts traditions include both old and new.
For most of us, the early 20’s is a time when we look to find our own identities, yet are aware how much we are a product of our upbringing (whether we like it or not).
For Ricardo Ángeles, this struggle may be more difficult than for many others, as he is the son of the famous alebrije makers Jacobo and Maria Ángeles of San Martín Tilcajete, Oaxaca… a town defined wooden animals painted in vibrant hues and intricate designs.
He began working in his parents’ workshop at an early age, apprenticing the way many of his generation have in his small hometown. Making the alebrijes is how he learned to draw and paint. However much of this work is tedious and repetitive, especially if the workshop relies heavily on repeating traditional designs. Ricardo told me that a number his friends have felt trapped both by the work and the fact that there is little else in the town. Some have rebelled by leaving the craft altogether.
Fortunately, in the Ángeles family there is more flexibility, and by the time Ricardo was 14, his parents had allowed him to begin experimenting with the designs on his alebrijes, taking the basic concepts into new directions.
But his interest in drawing went beyond abstract decoration and into drawing figures. Without access to formal drawing classes, he began by taking photos of the alebrijes in the workshop, then copying the 2D representation on paper. He also studied prints of artists that he likes, copying them to learn how they are made.
In During his pre-teens and adolescence he attended school in the city of Oaxaca. It is not far, but it is far larger than Tilcajete. Here, Ricardo eventually became interested in graffiti along with a number of friends. Opportunities to practice this and other forms of urban art are limited as graffiti is not viewed favorably in the city of Oaxaca, even less in small rural towns. Despite this, Ricardo has created a number of small murals in the city and even in Tilcajete, all with permission.
Two years ago, Ricardo began studying at the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana in Mexico City. For his parents, the important thing was to go to college, for Ricardo it was to go to Mexico City, not only to physically leave Oaxaca but also to become exposed to other ideas and influences. Here, he is studying graphic design and communication. His schooling so far has mostly given him a conceptual framework for what he has learned from the alebrije-making and drawing. This time in Mexico City has allowed him to learn about more kinds of techniques, such as lithography, and a much wider variety of papers and other supplies than are available in Oaxaca. Ángeles tells me that just about all of the money he earns, goes to buying art supplies.
Perhaps most importantly, his time in the megalopolis has given him contact with many graffiti and urban artists.
Despite the fact that his 2D work is most indicative of his talent, it is still only a sideline… and activity to which he can devote waking hours not otherwise dedicated to school (when he is in Mexico City) or duties running the family workshop (when he is in Oaxaca). I do not know when this kid sleeps.
In essence, Ricardo is looking for a way to reinterpret his heritage in a way that allows him to express who he is, and the world of his generation.
Although he started by drawing on paper, which he still does, he preferred format is large-scale, murals on walls and gigantic canvases, prompting his parents to add a large studio for him on the family compound.
His experiences in Oaxaca and Mexico City have allowed him to start reinterpreting the traditions he learned working at his parents workshop. His main challenge is adapting the traditional animal and abstract symbols of the Zapotec world of Oaxacan alebrijes to a two-dimensional format, changing the form without losing the basic messages. One major change has been that the traditional abstract designs painted on alebrijes are in second plane, with the animals themselves, in much more realistic form, taking the foreground. This allows Ricardo to explore natural elements of the animals such as feathers, scales and fur that traditional alebrije making does not. The animals themselves have symbolic qualities, which extend from the pre Hispanic period when they were considered gods or representatives of gods. This does not mean that the animals are simply realistically depicted. They often have symbols on them as well, such as headdresses/crowns. Human elements sometimes appear as well, but are fairly rare.
The background abstractions generally tie the elements together. His compositions always contain one or more circles as a testiment of cyclical nature of existence. His most recent work has shifted to the use of black and white lines, with the occasional use of color. Ricardo states that this use of black and white is to represent duality, but he does also contrast with the traditional use of many bright colors in alebrijes.
Ricardo admits that his parents’ work is the obvious base of his art, but it is also obvious that he is finding ways to go beyond what his parents have done so well. The second strongest influence in his work is that of various graffiti and urban artists of his generation, such as that of Sinaloan artist Mazatl and Belgian artist Roa, especially for his black and white work with animals.
He is a little leary about studying formal artists in depth, concerned about losing originality, but Ricardo did speak in depth about the work of Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, especially his use of circles and color, and mentioned the mural work of Mexicans Siquieros and Jorge Gonzalez Camarena.
At one time in Mesoamerica, feathers, especially those of birds such as the quetzal, were valued like jade and gold, similar to the value feathers had for many indigenous peoples of the Americas.
In Mesoamerica, much of the value was tied to religion, especially to the feathered-serpent god Quetzalcoatl. By the time the Spanish arrived, the most varied and intricate use of feathers in this region was among the Aztecs. the Purhepecha and the Tlaxcaltecs, whose territories were all in central Mexico.
The feathers used were from local and distant sources, with the most prized coming from trade routes leading from Central America. They had a similar value to cocoa beans as a kind of money, since they were light and easy to trade.
The use of feathers varied from being woven into fabric, as decorative elements in garments, as flags to float in the breeze and headdresses. One use of feathers that caught the attention of the conquering Spanish was the painstaking placement of tiny pieces of feathers on a surface to create a kind of painting, often on shield and headdresses.
Cortes sent examples of these to Spain as gifts to the king and others, and even sent a number to Asia. Eventually feathered garments and paintings made their way to a number of European royal families and even to the Vatican. For this reason, most of oldest and best surviving pieces of Mexican featherwork are in European museums.
Instead of destroying the craft (given its religious significance), the Europeans decided to co-opt it in the first century of the colonial period. Native artisans, however, had to stop creating the old designs in favor of images related to the new religion. Sometimes old indigenous abstract elements can be detected along the edges.
The “golden age” of featherwork in colonial Mexico lasted only until the very beginning of the 17th century. The main reason for this was that the Spanish upper caste began to disdain indigenous handcrafts, and much of the religious imagery was produced using oils. Another problem was the serious depletion of the fine feathers of tropical wild birds which gave pre Hispanic and early colonial feather paintings their color and shine.
Featherwork never completely died out, but has never regained its former stature. Feathers are still used on some traditional garments, especially the edges of huipils in Chiapas and the fringes of rebozos in Michoacan. They can also be seen in the garb worn by many traditional dancers, such as the concheros, who can be regularly seen on Mexico City’s main plaza (Zocalo) and other areas. There are even some places that still make feather painting and similar items, but mostly use dyed feathers from domesticated fowl.
It is not possible to return to the making of the early colonial work with tropical bird feathers, primarily because of environmental reasons. Fortunately, the musuems which do have these irreplaceable centuries-old relics have been able to preserve them fairly well.
The featured image is a replica of the so-called Montezuma’s headdress at the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Credit Thomas Ledl
The Gutierrez family workshop in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca is one of many which weave wool rugs and other textiles in the town… about 75% are involved in this cottage industry in some way. However, the Gutierrezes have stood out for both Porfirio’s sense of design and sister Juana’s ability with natural dyes.
Porfirio has received much attention for his work, in no small part due to his efforts and determination in promoting his family’s work, taking advantage of his excellent English and U.S. contacts. He has spoken about Teotitlan weaving in the US, has a small studio in Ventura, CA and has appeared in numerous publications in Mexisco and the States. In 2016, he was invited to the Smithsonian to collaborate with them.
One thing that is seriously lacking in coverage of the family has been the efforts and talents of Juana Gutierrez. This is not Porfirio’s fault by any stretch.
I had the pleasure and honor to spend about four hours at the family home/workshop on Simon Bolivar Street. I would say at least half of that, and by far most of the demonstration was related to Juana’s work.
More space in the family compound is dedicated to dyeing (and demonstration of dyeing) than even to looms, as Juana provides dyed wool for several family members who work in their own homes. One of the main distinctions of Gutierrez rugs is that all are made with 100% wool yarn that has been colored with natural dyes made from plants and insects sourced in the state of Oaxaca. For the family it is important for environmental and cultural heritage reasons.
Just about all of Teotitlan’s weavers will tell tourists that their rugs are made with natural dyes, but the reality is that only about 12 families still use them… and for important ingredients such as indigo and cochineal, the Gutierrez family is by far the largest consumer. The use of chemical dyes has become an environmental problem as the residue gets into wastewater. It is a cultural issue because ancient knowledge of plants and techniques are being lost.
Juana Gutierrez is an artisan with dyes in the most classic sense. She stated that she did not like school very much, and preferred to work with her parents, from whom she learned the basics of the various plants and the cochineal insect used for traditional dyes starting as a child. However, she has far surpassed her mother’s abilities and even those of her ancesters… simply through years of trial-and-error.
Still using the same basic ingredients (tree moss, Mexican tarragon, zapote and pomegranite fruit, etc., along with indigo and cochineal) she is able to create about 40 colors with almost infinite variations.
As most of the family’s business is now to foreign markets, education about the rugs… how they are made an the significance of the designs. Most of the demonstrations in Teotitlan revolve around dyeing, selecting the ingredients, grinding, adding them to nearly boiling water (often for hours) to make the dye itself. To color the wool, it is dipped in this water-based dye for minutes to up to an hour, depending on how dark the color needs to be.
Certain colors and color variants are made through dyeing more than once – yellow and blue for green, red and blue for purple, as well as the many tones. Juana has developed a set of standardized colors for her family’s work and makes batches of dyed wool based on the design needs of Porfirio and the other weavers.
While most media and foreign tourists have interest in Porfirio, which he has rightfully earned, but he will also be the first to tell you that Juana’s work is even more important than his, having a rare talent and technical expertise.
Rocio Edith Pindter Ortiz is an artist and artisan from San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato. She began her career after graduating Universidad de Guadalajara with a degree in fine arts in 1985, mostly in graphic work and painting canvases with themes for children.
Originally from Mexico City, Pindter moved to San Miguel, and in the early 2000s began to incorporate materials and themes from the area’s handcraft traditions, in particular the use of tin and nickel silver. At first, these were used as frames for her work. However, the positive reception these had eventually made them the center of attention.
The frames grew into nichos (niches) also called retablos (altarpieces), which in Mexican folk Catholic tradition are pieces of metal or wood with the image of a saint painted on them, to be left as an offering. However, Pindter’s nichos are not generally flat and not necessarily religious. She has developed them into a kind of shadow box, with hinged doors, sculpted and painted borders, glass and multiple panels, generally enclosing a singular image, most often that of the Virgin of Guadalupe or Frida Kahlo.
While traditional metals still form the base of these nichos, Pindter’s artistic training and outlook comes into play as well, especially with the addition of “modern” elements such as mirrors, sequins, chains, paper mache, beads, stones and more. However, most of the decoration is painted by hand. It is a mix of traditional and new, which Pindter believes to be important. She believes that updating keeps handcrafts traditions more authentic, rather than trying to recreate and era that has long passed.
The nichos are created in her workshop, located on the roof of her home. All aspects of the shadow boxes are handcrafted from cutting and joining metal and glass to painting and other decoration. The only thing that is not usually made by the workshop are the images which are placed inside. She has about 20 or so people who help out in the workshop, mostly students who come and work after school or on vacations. They work in just about all aspects of production, under Pindter’s supervision.
Although the nichos are the base of her business, she is always experimenting with other items.
Maybe the word “legend” seems a bit too promotional, but there really is no other to describe 83-year-old Gumercindo España’s position and reputation in the Mexican handcrafts world, especially in Guanajuato.
He is called Sshinda (not a typo) or Chinda, often with the honorific “Don,” by just about everyone, from his great grandchildren to governmental authorities. The name is a riff off his given name and the Otomi word for someone who sell entrails. The difference in spelling indicates the lack of the “sh” sound in Spanish.
Don Sshinda has been making wood toys with moving parts the same way that his grandfather (b. 1872) and father taught him over 75 years ago, when he began apprenticing at the tender age of 6.
He is the third generation of his family to make toys, but he specializes in wood. His grandfather made toys with various materials, including a very old clay style called “negros” (black), called such because they were not painted. Initially the family did not specialize in toy making until the grandfather was patronized by a Spanish owner of a local hacienda who liked his work and helped him move into working with wood, reeds and clay. At that time, there was no glue so his grandfather used beeswax to stick pieces together. His grandfather traveled as far as Michoacan and San Luis Potosi to sell, on foot as there was no motorized transport at the time, and even lived for a time in Tlaquepaque, Jalisco to get better prices for his toys.
During the first half of the 20th century, the family began to specialize in working with wood, in particluar the local copalillo wood in the nearby hills of the small town of Juventino Rosas, Guanajuato. Many of the toys his grandfather made were miniatures of farm animals and the implements of rural farm work such as carts. Over time, Don Sshinda and the family have developed other figures, but nothing more modern than what a child of Don Sshinda’s generation can relate to. He has over 300 designs, each with a story, but the most common ones are castles, horses, carrousels, ferris wheels, bullfighers, carts, puppets and figures of “voladores“. As the concept of toys also include festival items, the workshop also makes masks, decorations for Day of the Dead (e.g. Catrinas and skulls), etc.
The toys Sshinda makes are figures, such as people or animals, often set up with levers or other mechanisims to produce simple movements. For example, one bullfighting toy has both the torero and the bull move with the same flip of the lever.Traditionally, these toys were sold at fairs and at civic celebrations as trinkets for children, much the way Asian-made plastics are sold today.Although the family is best known for toys, they have always made other things such as masks, festival decorations and the like.
Although many of today’s artisans have refined their designs, especially painting, to sell to the collectors’ markets, but Sshinda refuses to do this. Paint is still made using local clays and other natural pigments; and is applied quickly and decorative patterns applied with fingers. He even refuses to apply varnish as he believes that any of this will diminish and handcrafted quality of the pieces, which lie in the rustic nature.
One concession to modernity is the use of commercial glue, as it is cheaper and better (and less smelly) than the traditional glue, which was made by boiling down rancid meat and bones from local butcher shops. Has some electric tools, but much of the work is still done by hand.
His work was promoted by Maria Teresa Pomar, for whom he worked for a year in Colima, which led to his work being sold in the United States and Spain. His work and history have earned him national level awards and recognitions, such as being named a “grand master,” included in Grand Masters of Mexican Folk Art, published by Banamex Foundation. He has trained many other artisans, a number of which who are looking to be able to say that they learned from him.
Don Sshinda says that most of his sales are still made from his shop, with most customers being local, but he does have regular clientes from various parts of Guanajuato, Guadalajara and Mexico City. We came to visit unannounced to his workshop located on Adolfo Lopez Mateos Street just behind the San Antonio Church, and were warmly welcomed. Don Sshinda truly enjoys his work, as well as talking about the toys as well as his wealth of stories about the Juventino Rosas area, of which he was the local historian for 3o years.
In other parts of Mexico, the word “mojiganga” refers to giant puppet-like figures worn by dancers, such as those made by Hermes Arroyo in San Miguel Allende.
The word actually can both a puppet and a kind of festival, which most often is a secular street festival or parade, with the purpose of providing levity after a religious observation.
Montage by the Diario de Morelos newspaper
These often have a burlesque atmosphere, making fun of notable figures and others. In Zacualpan de Amilpas, this idea was reinvented over 50 years ago in relation to celebrations of the Virgin of the Rosary on 29 September. While the religous tradition extends much, much further back, the mojigangas began in 1965, very simply with a float and men dressed as women.
Since then, the annual event has become far larger and more expressive with groups of partcipants called “comparsas” competing (in a friendly way) to outdo each other on costumes, floats and more. The comparsas choose a theme for themselves each year (much the way that Carnival krews do), with members dressing in similar or thematically-related get-ups. These range from biblical scenes, to Egyptian gods, to Samurai warriors and more. Comparsas design and finance their own paraphanelia. Most is made by the comparsa members, but if they cannot make something, the work with local craftspeople, in particular those who can sew.
One very interesting development has been the use of cartoneria (paper mache). It is common, along with other materials, for floats, but one use that really stands out is the making of large helmut-like masks, and sometimes even other parts of costumes. The making and use of these helmut/masks can be traced to artisan Flavio Daniel Gutierrez Falfan. Although he gives an uncle credit for inventing them, maestro Flavio has been responsible for popularizing them, teaching many of the young people of the town who participate in comparsas such as Comparsa Zacualpan Mágico.
In the case of this group, the members themselves learn to make the masks and other hard aspects of their costumes, such as swords, shields and one year, samurai armor. These are not thrown together at the last minute. Members work the entire year (finding time among work and other responsibilities) to plan, craft and in the case of clothing, work with local seamstresses.
Comparsa Zacualpan Mágico at the 2015 event
Comparsa Zacualpan Mágico at the 2010 event
The results are impressive, smooth, hard and sturdy pieces with innovative design and painting. Although they will sell pieces after a mojiganga, none are professional “cartoneros.” Nonetheless, their work got them invited to participate in the annual National Cartonería Encounter, where I was lucky enough to pick up one of their animal helmut-masks for only 400 pesos (less than $20USD). I sincerely doubt that they still sell their pieces now for so little.
There is one other interesting recent development in the mojiganga, the appearance of large “alebrijes,” also of paper mache only in the past few years. This is again tracable to maestro Flavio Daniel, who participates regularly in the monumental alebrije parade in Mexico City. Zacualpan’s colorful monsters don´t reach the size (yet) of the ones in Mexico City, but they are still an eye-catching addition.
The mojiganga has become famous enough to attract about 30,000 people, including international visitors from the United States and Europe, so planning ahead is important. It is a tiny town with limited hotels and parking; however it is close to the small city of Cuautla, Morelos and reasonably close to Cuernavaca. This year’s will be held on Sunday 25 September.
The Santa Fe International Folk Art Market runs from Friday night to Sunday afternoon the second weekend of July each year. Festivities start days in advance with galleries and retail shops all over town featuring artisan trunk shows from various parts of the world. (Mark your 2017 calendar for July 14, 15, 16)
Barbara Cleaver brought a collection of vintage Chatino blouses to La Bohemeclothing gallery on Canyon Road, and anyone with a connection to Oaxaca showed up to see what was in store.
Barbara, with her husband Robin, run the Hotel Santa Fe in Puerto Escondido, and are long-time residents of both Santa Fe and Oaxaca. The coffee farm they manage is not far from the Chatino villages near the famed pilgrimage site ofJuquila.
Chatino people have close language and cultural ties to the Zapotec villages of the Oaxaca valley. Their mountain region is rich in natural resources and many work on the organic coffee farms that are an economic mainstay. About 45,000 people speak Chatino. Hundreds of indigenous languages and dialects are still spoken in Oaxaca, which make it culturally rich and diverse. This is reflected in the textiles!
Barbara has personal relationships with the women embroiderers of the region and what she brought to show was the real deal!
The blouses are densely embroidered with crocheted trim. The older pieces are fashioned with cotton threads and the needlework is very fine. Newer pieces reflect changing times and tastes, and include polyester yarns that often have shiny, gold, silver and colored tinsel thread.
We see this trend in other parts of Mexico, too, including the more traditional villages of Chiapas where conservative women love to wear flash!
The shoulder bag — called a morral — is hand-woven and hand-tied (like macrame), and equally as stunning.
Karen Elwell, whose Flickr site documents Oaxaca textiles, says that the flowers and birds border (above) are machine stitched and the parrots and flowers (below) are hand-knotted from the warp threads of the woven bags.
Barbara has many examples of these. I was just too busy looking to take good photos!