I first wrote about this event six months ago and although this bi-annual event has only been held four times so far, it is already the most important showcase of Mexican indigenous small businesses, including those making handcrafts.
The Expo de los Pueblos Indígenas is held roughly every six months, but does not quite yet have a fixed calendar, as they look to see what dates work best for its promotional purpose.
It’s not a handcraft event per se, instead looking to promote all kinds of goods and services offered by indigenous individuals and groups including prepared food, grocery items such as sauces, salsas, preserves, jerky, chocolate, coffee and much more. They also have a good selection of mezcal from various states, other liquors and a section promoting ecotourism and traditional medicine.
Because handcrafts remain an extremely important part of the economy of indigenous communities, the fair provides a wonderful opportunity for Mexican craft enthusiasts. The event stands out not for its wide variety, but also its quality. Most major Mexican craft traditions are represented here, along with entrepreneurs with new twists on old products and completely new ones.
Its has come to called the Expo Refoma in Mexico City home, and each edition is organized better with a new twist. Just prepared foods takes up an entire floor of the 8 floor convention center, and this time, sections dedicated to honey and Christmas ornaments along with those for coffee, traditional medicine, mezcal and cultural events such as concerts and dance.
Vendors are not only selected for being indigenous but also for the quality of their products. However, the products mostly speak for themselves.
After freezing in Amealco, last Sunday was spent in a warmer climate, in Cuernavaca.
Many foreigners have heard of Cuernavaca, “the land of eternal spring,” principally because there are a number of schools that host students looking to learn Spanish. But the state it is in, Morelos, is almost completely unknown.
Despite bordering Mexico City and being a popular weekend destination for its “capitalinos,” the state has managed to avoid major industrialization and other development…. so far. Tourism development is behind the rest of the country as well, but in the past 5 years or so the state government has been stepping up efforts to promote the state’s natural resources and culture including handcraft traditions.
In 2015, the state and the Autonomous University of the State of Morelos founded the Cuexcomate Festival to promote the state’s cultural heritage in general, especially music. It is a fairly academic event, with concerts, book presentations and mini-conferences. The site is the university’s Los Belenes Cultural Center, a beautiful former colonial style mansion outside of the city center.
Festival site, Los Belenes
Two of the three days has a exhibition and sale of handcrafts and folk art, almost all of which is from the state of Morelos. Morelos’ handcrafts are simple compared to those produced in major tourist areas such as Oaxaca, primarily because they are still mostly produced for local consumption. This is an opportunity to purchase pieces that are still “authentic” in the sense of having been made for their original purposes, rather than for tourists or collectors. A wide range of handcrafts were represented, from items made from volcanic rock, to ceramics to wicker, textiles and candle making. If Morelos is successful over time in promoting the state to visitors, the rustic quality of the work will probably not last.
Candles by Roxana Guerra of Jiutepec (L) and high fire ceramic from El Aguila workshop in Acatlipa (R)
For those who do not like large and crowded venues, Cuexcomate offers an alternative, with no more than a hundred people on the site at any given time. General festival like Cuexcomate allow visitors to experience more than just the handcrafts (even though they take up most of the venue space) allowing to experience the crafts in the context of the culture they are part of.
Since 2011, Mexico has had a national sales event called “El Buen Fin” (The Good Weekend) in November. Based off of the U.S.’s “Black Friday,” it is promoted by various business organizations and the federal government and features sales and special credit deals.
This year it fell on Constitution Day weekend, with Monday the 21st a national holiday. I don’t think it was simply coincidence that there are a number of interesting handcrafts events this weekend in central Mexico.
My husband and I dedicated Saturday to visiting the National Festival of Handcrafted Dolls (Festival Nacional de Muñecas Artesanales) in the high mountain town of Amealco, Querétaro.
The Amealco area is best known for the making of María dolls, and claims to be their place of origin. In 2012, the state and town began sponsoring the Festival, with sees the town’s main plaza filled with stalls selling dolls and other handcrafts as well as food and drink. There is also a contest to choose the best dolls, categorized by material.
Maria dolls everywhere!
Tying ribbons in the hair of a Maria doll, wrapped up against the cold.
There were an estimated 50 or so doll vendors, and not surprisingly, Maria dolls dominated, coming in all sizes and colors, with male and Frida versions also being popular. The Maria image also appeared on ceramic cups, t-shirts, paintings and more. Following the Maria doll is another traditional rag doll of the area, with the main body made by rolling muslin then bending it in half.
There were not many few stands with dolls from other parts of Mexico, although the making of rag dolls in regional and indigenous dress has become popular over the past five years or so. There were stands with dolls or ceramic figures from Cancun (Aluxin), Michoacán, Guanajuato, Mexico City, Aguascalientes and Sinaloa. There were also a fair number of stands selling other kinds of handcrafts.
Dolls from various Mexican states
The contest is held at the municipal doll museum which is just off the plaza. Rag dolls dominated, but there were humanoid figures of ceramic, corn husk, twisted fibers and wood. There was even a commercial doll dressed and face painted as a Catrina of Day of the Dead.
Some of the entries of the contest
Prices ranged from 20 pesos to over 5,000 depending on size and quality of construction. Most medium-sized dolls were selling between 300 and 800 pesos.
One really important point… Amealco in November is very, very cold, especially by Mexican standards. I wore a sweat jacket and stayed barely warm enough IF I stayed out of the wind, which was easier said than done. Weather reports stated temps of 12C but it felt much colder, like a bit above freezing. We asked a couple of locals who said it was about normal for the year.
Quequemitls (top) and pottery (bottom) also from the local area for sale
The Festival is only in its fourth edition and I do hope that it continues and grows to include more variety of doll makers in the future.
One day I was browsing in the La Lagunilla antique market in Mexico City, when some small, hand-painted images depicting the burning Twin Towers jumped out at me.
These were not works of art in the traditional sense. The painting styles were crude at best, none done by professionals, but that is part of the reason they are so special.
They belong to a class of folk art called “ex-votos,” “retablos” or “laminas,” translated into English as votive paintings. The most traditional of these are painted by ordinary people onto sheets of metal such as tin and then left at a church or shrine. These can be made dedicated to a saint, the Virgin Mary, an image of Jesus, or the Holy Spirit but Ive never seen one directed at God, the Father. Sometimes they are petitions but most seem to be to give thanks for a blessing received.
Someone next to me at the market warned that these were copies of votive paintings, not real one, which made me feel better about buying one… as I wasn´t treating someone’s heartfelt expression as a decorative item. But on the other hand, churches and shrines have limited space and cannot keep all of the votive paintings they receive, so they sell old ones.
Since the early 20th century, they have become collectors’ items, not only for their aesthetics, but also cultural value. They have influenced the development of 20th century Mexican art, with even Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo amassing large collections and using elements from them in their work, such as the bottom description in a portrait of Wilhelm Kalhlo.
Many of the petitions and thanks are for blessings one would expect, such as recovering from an illness, to economic fortune or giving birth to a child. Some have themes one would definitely not expect for something related to religion, such as a lover successfully escaping when a husband returns home, or a prostitute grateful to find a husband despite her (former) profession. Many of these relate to the times in which they are made, with the appearance of car accidents or surviving AIDS and even show social changes, such as homosexuals giving thanks for finding a partner.
These narrative painting generally contain a scene that depicts the situation, with the petitioner prominent, often praying. The deity is depicted above the scene, usually on the right and at the bottom, there is a short narration with the petition or expression of thanks.
Many of these have found their way in public and private collections, but there are a number of shrines, especially in central and southern Mexico (with the strongest colonial heritage) where you can see large numbers of votive painting left for the patron. These include the Sanctuary of Chalma in the State of Mexico, the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe and Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos in Jalisco.
Interestingly enough, I did not buy the votive related to 9/11, as I found the image to be too haunting… but it did give me a sense of just how important and emotional these little paintings are to those who make them.
Featured image: Votive to the Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos dated between 1920 and 1922 at the Tropenmuseum, Netherlands(credit: painter unknown, photograph by Andreas Praefcke) All other votives are by unknown artists. Photographer is the author unless otherwise noted. Image of Frida Kahlo’s painting under fair use.
Many foreigners think Mexico is nothing more than beaches and deserts, perhaps a little jungle thrown in.
However, large areas of central Mexico are in the mountains, making for more temperate, even colder climates, and forests of pine and oaks that rival anything its northern neighbor has.
Tlalpujahua is on the far eastern edge of the state of Michoacan, in high mountains which served as a border between the old Aztec and Purhepecha empires, and today still form the boundary between the states of Michoacan and the State of Mexico. It is a former mining town, today is designated a “Pueblo Mágico” (Magical Town) for its original architecture and nearby monarch butterfly sanctuaries.
The town is surrounded by rugged slopes filled with pine trees, making for an apt setting for what distinguishes economically it from other mining towns in the region, the making of blown glass Christmas ornaments and and other decorations for the holiday.
Tlalpujahua’s mining days are long past, and it was severely depressed for decades. In the 1950s, resident Joaquin Muñoz Orta migrated to the United States, where he worked at an artificial Christmas tree making operation in Chicago. He returned to his hometown in the early 1960s, but there was still no work, so he moved his family to Mexico City where he made and sold these Christmas trees. They sold well enough, but when he added blown glass ornaments to the business, it took off.
By the end of the decade, the family decided to move the business to Tlalpujahua, and today is it the town’s largest ornament producer, Adornos Navideños S.A. de C.V., employing about 1000 people.
The story does not stop there. The success of Adornos Navideños has spurred an entire industry in Tlalpujahua, from families working at home as well as small and large workshops. Production may be small and completely handmade, to larger operations which are semi-industrialized. However, just about all decoration on the glass ornaments is hand-painted, usually by women.
The vast majority of the production is still glass ornaments. Those with no or simple, repetitive designs are usually sold by the dozen, with larger and more artistic pieces sold individually. There are about 300 standard designs with elements such as poinsettias, comets, stars, hearts, diamond patterns stripes and more, but there are also a number of innovative designs, including sports teams’ logos, small figures and scenes inside small clear ornaments, and those make to look like hot air balloons.
Each year, the town holds its annual Feria de la Esfera (lit. Sphere Fair). Unlike most handcraft fairs in Mexico, this one lasts more than a few days, starting in early October and running through December. It is the town’s major economic event and draws crowds, especially on weekends. Tlalpujahua is a day trip by car from Mexico City, Morelia, most of Guanajuato and Querétaro, but it’s worth a weekend, so as to see the town, the butterflies (which begin arriving in October) and of course the stalls that fill various streets and the town’s municipal auditorium.
It is a good opportunity to see the range of ornaments, as well as some surprises. There are a number of stands that sell handcrafts from other parts of Michoacan, local bread specialties and other Christmas decorations, including Christmas tree and reindeer figures made from reeds, wood, pine needles and even pine cones. They also a unique type of Christmas wreath with glass ornaments, ribbon and vegetation over a reed frame that curves in on itself. The town’s craftsmen have also been working on creating new products and promoting ornaments as collectors’ items, with ornament display racks in the shape of Christmas trees, bunches of grapes, piñatas and even ferris wheels, with ornaments are hung and/or bunched up inside the wire frames. They also have some success with other blown glass figures, in particular fruit and flowers.
Tenango Otomi embroidery is probably one of the most visible forms of Mexican embroidery, with samples available in many tourist markets, often on garments and linens. As bright and attractive as it is, what is available in the markets is not indicative of the skills many Otomi women of the state of Hidalgo have.
Elvira Clemente Gómez does some of the finest needlework I have ever seen and is capable of several styles of embroiderly and related stitching. She lives in the tiny town of Santa Mónica, hanging nearly off a cliff in the municipality of Tenango de Doria, Hidalgo.
Like all women here, she began embroidering and other stitching as a young girl, learning from her mother, who learned from her mother and so on, for more generations in this municipality and anyone can count. She began by learning to make pepenados, gathered blouses with yokes that are nearly completely covered in tiny stitching. These are the hardest to make, and the most time consuming, taking up to a year. These are still mostly made for local consumption and worn only on very special occasions. The main reason for this is that they cannot sell the blouses for enough to warrant the time. She then learned to make a number of other items, including the style of embroidery this region is known for.
While she spent a short time in Mexico City, Maestra Elvira’s world is Santa Mónica and she very rarely leaves it. Like others in this area, she makes much of her income doing embroidery, working with three of her five daughters and one granddaughter. However, she is extremely poor, living in a two room cinderblock construction, barely with electricity and with only an outhouse.
Despite the rough surroundings, Maestra Elvira’s work is anything but. She can manage several different types of embroidery thread, from the thick common type, seen on tourist items to very thin, both matte and silk-like. These allow for a wider range of expression and she is not limited to the simple fill technique, but rather can produce a wide variety of textures as well as colores.
However, her work is mostly limited to making embroidered panels, to be sold through middlemen (mainly from neighboring San Pablito) to be used on garments, principally yokes and sleeves. However, she is also able to make large embroidered panels such as one depicting the coffee-growing culture of Puebla. Asked why this is the case, her response is that she does not have the money to buy a sewing machine.
She was recruited for the Festival Anual de Textiles by organizer Yautic Quiroz for her fine work, one of her few forays out of Santa Monica and into Mexico City. Despite very, very spotty Internet and cell phone coverage in Santa Monica due to the terrain, she does have a Facebook page under the name of Bordadora Hñuhu.
In a way, the story of Carmen Caballero Sevilla represents that of many of Mexican’s artisans, past and present… who toil away in anonymity, often making products that are of high quality and/or unique, but never (quite) getting the recognition they deserve.
For a brief shining moment, Caballero’s work did get recognition, by non other Diego Rivera, before falling back into obscurity.
Caballero was born in Celaya, Guanajuato, the daughter of a lieutenant colonel in the Mexican Revolution. He died when she was only five, and she worked with her mother selling fruit in the market.
When she was 18, a cartonero by the name of Gregorio Piedrasanta taught her the basics of the craft, but she went on to develop her own style, by dramatically simplifying the forms. Caballero eventually moved to Mexico City, where she made a living selling fruit and making seasonal cartoneria items in the Abelardo Rodriguez market. Carmen was exceptionally poor. According to art critic Raquel Tibol, she was mistreated by her spouse, but, despite this sad existence, her Judas figures had a element of happiness to them.
It was in the market that none other than Diego Rivera discovered her work in 1955, buying the first of many Judas figures, 2.5 meters high, with a frame of over 150 strips of cane.
Rivera invited her to his studio in San Angel, becoming her patron, and she his “official Judas maker” until the artist’s death only two years later. Here she created Judas and skeletal figures (including one called “Diego at Death”), all one-of-a-kind pieces. Depictions include those of charros, bicyclists, lovers, workers in overalls, Cantinflas and goats. All these pieces were kept by the artist, covering ceilings and walls, as well as taking space on floors and shelves. By the time Caballero died at the age of 58, she left behind one of the largest collections of cartonería objects in the world at the time. Although she likely made thousands of Judas figures, only dozens survive. She never signed her work, as this was not custom for artisans.
Rivera appreciated Carmen’s use of color and compared her work with that of Picasso. The shapes of her pieces are simplified, with the angles created by the frame not only not hidden, they were actually emphasized. Her work appears in several paintings by the artist, including El estudio del pintor and El niño Efrén José Antonio del Pozo a los 12 años (1955). The fame from this work brought in new admirers such as English sculptor Henry Moore, and Mexican photographer Nacho Lopez documented her work.
Unfortunately, this interest did not continue after Rivera’s death. Her fate after that is not known dying sometime in the 1970s. There are stories that claim she died on the street, but this is not verified.
Caballero bore twenty children, but only four reached adulthood. One reason why her work has not survived in the history of cartonería is that the family has died out, according to Pilar Fosado Vazquez, whose family has own Mexico City’s oldest store dedicated to folk art (Victor’s), operating since the 1940s. Carmen’s son José Miranda Caballero also made Judas figures, along with devils and skeletons, selling primarily to the Fosado family until his death in 2006. Although his son, Raymundo Miranda (who also used his grandmother’s surname of Caballero) also followed the tradition, he died tragically young only two years after his father, leaving no one to carry on.
The best monument to Caballero’s work are the large judases that still dominate Rivera’s studio in the San Angel neighborhood of Mexico City, and are emblematic of the space. Here authorities recognize their importance with a looping video which talks about the judases and their creator, among other topics. Others works by Caballero are on display at the Frida Kahlo (Blue) House and the Anahuacalli Museum, both in Coyoacan. Cultural authorities have done some work to preserve her memory, such as the publishing of the book Los Judas de Diego Rivera, created in conjunction with the 2009 exhibition of her work at the National Museum of Popular Culture.
Images of Maestra Carmen by Nacho López, used under fair use
The city of Aguascalientes was founded in the latter 16th century as part of Spanish efforts to expand New Spain northward. By the 18th century, it became a noted producer of polychrome glazed pottery (majolica). This pottery was fairly common in Mexico, generally of a off-white to light yellow tin-based background glaze with decorative elements hand-painted over it in one or more colors. The use of this as dishes, cookware and decorative tiles came to be known as “Mexican ceramic.”
There are regional variations, such as those of Oaxaca, Puebla and Guanajuato and Aguascalientes is no different. Traditional majolica from this state tends to be simpler in design, less influenced by European and Asian pottery but there is definite influence from nearby Guanajuato. The designs tend to indicate movement as well. Color schemes tend to include some combination of blue, cherry red, orange, brown, black, yellow and green. The background color tends to be more yellowish because of local minerals.
Paiting designs (credit I. Puga)
At its height, Aguascalientes was important producer of everyday dishes and such, with production semi-industrialized and supporting large enterprises such as Casa Terán and San Carlos. While the dishware is rare, decorative tiles from this era can be seen on many colonial-era buildings.
The pottery went into decline in the first half of the 20th century, with the last of the old workshops closing their doors in the 1970s.
But that is not the end of the story…
In 2010, Aguascalientes artist Ivan Puga Gonzalez became interested in the old wares through the ceramic work he learned at the Arts Center of Aguascalientes. This began an odessey of research and a process of trial and error, not only to bring back the making of the old styles, but to introduce new ones as well.
Puga’s research has consisted of reading, examening old pottery and talking to those who still remember the old workshops. It has not been easy. There are no major collections of the old Aguascalientes wares in Mexico, with items of any note at Museum of International Folk Art in New Mexico. This research is ongoing, especially the search for intact pre 1970s pieces.
His work has focused on how the pottery was molded, glazed, decorated and fired, and is able to reproduce the wares fairly authentically. The use of locally-mined clay, molding and to a large extent, firing, is what was done in the past. The main difference is the glazes, which are industrially produced for economic reasons.
Sales of his pottery started soon after he began production through word of mouth. Today, he is still the only maker of Aguascalientes pottery, working alone with the exception of help from his family. Most clients are foriegn tourists, who he says have more appreciation for the work and are willing to pay better prices. However, he does make some local sales, mostly to restaurants, hotels and galleries.
Designs of his pieces range from the purely traditional to new designs, based on patterns and imagery related to Aguascalientes. Most are utilitarian items, but he does make some decorative pieces as well as those which are purely artistic. All pieces/sets are unique, signed and numbered by the artist.As an artist, he believes there is a connection to handcrafts traditions, as both require full dedication of the creator. His artistic training influences his handcrafts, but his handcraft work, as well as rural upbringing, influence his art, be it in ceramic, painting or sculpture.
Despite his young age (34) and short time in production, he has become the main authority on Aguascalientes ceramics and has been invited to present his knowledge in Mexico and abroad. In 2015 the state recognized his work as part of preserving Aguacalientes cultural heritage and received support from them.