Over 150 years of making equipal chairs

While there may be 300+ families making equipal chairs in the small town of Zacoalco, Jalisco, all of them know one particular family workshop, that of José Reyes Laguna Anica. Maestro Laguna’s family has been making equipal chairs and other furniture is the same home workshop for over 150 years.

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The business was started by his father. Initially, Laguna’s thoughts were not in following his father’s footsteps. In the first half of the 20th century in Zacoalco, education was available only until the fourth grade. Laguna attended all four grades with the same teachers, a married couple, who were impressed with the young José and tried to convince his father to let him continue and become a teachers’ assistant. However, the family decided against this, and the maestro began working and apprenticing in the making of the chairs when he was 11 years old.

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Maestro Laguna Reyes

Maestro Laguna learned to do everything related to the making of the chairs, cutting wood, placing the criss-cross slat patterns, stringing seat bases and painting. Well, he learned almost everything. One notable exception is upholstering the seats and backs in leather. Other than the fact that the business always had people who did this work, he is not sure why he never learned.

The family home and workshop is located on Vicente Guerrero Street (near Pino Suarez), a block from the railroad track, still in operation. The work area is in the back of the complex, accessible by passing through family areas and an area that serves as a kind of office and showroom. The center of activity is a semi-covered patio strewn with wood pieces, cane, cord, paints and leather, with various people working at any one time.

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While family still participates in the business, most of the actual work is done by craftspeople that Laguna employs. He insists that all of these craftspeople go through the same learning process that he did as a child. Over the decades, a number of his employees have left to start their own workshops, with some even heading to the US to work in the making and repairing of the chairs. On the other hand, he has a number who have been with him for decades. Laguna does not claim to know why these employees have been so loyal to him. He is quite proud of his current and former employees, insisting that they are the best equipal makers in Zacoalco, far superior to any others.

However, the future of the workshop is not immediately apparent to the casual visitor. Maestro Laguna himself is 82 years old. His wife used to work with him, but has since mostly retired. He has one son who works for him, but most of his work is in delivery, especially in the state of Jalisco.  A daughter participates in production, but it is secondary to job as a teacher.

The main issue for Maestro Laguna is the quality and durability of his products. Traditonal equipal chairs are still made with the two native hard woods for this purpose: palo dulce for the frame and back and rosa panal for the criss-crossed slats that define the furniture.  No filler woods are used and the leather is still pigskin, preferred because it allows air circulation and does not harden and crack the way bovine leather does. Techniques have not changed, from the bending of the palo dulce branches, the weaving of cane and how slats and seats are cut and tied.

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Equipal set in the front patio of the house.

However, this does not mean that the business has not had to make some concessions to modern reality. Traditionally, equipal seats were tied with ixtle cord, made from maguey fiber. Although Laguna still believes that this cord is superior, is it simply not made anymore, so he has had to resort to synthetic. To be sure that the seats remain durable, the workshop as taken to reinforcing them by gluing the slats and some other parts, using a compound that they have developed and still make themselves. In the end, the cord does more to set the pieces in place; the glue is what provides the stability over the long run. Another issue is with the pigskin. Laguna states that the leather available today is not of the same quality as in the past, even though it is often the most expensive element of the chair.

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Craftsman tying rosa panal slats into place for the base of a chair.

Laguna states that the chairs, if cared for, typically last about 20 years and can last up to 30. Usually it is the leather that goes first, but it can be replaced. In fact, part of the workshop’s business is repairing and refurbishing chairs they have sold years before. Some customers insist on having old chairs fixed, even if it is more cost effective to replace them.

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The maestro adding a coat of varnish

Perhaps typical to a man of his age, Laguna spent much of the interview time complaining about the poor quality of the equipals made today, even in Zacoalco, calling them “trash.” He even claims to have seen chairs lose slats as they are being loaded for shipping. He has great respect for his father who insisted on selecting and training craftsmen carefully.

Part of the reason for the low quality goods is that there is now heavy competition among numerous producers. Laguna’s chairs take longer to make and are more expensive to produce, but he refuses to make lower-quality goods. This means that he has to work hard to get and maintain clients, demonstrating to them that the merchandise is worth the extra cost. This is not easy in Mexico, where a strong bargaining culture exists. Despite the difficulty of selling higher quality stuff, he is not especially concerned with the future of the business in this respect.

Over his lifetime, the equipal business in Zacoalco has changed dramatically. The main changes are the quantity and variety of products the town produces. The main driver of this is the furniture’s popularity in Mexican tourist areas and consequently abroad, especially in the United States.

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Center of Zacoalco

The Laguna workshop sells all over Mexico and various nations abroad, making pieces to order. Clients include retailers and restaurants, but most are still individual end-user customers who come to him through word-of-mouth. From the beginning of the family business, Guadalajara has always been a major market for the furniture, but it was the construction of the railroad that allowed the business to grow. At first it allowed easier shipment to Guadalajara and some other cities such as Ciudad Guzman. But it also allowed shipment to the port of Manzanillo, and from there to the northwest of Mexico, where they chairs become very popular, especially in Sonora, Mazatlan, and Puerto Vallarta, all still major markets for the business. The port and train allowed shipping to Tijuana and Mexicali, where chairs are transferred to trucks to cross the border to US markets.

When Laguna was young, Zacoalco was very isolated, then accessibly only by dirt road turnoff from the highway to Talapa from Guadalajara. When the first Americans began to come to his shop, he met them in Guadalajara to escort them because the road was too rough and too hard to navigate. Today, it is quite common to receive foreign visitors. The business now has connections with customers in Japan, Spain, Chile, Brazil and more. However, international business has not always been an easy thing. For example, he had a Japanese client who would insist on him erasing his name and business information that he etches into the chairs, instead putting a label that said “Made in Japan” in a prominent position. He did do this for a time, but eventually was able to refuse and let the client go.

 

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While evidence of design innovation can be seen in other Zacoalco workshops, it is particularly noticeable in Laguna’s. Many of the pieces used and on display in the house/workshop are not traditional designs. Many are typical Mexican rustic furniture, with the traditional criss-crossed slats of rosa panal as decoration. The main reason for the innovation is market demand, with clients asking for bedroom sets, desks, dining room tables, book cases and more. For these pieces, arrangements are made with local carpenters who made the base in pine, with the workshop adding the final elements (generally slats, possibly leather, and varnish).  Laguna has no problems with the creation of these new products but leaves most the design and execution of these pieces to his craftsmen.

 

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Despite his age, Laguna has no thoughts of retirement. He says this is not possible as the workshop runs on a thin margin. He says he pays his craftspeople better than average, but there is no retirement package for either the family or the workers.  The closest to retirement is what he does now, supervising (which is says is only minimally needed) and less physically-demanding tasks such as varnishing.

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Exhibition of the crafts of the south/southeast

El Sur/Sureste, su materia y su artesanía is the third and last of a series of temporary exhibitions at the Museo de Arte Popular, located near the Alameda Central in Mexico City. The series aims to highlight the connection between Mexico’s biodiversity (one of the greatest in the world) and its variety of handcrafts.

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The first two concentrated on the north and center of the country. The definition of “south/southeast” starts not too far south of Mexico City, and in reality overlaps politically with the center of the country, sot the exhibition contains items from states such as Veracruz, Puebla and Guerrero. With two of Mexico’s three main handcraft-producing states, Oaxaca and Chiapas, the south of the country in general is defined by having better preserved many of Mexico’s indigenous heritage. 42% of Mexico’s indigenous population living here on about a quarter of the territory.

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Shell mosaic depicting a Veracruz landscape by Eduardo Sanchez

 

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Weaving samples of styles from the Los Altos region of Chiapas by Magdalena and Maria Lopez Lopez  at the exhibition

The region is also home to most of the country’s biodiversity, both because of its tropical nature and that much of it is still very rural with states such as Campeche, Chiapas, Guerrero and Yucatan still 60% or more covered in wild vegetation. The collection and exhibition is a collaborative effort with the Museo de Arte Popular along with FONART, the department of biology of UNAM, several state govenments and environmental groups.

Sea turtle specimin and wood samples from native trees of the region.

The exhibition not only shows exceptional examples of various handcraft traditions, but also exhibits tying their development to local plants and animals, along with the various ethnicities of the region such as the Mayas, Chontals, Zoques, Mixtecs, Zapotecs and more.

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Weaving on backstrap loom in Santo Tomas Jalieza, Oaxaca

The most important items on display here are textiles, pottery and wood items, owing to the wide variety of raw materials for these activities.

The exhibition opened on 25 March and continues until 25 June 2017

Continue for photo essay of the exhibition.

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Lacandon ceremonial huipil from Chiapas, made of tree bark.
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Sheet tin piece “Palmatoria” by  Tirso Juventino Cuevas Velazquez of the city of Oaxaca
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Coiled baskets by Gonzalo Rodriguez Jeronimo of Tapotzingo, Nacajuca, Tabasco (not Sonora!)
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Fish figures from a local reed called “mutuzay” from Tapijulapa, Tabasco
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Crown made from carved bull horn by Martina Nadal Chuc of Campeche
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Details of a lacquered gourd by Francisco Coronel of Olinala, Guerrero
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Huipil by unknown artisan from the Los Altos region of Chiapas

Electronics to paper mache

In general, handcrafts are strongly distinguished from art, although both are creative. In Mexico, that division is not always so rigid. In fact, there are three categories: arte (art), with what we generally call “handcrafts” divided into two important categories “artesanía” and “manualidades.”  Both artesanía and manualidades are items created by hand in a non-industrial manner, but “artesanía” has a higher status for cultural, historic and/or artistic reasons.

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Mural with traditional Mexican pottery by Diego Rivera at the Secretary of Public Education building in Mexico City (Credit:Kgv88)

There have been interactions between the artist and artisan communities of the country. In 1920s, several artists worked to promoted traditional Mexican handcrafts through documentation and political action. From then until the present, artesanía and artisans regularly appear in Mexican art. Artisans have also blurred the lines, using traditional techniques to create exquisite pieces and taking classes in painting and sculpture to take crafts in new directions.

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Carlomagno Pedro Martinez with barro negro pottery mural at the MEAPO museum in Oaxaca (Credit: Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art)

It is not necesarily the material that attracts artists, but rather the shapes, forms and traditions that have been developed with the materials. This includes the humble paper mache or cartoneria.

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Carolina Esparragoza

Carolina Esparragoza s a modern scuptor who has worked in varous mixed media, including electronics, such as a set up of cinescopes for a exhibit called “Memorias” (Memories) in 2015.

 

But she holds a special place in her heart for the low tech cartoneria. It has a long history in Mexico City and some other parts of Mexico. One of the traditions associated with cartoneria is the making of Lupitas. These were hollow paper knock offs of more expensive porcelain dolls made principally for sale at fairs and festivals, popular from the 19th century until they were ultimately replaced by even cheaper plastic dolls in the mid 20th century.

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Traditional Lupita dolls at the Carlos Derramadero workshop in Celaya, Guanajuato

They are still made and generally sold to collectors or to those who had one in their youth, but it is a dying trade. Fascinated by the dolls, and the opportunities they presented for creativity, Esparragoza got funding for the “Miss Lupita” project. The idea was to recruit both experienced cartoneria makers and members of the public to create dolls, using traditional techniques, but with new designs and themes.

 

The project culminated in a kind of “beauty pageant” held at the Talavera Street Cultural Center in the historic center of Mexico City, where the dolls were presented and participants had a chance to talk about their experience making the dolls. The goal of the project was to promote the dolls as a way to teach the value of arts and creativity to the general public. In total, 134 dolls 45cm tall dolls were created depicting dancers, lucha libre figures, mermaids, Godzillas, prostitutes, goddesses, catwomen and a number depicting famous woman such as Frida Kahlo. Each received names such as Siempre Viva, Hanami, La Memoria and others. One was named Andy in tribute to Andy Warhol.

Fotos courtesy of the artist and the Miss Lupita project.

This project ended in 2011, but in the Fall of 2016, Esparragoza set up a new series of workshops for the public. This time the theme was “calaveras or calacas,” animated skeletal figures which are ubiquitous for Day of the Dead (Nov 2), and capture the Mexican attitude towards Death. The name of this project was Rueda tu calavera (Spin your skeleton), which took traditional cartoneria skeletal figures and mounted them on platforms used to animate traditional Mexican toy figures. Adultos and children took six classes with the aim of creating figures that depicts famous figures from Mexico’s cinematic history, all of which able to move using the gears and levers of the platform.

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Fotos courtesy of the artist and the Rueda tu Calavera project.

Projects such as this show not only is even the most humble of Mexico’s handcrafts traditions important to its culture, but show that an artistic sense in an intrical part of “artesanía.”

Carolina Esparragoza was born in Mexico City in 1977 and is a graduate of the prestigious La Esmeralda National School of Painting, Sculpture and Printmaking, She has had professional exhibits of her work in art objects, installations and multimedia since 2000 in Mexico and Argentina.

All photos by Leigh Thelmadatter unless otherwise indicated.

 

 

Artisans’ Day Mexico 2017

March 19th is Artisan Day (Día de Artesanos), when the country celebrates its artisans and handcrafting heritage. This heritage is strongest in areas where indigenous and colonial-era culture has been best-preserved.

LtoR: Talavera pottery, wood toys and a silversmith polishing at the Museo Nacional de Culturas Populares

The majority of cultural institutions related to handcrafts and/or folk culture in Mexico have events on this day, including exhibitions, conferences, dances, fairs and more, often extending into the following weekend, sometimes longer.

LtoR: Peacock “tree of life” from Puebla, jaguar figures from Chiapas and colonial style wood horses from Guanajuato.

A large but typical event associated with the day occurred at the Museo Nacional de Culturas Populares, a federal museum of Mexican folk culture located in the Coyoacan district of Mexico City. Collaborating with the federal agency FONART, the museum held a fair to exhibit and sell tradtional Mexican handcrafts, with 86 artisans from 19 Mexican states participating. There were a large range of goods from textiles, lacquerware, stone carvings, copper, glass, leatherwork, paper mache (cartoneria), toys, tin objects and more.

LtoR: Mazahua embroidery and artisans, wire and reed jewelry from Tabasco and mother-of-pearl incrusted boxes from Hidalgo.

Día de Artesanos is also a good occasion to premiere a new event aimed to promoting a handcrafting tradition.

Mexico very first national reunion of mask makers is taking place on weekends from 18 to 31 March. Organized by Mexico City mask makers and brothers Eduardo and Carlos Garcia, the aim of the event promote and raise the status of mask making in the country.

This first edition exhibits masks made from wood and wax, has a number of talks but the main attraction is the exhibitions of the various dances that the masks are associated wtih. This is only right as it is impossible to divorce the making and wearing of masks in Mexico from the festivals and rituals they are associated with.

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Maestro Alejandro with one of his masks

The artisan of honor at this event is wood mask carver Alejandro Vera Guzman from Santiago Juxtlahuaca, Oaxaca. He specializes in masks depicting the devil for a local dance aptly named “Dance of the Devils.” But these are no ordinary masks. Devil masks are common in Mexico. To obtain their scary or shocking appearance, most artisans rely on bright colors, depictions of blood and/or grotesque features. However, most of Vera’s masks have relatively minimal distortion. Their impact instead comes from their fierce looks. The reason for this is that Vera considers what he does as art, rather than just something to sell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

La Guina

Ojo Seco is a typical rural community in southern Guanajuato. With only around 2,000 people it is built around an old hacienda and its economic identity still centers around the raising of cattle and goats, with one of the main landmarks in the center of town being the communal watering trough. The town holds no surprises as to a location for traditional textile handcrafts.

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Near the center of the small town

With one possible exception.

LaGuina008 (2)Jorge Herrera is her legal name, but she prefers to be called La Guina (“gee-nah”), a pet name given in childhood. She greeting me wearing the full traditional garb for women of the Celaya region, white blouse, large silver earrings, black patterned rebozo, fringed underskirt and red wool overskirt with black embroidery. However, this is not everyday wear, but rather worn on this day for promotional effect. This garb is rarely worn nowadays, only very occasionally for certain festivals. As a young child, she began to do handcrafts with the women in her family, starting with embroidery.

Indeed, embroidery is the mainstay of handcrafts in this area of Celaya, with just about any other textile tradition having died out, replaced by cheaper manufactured goods. Women in Ojo Seco and other communities in this area embroider napkins, tablecloths, curtains, and clothing items, especially rebozos. Originally, this was done for family with the occasional sale but today, most items are made to earn a little extra money. One notable embroidery style consists of a series of densely-packed stitches of high loops on one side. When elements are filled in, these loops are trimmed so that the height above the cloth is even, with an effect similar to that of hooked rugs. Well done pieces of this type do not have a true “wrong” side, it’s simply a question of how much loft the user wants to be shown.

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Right/wrong side (take your pick) of embroidery for a pillowcase at the Guina Herrera home/workshop
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Cross stitch on a rebozo

While most women in Ojo Seco and nearby communities make embroidered items to occasionally sell, it is the Herrera family that has turned it into a business. Guina, her mother and sister work in various parts of the family compound, a series of interconnected living spaces that has been in the family for generations and still houses multiple generations. The decision to take the craft more seriously about 6 years ago was Guina’s, inspired in part by support for the family’s work from the Celaya Casa de Artes. This support comes through their sponsorship to attend various handcraft and cultural events, mostly in the Celaya areas, but they have also traveled as far as Patzcuaro and Mexico City. Through this, they have begun to build both domestic and some international clientele, occasionally shipping items to the United States and Europe.

But Guina’s passion for textiles does not stop with embroidery. When she was 12, she found someone to teach her to art of weaving rebozos on a backstrap loom, which had died out in southern Guanjuato decades earlier. Today, the family weaves both on backstrap and wooden pedal looms, mostly to make rebozos, but also some morrals (a kind of carrying bag) and fajas (a wrap belt). Weaving is done in cotton, follow by wool and acrylics.

(Left: two knotted throw rugs and Right: Guina with a woven and embroidered rebozo)

About 25 years ago, Guina read about the making of Oriental style knotted rugs in Temoaya, State of Mexico and learned this craft as well, mostly through reading and trial-and-error.

Recent contact with tourist markets have prompted the family to create new merchandise, most notably the creation of rag dolls dressed in the traditional garb of the region.

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La Guina is not only a craftsperson and innovador, but also an unofficial historian for Ojo Seco. She is full of historical knowledge of the area, its traditions and legends, including very interesting ones related to local people fighting off marauding bandits and tales of treasures buried in the surrounding low mountains.

(Left:Guina at pedal loom, Center: pottery and arrowheads from nearby hills and Right: Guina demonstrating the common watering trough fed by the main local spring)

LaGuina002The family’s economy is traditional, based on some livestock, the making of cheese and other dairy products along with the handcrafts. (I highly recommend queso fresco made with goat’s milk, much better than the cow’s milk version.) But there are signs that Ojo Seco’s days as an agricultural village are numbered. First, it lies just off a major highway, and second, several industrial parks have been established here, whose employment the younger generations much prefer. One thing that keeps Guina going despite the low pay is the desire to preserve local crafts and traditions, with the hope that some of the next generation will keep these techniques alive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hands for making and performing

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(credit: e-tlaxcala)

Huamantla is one of many hidden gems in Mexico, even though it is only 2 hours northeast of Mexico City. If known by foreigners, it is associated with images of bull-running and giant flower carpets related to the Huamantla, the annual festival in August for the city’s patron saint. However, just off the main square, there is a very special museum which hold another hidden treasure a national museum of puppets.

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While there may have been a form of puppetry in the pre Hispanic period with the use of figurines for ceremonial purposes, the art form in Mexico as we know it today is almost entirely derived from European tradition. It was (and still mostly is) a marginal form of entertainment, mostly for street shows and children. But there have been exceptions.

(Various puppets of the Roseta Aranda collection at the museum)

One came in the 19th century, when a family founded a traveling puppet show called National Puppet Company of the Roseta Aranda Brothers. Founded in mid century, it lasted more than 100 years traveling extensively not only throughout Mexico but also performing in parts of the United States and even in some other countries. At its height, the company not only entertained children and commoners, but also politicians, intellectuals and artists. Over that time, the company made 5,104 marionettes of various types of wood, along with mountains of wardrobes and other paraphenalia.

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Set paraphenalia from the Roseta Aranda company

Another surge in prominence occured in the first half of the 2oth century, after the end of the Mexican Revolution. From the 1920s to the 1950s, the federal government invested heavily in the arts, much of which was to promote a new sense of Mexican identity, one that also promoted the legitimacy of the new social order. The best-known of these efforts was Mexican Muralism, but there were other areas as well. Lola Cueto (1897-1978) was a Mexican artist of this period, who learned the making of puppets along with her husband, sculptor Germán Cueto in Paris. However, only Lola pursued it after their return to Mexico. While she was also a printmaker and painter, she became best known for work in the making of puppets and sets. Most of her work sponsored by the federal govenment, with shows to promote basic literacy.

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Cloth bull puppet by Lola Cueto at the museum

The National Puppet Museum was founded in 1991 in a centuries-old house just off the main square of Huamantla. The basis of the museum is the collection of the Roseta Aranda Brothers company, but its mission is much broader than just preserving this remarkable collection. It is dedicated to preserving all of Mexico’s puppetry history, demonstrate its place in the world and promote the crafts/art of both puppet making and puppet theater.

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100+ piece marionette orchestra by María Luis Sámano
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Giant serpent puppet on a stairwell of the museum.

The museum has 18 halls over 3 floors. Only a very small portion of the Roseta Aranda collection is exhibited (with its special section). Instead halls are dedicated to the history of puppetry in Mexico with items dating as far back as the Teotihuacan period to the present. The displays include puppets of wood, cloth, foam and other modern materials, arranged indivually or in scenes. Mexican puppets include those depicting various indigenous people, local Huamantla celebrities, the Roseta Aranda brothers, historic figures such as Benito Juarez and icons such as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. There are also rooms dedicated to puppets from other parts of the world, modern and antique from places such as Japan, China, Canada, Scotland, Poland, Cuba and various African countries.

It is a working space as well with shows, restauration activities, a research library, audiovisual and areas for children’s workshops.

It is well worth a visit when you are in Huamantla.

Location:

Parque Juárez #15, Colonia Centro, Huamantla

Telephone

01 (247) 472 1033

Hours

Tuesday to Saturday 10:00 to 17:00
Sunday : 10:00 to 15:00

Cost

$20.00 pesof for adults
$ 5.00 for children

(Photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise noted)

Black clay as art

While the town of San Bartolo Coyotepec, Oaxaca has a number of notable artisans who work with its famous barro negro, two names are absolutely essential. Doña Rosa, profiled earlier in this blog, and Carlomagno Pedro Martinez.

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Parish of San Bartolo, barro negro pots adorn the gate and fence columns.

Doña Rosa may have invented and popularized the now-dominant technique  which makes the finished product a highly-polished black, but Pedro has expanded what can be made, reaching into the realm of art.

Pedro is the son of two local potters, but no relation to Doña Rosa. His highly unusual first name comes from the fact that his was named after Charlemagne, who his paternal grandmother admired greatly.  The kingly name is contrasted by his demeanor. He is a man of few words, modest, who is happiest working and talking about the art and culture of his region.

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Skeletal figure before firing at the Pedro workshop

He began working with the clay as a small child but developed a preference for the creation of figures, imitating Aztec warriors, Mexican soldiers and other figures he saw in books. The ability to stretch into art came when he was 18, enrolling in the Rufino Tamayo Workshop in the city of Oaxaca (named after a famous Mexican muralist). His work soon attracted notice, eventualy winning awards on the national level such as the Premio Nacional de La Juventud Presidencia de la República in 1987. This led to a scholarship to study art in the United States.

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Carlomagno and sister Adelina giving a talk in the family workshop in San Bartolo.

Like many artisans, Pedro finds inspiration in the life and culture of Oaxaca, especialy his hometown. But unlike many artisans, he sees working in clay as a means to express his emotions, much like painting and writing, rather than just making things to sell. One common theme that appears in his work is death and Mexican attitudes towards it, meaning that it is not depicted as something horrible or grotesque. This expressiveness has earned him commissions allowing for large works, including murals such as the 2008 work that covers a portion of the Baseball Academy in San Bartolo.

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Tzompantli, by Pedro Martinez, in the MEAPO museum of Oaxaca

Despite the loftiness of his pieces, the environment in which they are created and techniques are very similar to those of his parents. The workshop is part of the main family house, not much more than 4 cinderblock walls and a roof (though significantly larger than most workshops). Pieces are worked on old wood tables and if spinning is desired, Pedro still uses the traditional proto-potters wheel of the region. This is simply a plate balanced over an inverted curved plate or bowl, which requires skill in turning.

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Proto potters’ wheel in the workshop of Pedro Martinez

Pedro’s reputation is such that when the state of Oaxaca decided to open its handcraft museum over a decade ago, it was placed just off the main square of San Bartolo and Pedro was named its director. To this day, Pedro divides his time betweent the museum and comissions for works for museums, galleries and other organiziation in Mexico and abroad.

 

All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia or Leigh Thelmadatter unless otherwise noted.

Featured image courtesy of the Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art.

Weaving tradition

Off the beaten track and yet conveniently located next to a highway, the town of Santo Tomás Jalieza is called the “Pueblo de los Cinturones” (lit. Belt town) because it is best known for its traditional weaving using backstrap looms to make garments such as rebozos, huipils, jackets, napkins, tablecloths bags and more.

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Thomas the Apostle parish

The name Jalieza is from the Zapotec language and means “under the church” likely refering to the parish of the Apostle Thomas that dominates the center of town. The town’s origin is unknown, but it was considered second in importance in the Central Valley region of Oaxaca when the city of Monte Alban was at its height.

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Vendor with woven goods in the handcrafts market

Today it is one of many towns and villages in the warn and dry valley that extends south from the city of Oaxaca, many of which specialize in one or more handcrafts.

It is a very rural town with agriculture still the main economic activity, raising basic staples such as corn, wheat, fruit and cattle. There is also some production of the strong liquor, mezcal. Spanish is dominant, Zapotec is still spoken, especially in homes. Like many other communities, weaving was a domestic occupation, primarily for auto-consumption, later with some sales outside the home. In the 20th century, tourism became a very important industry for this region, and today most crafts are produced for the tourist market.

While Jalieza does weave with other fibers such as wool and acrylics, it is best known for its work in cotton, an important fiber since the pre Hispanic period. The continued use of the backstrap loom is testament to the ancient roots of this tradition. The basis of the tradition was the making of traditional garb, which is based on a blouse, a skirt and a wrap-around belt/girdle. Colors and patterns of traditional women’s dress in the Central Valleys tend to indicate where the wearer is from. For example, women from Jalieza wear red woven belts. They are also noted for the making and wearing of wool skirts for special occasions. The making of these garments, in their numerous variations are also made for others in the Central Valleys, with some sent as far as Guatemala. However, the wearing of local indigenous dress has all but died out, only occasionally visible during certain festivals.

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Woman starting a wrap-around belt in the handcrafts market.

 

Most of the items for sale are a mix of traditional and modern influences.Very elaborate pieces may show images such as those doing the dance of the feathers, but most have geometric and/or simple animal designs. One effort the local government takes is to promote the local textile production. There is a permanent handcrafts market on the main plaza of the town, surrounded by a number of stores which are also dedicated to sales of the same. In this market, especially on weekends when it is fullest, women can be seen working on new pieces on their looms while they simultaneously call out to potential customers.

Unfortunately, sales to these tourists have been very poor, especially from 2006 to the present, because of various teachers’ strikes, which have gained the region a reputation for violence. While all sectors of the Oaxacan economy have suffered, artisans such as these, who live far from any incidents that have happened, can hardly afford the loss in sales. One very simple and direct way to support artisans such as these is to visit these towns and buy directly from them. Jalieza and other towns lie on one of several tour routes and are worth the trip, especially in combination.

Still artisans have not given up and still manage to get goods to markets, relying on middle men and major tourist events such as the annual Guelaguetza festival in July.

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Beautiful monsters

Leave it to Mexico to turn the stuff of nightmares into colorful decorations. After all, this is the land that laughs at both death and the devil.

Alebrijes are brightly colored figures that range from only a few centimeters to up to meters tall. However, the name really refers to two separate but somewhat related handcrafts.

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Pedro Linares and one of his sons, circa 1970 (credit:Judith Bronowski)
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Puppet show recounting Linares’ dream story at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City
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Alebrije with skeletons by Susana Buyo (from Buyo’s website)

The original alebrijes got their start in Mexico City, evolving from the cartoneria/paper mache work of Pedro Linares (1906-1992). The romantic version of the story has monsters with parts of various animals appearing in the fevered dreams of Linares while he was deathly sick, whispering “alebrijes, alebrijes.”  For decades Linares and family stuck to this story, but by the early 1990s research by Susana Masuoka demonstrated that the figures evolved from “Judas figures,” images of the devil made to be destroyed on Holy Saturday. Eventually the family dropped the story as the historical account, but as myth it remains important. Some alebrije makers such as Susana Buyo give them otherworldly attributes such as guardians against bad luck. They even featured for a very short time as protagonists in a cartoon series for children called “Brijes.”

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Creating a monumental alebrije for the parade at the Fábrica de Artes y Oficios Oriente, Mexico City

The paper versions for the most part keep their “monster” aspect, often integrating elements of insects along with other animals and are still painted in bright colors, often with intricate designs. In 2006, the Museo de Arte Popular began an annual parade of monumental-sized alebrijes, with groups of professional and amateur craftspeople vying for prizes. It is by far the museum’s most popular annual event, with local and national media coverage. These alebrijes are made up to 3 meters tall (any higher and they cannot pass under telephone wires) and up t0 10 meters long. They come with fanciful names, often from Nahuatl, and sometimes with backstories and costumed human entourages.

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Alebrije with costumed attendant at the Monumental Alebrije Parade

The other alebrije tradition grew out of the wood carving traditions of the Central Valleys of Oaxaca. Although a number of local sources here insist that Pedro Linares had Oaxacan roots or familial connections, this is not the case. The Oaxaca version is credited to Manuel Jimenez, who was influenced by the work of Linares. Jimenez’s version is almost always of one recognizable animal, although some may add wings or horns. Carved from a soft local wood called copal, they are also brightly painted with designs which have become so intricate that some artisans have taken to using syringes filled with paint to make fields of tiny dots.

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Mother cat alebrije by Fatima Fuentes of San Martin Tilcajete (credit:Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art)
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Alebrije artisan Jacobo Angeles of San Martin (credit:Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art)

These have become popular with tourists, not only because of their tamer nature but also because Oaxaca is a major tourist destination. While made in various parts of the Central Valleys, there are two communities particularly known for their production: Arrazola, where they originated, and San Martin Tilcajete. However, there is a downside to this craft. The Mexico City version uses waste paper, but the Oaxaca version uses a natural resource which has been heavily depleted, leading to strong regulation regarding the cutting of trees. Some artisans, such as the Angeles family in Tilcajete, have led reforestation campaigns. Another tactic is to take advantage of the painting, which really gives the pieces their value, to decorate other items such as small boxes, crosses and bottles. This is particularly common in Arrazola.

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Painting a small wood box, alebrije-style, in Arrazola

All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia or Leigh Thelmadatter unless otherwise noted.