Artistic “dolls”

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Josefina Aguilar in 2016

Despite being called dolls, the muñecas of Josefina Aguilar and her family are anything but playthings.

To the casual visitor to Ocotlan de Morelos, Oaxaca, there is nothing readily visible to indicate that the town is important to the world of Mexican handcrafts and folk art. It is larger than the surrounding communities, with a pleasant square, an interesting museum in the former Santo Domingo monastery, and some really good food to be had in its municipal market (especially the mole coloradito).

But ask anyone about Josefina Aguilar, and you will readily get directions to the family compound on the highway through town, near the Hotel Real de Ocotlan, where she serves as family matriarch. Josefina is the eldest of four sisters (along with Guillermia, Irene and Concepcion) who are known for the making of “muñecas” (lit. dolls), ceramic figures which have become important collectors’ items.

The muñecas trace their lineage to the work of Josefina’s mother, Isaura Alcantara Dia. The family had worked in clay for many generations, making utilitarian items and some religious paraphernalia such angels and candleholders for festivals such as Holy Week. It was Isaura’s idea to start making purely decorative human figures which depict rural life and sensibilities of the Central Valleys south of the city of Oaxaca. Josefina described her mother as “humble, thin, not fastidious (because she did not like that).“ She worked with her husband Jesus Aguilar Revilla, who sketched and painted, often coming up with new designs, which Isaura executed in clay. Unfortunately, Isaura did not have much time to develop her craft as she died in 1969, at the young age of 44.  Isaura and Jesus’s work is still the basis for the work of subsequent generations although each has evolved their own styles, from slight adjustments to somewhat radical departures.

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Figures by various members of the Aguilar family

At the age of eight, Josefina began working with her mother. She worked on utilitarian items as per the family business, but she loved her mother’s work with the muñecas. She started by making parts of the figures, such as arms and heads, but her talent showed early and soon began making her own complete muñecas in all sizes. She worked with her mother until the latter’s death and on her own until she married, garnering national and some international media attention by the time she was in her twenties. She married Jesus Aguilar Revilla, who like his father-in-law, supported and involved himself in his wife’s efforts.

Josefina’s skills and long trajectory have expanded the cultural influence of her work far beyond Ocotlan de Morelos, becoming a grand dame of Mexican folk art. Examples of her work can be seen in various museums in Mexico along with the International Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe, the Rockefeller wing of the San Antonio Art Museum and the Mexican Museums located in San Francisco and Chicago.

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Work in various stages of completion at the J. Aguilar compound

The Aguilar compound today is not where Josefina grew up, although she is from Ocotlan. She and her husband built the first house here, in what was a field outside of the town. (Guillermina has a house next door.) It was here that noted Mexican handcraft and folk art collector Nelson Rockefeller came to visit her and discover her work for himself in the 1970s. Josefina remembers the visit as quite a commotion, with Rockefeller “surrounded by motorcycles, police and everything.”  Impressed, he bought much of her work and exhibited it in the United States, which cemented her reputation in the international Mexican folk art market.

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Calaca (skeletal) figure by Josefina Aguilar (credit:FOFA)

It is important to note that Josefina’s and her family’s work is more than handcraft, it truly is folk art. Not only are the “muñecas” non-utlitarian (a radical departure from traditional Ocotlan pottery), but they are more than just decorative. One idea behind the muñecas is to capture the essence of life in this rural area.. Most of the figures depict life in Ocotlan, often with women in indigenous garb and doing traditional work and other activities such as selling in the market, tending babies, getting married, attending funerals, spooning with boyfriends and participating in all kinds of festivals. She makes individual figures as well as elaborate sets depicting local weddings, funerals, religious processions and traditional festivals.

However, Josefina has not limited herself to only these themes. Others include images of prostitutes (which she always calls “women of the night”) and figures from Mexican history as well as those which make statements against abortion (recently legalized in Mexico). Another relatively recent addition is depiction of Mexican artist and cultural icon Frida Kahlo. These portraits are based on Kahlo’s self-portraits, but she does not do exact copies, rather she makes small reinterpretations, adding peripheral elements such as monkeys, flowers and other animals and/or by changing her dress, usually by making it even more colorful and grandiose. While she makes both male and female figures, it is obvious that the feminine has the more dominant role.

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“Ladies of the night” (granted in broad daylight)
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“El aborto” by the Aguilar family at the workshop

The craft element of the figures remains in the clay itself. It is still mined from the same local pits that previous generations exploited, and preparation work such as purification, grinding, and kneading the wet clay is still done the same way. From here, the process is more artistic. All figures are made completely by hand, no molds are used even though Josefina admits they could make more pieces if they did, even partially. Each piece is unique, Josefina does not limit herself to one body type.  Figures vary both is height and width, depicting fat and thin, tall and short, young and old. Hairstyles on women vary from short to long, from traditional braids to modern cuts.  Sometimes she is asked what kind of piece is her favorite to make, but that is difficult to answer as each piece is original. She does not think of her work in a serial way.  She advises her children “…put a bit of your own life and heart into your pieces that you are making so that you give them a bit of life; if they do not have life, it is a thing, nothing more.” For this reason, all Aguilar pieces have a wide variety of facial expressions, from anger to happiness.

Josefina has not thought much about why her work has been so successful, only that people like her pieces.  Only with the Frida does she offer an opinion about why they are success, stating that she believes, that her depictions are different that most that are available.

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Intertwined trees at the workshop

The craft is now firmly situated as a family tradition, with children and grandchildren involved. Her children also began working young, but not quite as young as her as they went to school. Most which became involved did so because they saw what their mother was doing and became interested. Each has developed their own style, especially in painting and the creation of faces. She says she encouraged this somewhat in part because she continues to experiment with new designs and themes. Most members of the family who have taken up the craft are collected around the world.

Of her nine children, the ones involved in the craft include Demetrio, Rodrigo, José Juan, Fernando, Sergio, Roberto and Leticia. Each of of these and sign their own names to their own work. Sergio works with his wife Alba Noemi, who learned from both her husband and mother-in-law, and whose work rivals anyone else in the family. Not all of the children (and grandchildren) work in the family compound, but their all of their work can be found for sale there. Even some of Josefina’s young grandchildren are involved, and have even won recognition in Oaxaca.

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Alba Noemi at the workshop
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Frida image by Josefina (credit:FOFA)

Today, Josefina Aguilar is well into her eighties. She has suffered diabetes for some time now, which has led to the loss of much of her hair, one reason why she became attracted to images of Frida Kahlo, which have the long, thick braids she used to have. More recently, the condition took her sight as well. Despite this, the artist continues to work as best she can. She is still able to create the basic forms of the muñecas using touch only and still using the same processes she has always used. However, she now relies on her husband and the younger generations to do the tasks she cannot. The creation of the facial expressions, though eyes, nose and mouth are done by others, under her direction, along with fingers. Painting is also done in the same way. Although she could retire, she refuses, saying she needs to work, to keep herself active and also to continue supporting the work of her children and grandchildren.

Featured image is of Josefina in the 2000s (credit:FOFA), all other images by Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise noted.

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