Mazahua embroidery is barely known, even by many textile collectors, as it is overshadowed by many other traditions including those of the Huichols, the Otomis of Tenango and the various peoples of Chiapas.
But it does have an important Baroque aesthetic, with symmetrical horizontal bands and heavily stylized elements. The designs are not just handcraft but an expression of Mazahua ideals. Traditional elements of Mazahua embroidery rely heavily on local flora and fauna, such as deer, birds, flowers, and eight-pointed stars called Mazahua stars. Deer figures can be found in various positions and are important because of the animal’s importance in Mazahua cosmology.
These complex patterns are created without guides or tracings on the fabric. Instead craftswomen (and they are almost all women), count threads to keep designs straight and evenly spaced. One unique feature of Mazahua embroidery is the use of decorative stay stitching on the edges of items such as napkins and the like. By far the most common stitch is called “dos aguas, ” a variation of cross-stitch where one diagonal is longer than the other. The stitch can be used to outline elements or fill them in, depending on how the stitches are couched over one another.
A second kind of stitch is pepenado, a kind of very, very fine running stitch, generally restricted to shirts and blouses, and at first glance look like the design is a result of weaving, not embroidery. It is not unique to the Mazahua, but rather a number of central Mexican indigenous peoples use it…. with different variations. This stitch is in danger of disappearing simply because it is so time-consuming.
While the traditional is still the basis of Mazahua embroidery, there is innovation, according to anthropologist and folk art expert Martha Turok. Turok also states that the embroidery has become an art with value apart from the garment it is found on. This trend, which began in the 1970s, has led to embroidery for its own sake, with the creation of miniatures and other pieces for framing. An example of this kind of miniature from 1981 is a featured piece at the exhibit.
Mazahua girls learn to embroider starting at around six years of age, but it is not easy to keep this craft tradition alive. The younger generations are more interested in school, and the far better money they can earn working in nearby industries in the State of Mexico.
One effort to keep Mazahua embroidery relevant in the 21st century is a 20+-year project, Arte Mazahua, by artist Isabel Quijano Leon, and a group of women from the community of San Felipe Santiago. Although Quijano is not a textile designer, she has worked with the women to perserve and update designs, as well as expand the kinds of items that embroidery appear on.
The project’s has had a number of exhibitions in museums such as the Museo de Arte Popular and more recently at the Franz Mayer, both in Mexico City.
The Franz Mayer exhibit was sponored by the institution’s Ruth D. Lechuga Center for Folk Art Studies (headed by Turok), to demonstrate both traditional and more innovative works by this group. The forty pieces on display are from the group (with many for sale) along with another twelve from the museum’s collection. Representied artisans include Juana Martine Policarpo, Angelica Reyes Martinez, Maria Mercedes de Jesus Marin, Matilde Reyes Martine, Lilia Reyes Martinez, Sonia Segunda Esquivel and Cleotilde Cenovio.
The exhibition demonstrates embroidery in traditonal objects such as clothing items, napkins, carrying bags, tablecloths and pillows with some non-tradional ones such as lampshades and even set up specifically for framing.
The Franz Mayer exhibit extends until 25 June.