See The Drive, Part 1 here
Although best known for the beaches of Acapulco, most of the state of Guerrero is a world away from nightclubs and Spring Breakers. Poor, mountainous and with bad infrastructure, most of the state’s rural (and indigenous) populations still rely on the land and its gifts to survive. Such conditions allow many traditions to survive as well.
Although modern production is heavily influenced by European and even Asian influences, the lacquerware of Olinalá is one of the remaining pockets of an economic activity with pre-Hispanic origins, and used to exist in much of what was Mesoamerica.
The lacquerware of this are comes from two towns, Olinalá proper and the smaller communityof Temalacatzingo, which belongs to the Olinalá municipality (like a township). The style is similar in both, though the production of Temalacatzingo is not quite as sophisticated and its more limited in variety, especializing much in the lacquering of gourds and gourd pieces.
The history of the craft here is well-documented in oral tradition as well as records dating back to the first centuries of the colonial period. Like other handcrafts, it was developed to create wares for local use, generally utilitarian. One local variation was the creation of decorated gourds for holding liquids, carried by indigenouswomen on their heads. Another traditional use was the making of a large chest in which a bride brought a collection of goods meant for the new household. Some of these antique chests can still be found. The making of very fine lacquerware, including pieces with gold leaf, can be traced to the San Francisco de Asís convent in the 17th century.
In the 1920s, the making of lacquered items here was documentedby Rene d’Harmoncourt, but it nearly disappeared by mid century. By the 1960s, only 20 or so master craftsmen were left. Interventions by writers such as Carlos Espejel and Mexican government agencies in the 1970s worked to promote the work to the outside world and preserve techniques and designs. One artisan to greatly benefit from these efforts was Francisco Coronel, who worked to revive a sub-type of Olinalá lacquer called “dorado.” For years, he was the only one producing this type and just about all artisans who do this work today studied under him. His work was gifted by the Mexican government to Queen Elizabeth II during a state visit in the 1970s and later to Pope John Paul II. Coronel won the National Folk Art Prize in 1978 and the National Prize in Sciences and Arts in 2007.
The crafts comeback did not make significant impact on the town’s economy until the late 1980s into the 1990s. Today, Olinalá is Mexico’s largest producer of lacquered items, with the majority of the people involved in the craft in some way. Lacquer faces many of the same challenges that other traditional handcrafts do: principally competition from cheaper imitations and younger generations who look for easier ways to make a better living. But Javier Jimenez of Artesanías Olinalá states that the craft transformed the town from a village with maybe a couple of trucks in the early 1990s to a area economic center; the town center filled with businesses selling furniture, appliances and more to people of the town and the surrounding communities. It is the only community in many miles with a gas station. The craft means that the community is far better off than many of its neighbors who have no other economic options but for agriculture during the rainy season.
The items that are lacquered vary greatly here. Gourd cups such as those made for Aztec nobility for drinking chocolate can still be found, but they are overwhelmed by European-inspired wood items fashioned into utensils, boxes, chests, screens, masks, toys (cars, helicopters, etc.), musical instruments and even entire bedroom or dining room furniture (made to order).
While there has been some concessions to the modern age in both materials and techniques, most artisans still honor the basic techniques and materials of past centuries. Individual pieces can take from weeks to months to make, but much of the reason for that is the drying times needed between stages. Wood pieces are made by local carpinters who cater to lacquer artisans. The best pieces are made with a local tree called olinalué (Lignum aloes), valued for its agreeable scent. However, overharvesting has made this wood expensive and most pieces are now pine, which might be treated with the scented oil.
Lower quality pieces may use commericial oil paints, but traditional wares are treated and colored with lacquers made by the artisans themselves. The best of these are produced from crushed chia seeds but sometimes commercial linseed oil is mixed in as well. The coloring comes from earth pigments which are obtained locally. No matter how the piece is ultimately decorated, all pieces get a base lacquer coat with defines the background color. Unlike other parts of Mexico, these background colors can vary more including white, red, dark blue and black. In traditional workshops even brushes and other tools are made by artisans. It is a marvel the fine work that can be done with simple tools mades from turkey quills, thorns and cat hair.
Olinalá lacquer subdivides three styles. The oldest and more technical is called “rayado” (lit. scratched). The name comes from the use of a agave thorn or quill to etch designs. After the base coat is completely dried, a second coat in a different color is applied and while still somewhat wet, it is removed in places to created figures and abstract designs. The vast majority of pieces done this way are two-toned such as black on red or blue on white. In the hands of skilled artisans, the scratched designs can be so fine as to look like lace, and three or even more colors can be applied in this way. The finished product is not completely smooth. The overcoat created a slightly raised surface. Design elements often include rabbits, birds, flowers and geometric designs.
The other major style is called “dorado” (sometimes “aplicado”), possibly introduced by Franciscans in the 17th century. The name “dorado” (gilded) does not mean that the piece has gold leaf, but it is a nod to a time when pieces of this type could have it. The obvious difference is how the decorative elements appear on the piece and how they are applied. Essentially, they are painted on and are reminiscent of oil paintings. Images include a wide variety of animals and plants (particularly flowers) and even scenes from history. These pieces may have images related to Mexico and even patriotic symbols, but they are not really Mexican. They are closer to designs found in Europe and to some extent, Asia.
The last style is called “punteado” or dotted. This combines main elements applied through the rayado technique. But rather than leave the exposed background color plain, it is filled in by painting tiny dots in the space. This is a 20th century innovation which became popular starting in the 1970s. Like other rayado pieces, animals, flowes and geometric designs prevail, and just about all available space is filled.
When the decoration of the piece is complete, it is covered in a commercial varished to protect it.
Although most pieces are still traditional in form and decoration, but there is innovation in a number of directions. New colors such as pastels have been introducted as well as new and modern design elements such as tigers. Artisans have also experimented with painting designs onto new items for markets such as bottles, handbacks and jewelry. This shows the very strong influence that modern collector’s and tourist markets have on the craft’s evolution.
Just about everyone in Olinalá is involved in the craft in some way, but most labor anonymously in their homes for relatively little money. Pieces are rarely signed and if they are, it is by the person who made the decorative design. This work is usually reserved for adult males in the family. Most artisans learn as children, apprenticeship style, but in the past few years, state and federal agencies have worked to provide training and other help to artisans in more formal settings.
As noted extensively in Part 1, getting to Olinala is not easy. One can buy directly from artisans there and get discounts from between 10% and 50%. But the real benefit is not financial but rather getting a sense of where the lacquerware comes from, the culture and people behind it and how it is made. For this reason, Olinalá does get visitors, even as far away as Europe because of its lacquer. (The town has several basic and inexpensive hotels.) But most people buy Olinala wares through retailers in Mexico and abroad. One notable place is a long-time stand at the gourmet San Juan Market in Mexico City.
My husband and I did consider returning to Mexico City by first driving to Chilpacingo, as the highway between there and home is a first class toll road, but several artisans and other residents dissuaded us, stating emphatically that road to Chilpancingo was far worse than the one we used to arrive. Deciding that we preferred the devil we knew, we took their advice. There had been rain the night before and, believe it or not, make the road worse with new rockslides. Total travel time, without stopping to take photos…. 6.5 hours….