A whale’s migration to Mexico City

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Interior of the library with Mobile Matrix in the lower center (Luis Alvaz CC-by-SA 4.0)

The (relatively) new José Vasconcelos Library is a fascinating structure. Entering it, one feels enveloped in a maze of cages, evoking curiosity rather than a sense of entrapment. It is a testament to Mexico’s visual acuity, even if (unfortunately) the expectations it raises are not matched by its book collection.  The building itself is a work of art, and perhaps for this reason, the space is not loaded with various pieces. However, there is one important exception to be found on the ground floor.

From several sets of suspensions there is a whale skeleton hanging in mid air. One might assume that this is a life-sized representation, made with relatively light materials, but this is wrong. It is a real skeleton of a grey whale which weighs 1,696 kilos and 11.69 meters long. The installation is called Mobile Matrix (2006).

The story of these bones is interesting in and of itself, requiring incredible amounts of time, transport and travel, including air, boat, cars and ATVs. In the end, the skeleton traveled from Isla Arena in Baja California to the Valley of Mexico, thousands of kilometers to the east and  over 2,000 km of altitude.

Vista_frontal_de_Mátrix_Móvil_(Gabriel_Orozco)_en_la_Biblioteca_Vasconcelos_03The concept was the brainchild of Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco who is famous for his installation and conceptual art. Obtaining special permission, he entered Isla Arena (part of El Viscaíno Reserve) specifically to find a whale skeleton in the right condition for the work. Orozco and his team traveled to island because it was known that fairly bare grey whale bones can be found in kilometers of nothing but sand dunes. Grey whales give birth in El Viscaíno’s bays and some will beach themselves and die here. Their remains are the property of the government, and trading in them is prohibited.

The team combed the shores of the island to find the right kind of whale carcass. The island is a natural cemetery, hosting all kinds of remains, not just that of whales, as well as vestiges of human activity. Essential in the search was the use of ATV’s, GPS and experts from various Mexican government agencies. They needed a whale carcass that was about two years old so that natural processes would eliminate some but not all of the animals soft tissue. In particular, the outer skin needed to be relatively intact because once that is lost, the bones begin to disperse.

Once the right carcass was found, it was clean with the help of specialists, but the artist and assistants had to also participate in the process to assure a clean surface for the graphite work to come later. Everything was recorded and classified.

The whale then “migrated” to Mexico City, making a stop in the great lobby of the Buenavista subway and commuter rail station.  It provided enough space to work and is right next to the library. Orozco and his team spent months decorating the bones with graphite patterns. When this work was finished, it was hung in its current position, much like a mobile. This act, and the name, is meant to evoke mobiles in children’s rooms as well as the didactic decorations in the classroom.

The graphite work is an intricate blend line grids and circles, and cover the entire skeleton. This feat took over 6000 graphite pencils to complete. This work is best seen on viewed from the front but given its intricacy and position high in the air, most of the graphite designs are not visible. In fact, one needs to go to the piece and look for the graphite work specifically to see any of it.. The graphite patterns have various interpretations, but one is a reference to the decoration of bones (and bones as decoration) that has been practiced in Mexico since the pre Hispanic period. While it is definitely art, it is an artistic work with one foot firmly rooted in Mexico’s handcraft tradition.

All images by Luis Alvaz  (CC-by-SA 4.0)

 

 

 

 

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Children’s dolls for tourists

DSC_0045Mexico had, and to some extent still has, a tradition of traveling theatre, especially puppet shows for children. It is not surprising that I have found a significant number of artisans today who have some kind of connection with this theatre.

Mariana Mayeb is one such artisan. She lives and works in a town called Tultitlán, one of Mexico City’s suburbs to the north. It is solidly middle class, filled with development houses built for commuters. Mayeb’s father had a theatre company some years ago that was dedicated to preserving and promoting Mexican traditions such as those related to Christmas and Day of the Dead. This company made its own puppets, marionettes, masks and scenery. Although the company disappeared before she could grow up with it, it was still part of family identity.

Mayeb’s creative bent took a different path, studying graphic communication, but the swing back to traditional art forms started even here. As part of her college community service, she worked with a program to introduce new design concepts into Mexican handcrafts. After graduating, Mayeb began a career with an optical company doing their publicity, starting her own family in the process. While steady employment, it was both demanding and not particularly satisfying. So she decided to work a bit with a local theatre group. This was very satisfying as the group was dedicated to bringing theatre to very poor rural communities, to people who often had never seen this kind of show before. But it was difficult to balance the needs of a traveling theatre with those of her children.

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An early version of a doll in indigenous dress

Mayeb simply decided that she needed to work for herself, doing something that she could do at home.  She quit the job with the optical company and began working in book design, which lasted for about a year. At the same time, she worked on prototypes of various kinds of products, which led to her first doll, made around 2008. These first dolls were her take on the common Marias, with a somewhat updated look.

Soon, clients began to request other kinds of dolls: those representing mariachis, Adelitas (women soldiers during the Mexican Revolution), Frida Kahlo and more. These requests came from the desire to give such dolls to children and were not readily available. Mayeb realized that there was a niche market here to fill, dolls for children with traditional Mexican imagery.

In most cases, the new versions only required different dress. But one unusual product came from her then very young nieces and nephews and Day of the Dead. She wanted something for them, but decided that the traditional skeletal figures made from cartonería (paper mache) were not appropriate for very small children. So she made a cloth doll version. They were a hit not only with the family, but have since become a staple product of her business.

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Mayeb’s inventory now include a wide variety of dolls and some other products. She still makes her version of Maria dolls, a few others in different types of indigenous dress. She makes other images from Mexico including Catrinas, China Poblana, lucha libre wrestlers and La Llorona as well as some that are not purely Mexican such as mermaids.

DSC_0010She cannot articulate just what her influences are, but the faces of her dolls are painted with a distinctive style. However, her workshop contains a good number of dolls she has collected from other Mexican and foreign craft doll makers, and some of their work is reflected in hers.  Mayeb believes the attraction of her dolls lies in a combination of innovation and classic images, new takes on old imagery.  She has more ideas for dolls than she can possibly develop herself. Some of these ideas include dolls as specialty items for quinceañeras and other major celebrations.

Some of her dolls are high-end with great detail. Most of these she makes herself. The rest of the inventory is more affordable, designed by her but made by employees. The dolls’ bodies are made with a muslin cloth that she orders special from Guadalajara to get the right skin tones. Most of the work goes on the in the Tultitlán workshop, in her parents’ former home. Four work here full time and a couple part time. A number of others work in their own homes as well. All the workers are housewives, often with small children. At the moment, all are contract workers, but one of her projects for the year is to find a way to make at least some of them full employees with the legal benefits.

Despite the fact that she initially designed the dolls for Mexican children, they have become most popular with tourists. Most are sold today through distributors, such as airport and museum shops and those in tourist towns in areas such as Los Cabos and Acapulco. Mayeb also has three stores in the United States that sell her dolls in Chicago, Los Angeles and San Antonio.

There is one online distributor here, and her Facebook page can be found here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mountain mermaids

It is a strange sight, mermaid figures defining formerly small mountain town just west of Mexico City over 500 km from the nearest coast. They are locally called Tlanchanas, a name that comes from Nahuatl meaning “mother spirit from the water.”

Tlanchana3Their origins are not the seas, but rather the shallow lakes that used to dominate this area in the Valley of Toluca marked by the giant, often snow-covered Nevado de Toluca volcano.  The myth is from the Mazatlincan people and predates even the Aztec conquest of this region.  The myth states that the waters of the valley were ruled by a creature that was half woman and half serpent. It was said that at times she could be glimpsed among the reeds and other aquatic vegetation, nude on an island. If she took a liking to a human, she could change her serpent lower half to legs to peruse him. If he refused her advances, she would drag him down to the depths of the water.

When the Spanish conquered the Valley of Toluca, they worked to eradicate all pre-Hispanic beliefs from the native peoples. But the Tlanchana persisted. So the Spanish changed tactics as well as the Tlanchana’s form to that of a European mermaid.

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Tlanchana figure at the Museo de la Casa del Risco in Mexico City (credit: Mexicano 101)

Metepec has a centuries-old tradition of pottery, making both utilitarian and decorative works since long before the conquest. One way to promote the new mermaid figure was to create them in clay. Over time, the disappearance of most of the lakes and wetlands, as well as the growth of the pottery industry, converted the Tlanchana into a symbol of this economic activity as well as local history.

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Tlanchana figure at the Centro Cultural Isidro Fabela in Atlacomulco, State of Mexico (credit Mexicano101)

Today, Metepec is no longer a small rural community but rather a suburb of the city of Toluca and even a bedroom community for western Mexico City. But in some parts of the municipality and surrounding towns, the tradition of pottery making not only still exists but has made the town a “Pueblo Mágico” part of the federal government’s efforts to promote tourism. It is best known for its Trees of Life, but clay mermaid figures are very common, along with plaque depicting the sun and moon. It is definitely worth a day trip from Mexico City to the historic center, both to see the mermaids and to bring home a piece of history.

Featured image by Octavio Alonso Maya CC by SA 3.0 – Tlanchana monument in the main square of Metepec, State of Mexico