Paper and cloth in the north

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This piece was created using pages from an old book found in the trash

Noted dollmaker Mayra René calls Bertha Garcia the “queen” of cartonería in northeastern Mexico.

Garcia began working with paper in 1989. At that time, she and other women in her family decided to do something with the stacks of old newspaper that her grandmother had in her house. Their first idea was to roll strips of this paper and weave them to make decorative baskets, painting/dying them with a mixture of Elmer’s glue and coffee. For some time, grandma’s house smelled quite strongly of coffee.

Her grandmother also made and sold cookies, so it was natural to put the two together and sell small baskets filled with cookies and other treats. They branched out into making other items, such as tortilla holders, picture frames, and more. Even one of her uncles became involved in the activity, eventually figuring out how to make an image of Christ with the technique.

 

 

L:Bride doll that Garcia made for a friend using a piece of her wedding dress. R: Catrina doll viewed from behind

Garcia became intrigued with the possibilities of working with old paper, and despite her young age (and lack of Internet) began looking for other techniques. She discovered cartonería even though this Mexican paper mache had not been traditional in the north of the country. With no one to teach her, she taught herself, starting by making the skeletal figures called Catrinas. Later she went on to making articulated dolls known as Lupitas, but she simply calls them dolls. When she entered college to study psychology, she began selling her creations at school. During her school years, she also studied dramatic arts for a time. In this program, she learned paper mache technique for the making of puppets.

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Experimental mask

Since then, Garcia has worked to integrate everything she has learned as she continues to develop and refine her craft. Her repertoire has expanded to include masks, dragons, alebrijes and more to complement her dolls and Catrinas, which continue to become more refined and more adapted to the North’s distinct regional culture. To this end, she has even made contact with Leonardo Linares, of the Pedro Linares family in Mexico City.

Initially, the craft was a part-time vocation for Garcia, working a more mundane job to pay the bills, but eventually Garcia was able to shift to doing what she loves full-time Galería 44 Creaciones , founded in Apodaca (just outside Monterrey) specifically to teach cartonería in the Monterrey area and educate people here about its history, its traditions and the innovations that are possible with this technique. It is important to note here that the only long-term use of paper-and-paste work in the north has been the making of piñatas and there has been some innovation here, such as painting the piñatas in various designs instead of using crepe paper. However, Garcia admits that there is not yet any serious organization of these artisans as it happening in the center and south of the country.

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Hipster dolls created as part of a workshop given with doll maker Mayra René

But Garcia’s creativity has not stopped there. Some years ago, Garcia met and allied with dollmaker Mayra René of Reynosa, Tamaulipas and began to work with her. About 3 or 4 years ago, she also began to make cloth dolls. There is some tradition of this in the north of Mexico. Her mother, aunts and grandmother all made dolls in styles called Lúlu and Negrita using crocheted yarn and styrofoam balls to sell. However, she did not participate in this activity. Her (and René’s) work goes way beyond this to much more sophisticated techniques generally using poplin and other commercial fabric. In both media, the aim is to make fantastic creatures or images from traditional Mexican culture such as Catrinas.

 

 

L:One of Garcia’s takes on “Lupita” dolls, note the button usually seen on cloth dolls C:doll made in 1990s with craft and newspaper, most of coloring is Nescafe dissolved in Elmer’s glue R: Another Lupita variation

Today, the making of cloth dolls accounts for about a third of the Galería’s activities. The gallery hosts workshops and other events related to cartoneria and cloth both on their own and with René. One such event is this years “summer camp” (using the English expression) to introduce children to the tradition of transforming mound of paper and glue into puppets, dinosaurs and anything else they can imagine. With René, the Galería hosted a workshop dedicated to making art dolls with a hipster theme.

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One of Garcia’s first cloth mermaids

I will note here with great embarassment that I did not find out about Garcia’s work until well after the deadline for my book Mexican Cartonería: Paper, Paste and Fiesta. If we are fortunate to have a second edition, she will definitely be included.

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All photos and creations by Bertha Garcia, used with permission.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Tenango embroideries as canvases

Since the early 20th century, there has been an exchange between the handcraft and fine arts worlds in Mexico. Although at times there are drawbacks to this exchange, it has mostly been to the benefit of both worlds.

20190621_141155One recent and unusual example of this is an exhibiton that was at the Museo Internacional del Barroco in Puebla called Bordados (Embroideries) by Chilean-born Mexican artist, Carlos Arias. Arias has a long career in Mexico, both an a fine artist and as a art professor at the Universidad de las Américas Puebla. He has worked in traditional media such as sculpture and painting and has done a number of works in textiles as well. However, he is only the second artist I have ever met who has worked with embroidery. He began doing so in the mid 1990s, working with modern embroidery techniques to create images both rustic  and extremely fine. His magnum opus is an ongoing project called Jornadas (Journeys) which is essentially an autobiography from that time to the present.

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The show had this piece in it, but its focus was a series of Tenango embroideries that the artist acquired in the tiny town of San Pablito Pahuatlán, Puebla (just across the border from Tenango, Hidalgo), which he subsequently modified. The artist stated during the opening of the show that one of the aims of the work was to “to play with the disjunctives (mutually exclusive possibilities) of putting on cloth the judgements of fine and popular art.” Arias believes that art should be understandable to the region in which it is produced but at the same time needs to be universal.

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Pahuatlán: tapado

He calls his Tenango embroideries “mestizo interventions,” with the idea of non-indigenous elements are added to something that is indigenous. It is not his first experience with modifying cultural artifacts. A number of years ago, he participated in a collective project where artists modified the traditional gourd cups that were used for drinking pulque in Puebla.

The interventions that Arias presents in the show vary in type and technique. A few have minimal intervention, and others change the visual effect of the traditional piece almost completely.  In those pieces that work best, neither the traditonal pattern nor the “intervention” dominate the other, but rather work together.

One of the least dramatic of the interventions is Pahuatlán: tapado (Pahuatlán: uncovered) where Arias adds a number of falling leaves in various shades of green. The leaves themselves are not a significantly different addition as leaves appear in Tenango embroideries. Their main change is that they are falling, add movement into what is usually a highly stagnant design. It compliments rather than clashes because there is a link between old and new, using plant matter.

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Pahuatlán: Pareja en sombra

Another interesting piece adding movement is Pahuatlán: Pareja en sombra (Pahuatlán: Couple in shadow). Here the canvas is a Tenango that is simply filled with the same flower design placed somewhat randomly on the cloth. In this work, Arias adds the silhouettes of two moving figures in the background, “hiding” behind the flowers. The idea is interesting but it does not seem to work as well as the falling leaves. Something seems to be missing here, but I cannot place my finger on it. But again, the intervention does not clash with the original work, but rather adds to it.

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Pahuatlán Boogie Woogie

In several pieces, Arias adds modern visual techniques, usually of a geometric nature. These are interesting because they add a kind of unification to the piece. Elements in Tenango embroideries are, at most, tied together visually either through left-right symmetry, the use of the same color or the elements ever so slighly touch each other. The separateness of the elements is clearest in large embroideries, such as the ones Arias chose for this series. The intervention here is much more striking than in the first two examples. The traditional and modern elements combine to create an entirely new visual experience, rich and vibrant. Perhaps there are even ideas here for artisans to consider to update the tradition.

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200 pintores

Arias chose as his canvases, cloths that had already been worked on. In doing so, he purposefully brings in a centuries-old tradition. He is not working with a clean slate. Choosing such a canvas means that there are limitations to his creativity. Many of his interventions succeeded, but not all did. In some cases, the added elements distorted or even obscured the traditional elements, making it seem almost like vandalism. In one piece, he embroidered the names of Western fine artists in the white spaces among the traditional elements. This left me wondering why as there is no connection between these artists and Tenango embroidery. Lastly, he had a couple of pieces in which he added very explicit sexual elements. This seemed to be quite an imposition of a modern cultural obsession into one that is simply trying to survive in said modern world.

One other small critique is that there are no credits to the original embroiderers. To be fair, this is difficult to impossible to do. Large projects are often worked on by various people, but more problematically, there is not yesa culture in Mexico of crediting handcraft pieces. Arias bought the pieces in the markets of Pahuatlán with no way of knowing who did what piece. It is highly unlikely that even the vendors knew this. He does give credit to the town of Pahuatlán in which they were bought. Hopefully, in the future, it will be easier to trace the authorship of individual pieces.

Featured image Pahuatlán: Camuflajeado (Pahuatlán: Camouflaged)

Beyond copying

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Souvenir seller in Teotihuacan (Credit Ralf Roletschek)

In the United States, handcrafts are few but those that exist are done by those who are enamoured by the process and/or the product (think quilting). The vast majority of craftspeople in Mexico do not have this luxury. They create in order to sell and pay the bills. That is not to say that other factors do not come into play, but the need to produce something that will sell means that markets have a huge say in what gets made.

Perhaps one of the most glaring examples of this the handcraft work done around the archeological site of Teotihuacan, just north of Mexico City. This huge site is one of Mexico’s major attractions, not only for international tourists but for many day trippers from Mexico City. Most of the local economy is related to the site in one way or another, which includes a huge trade in souvenirs.

This area in the State of Mexico has centuries-old tradition in clay and stone work (especially obsidian), which still exist, but you might never know that with a day visit to the pyramids. After being hounded during the visit by wandering vendors, and perhaps getting ripped off by the eateries outside the main gate, most people never think to visit the neighboring towns such as San Juan Teotihuacan, even though it is designated as a Pueblo Mágico.

So it comes as no surprise that the vast majority of handcrafts that are produced locally skew almost exclusively to the making replicas of pre Hispanic artifacts. Whatever other products were made before Teotihuacan’s current fame have all but died out. In fact, the only things tying what is done now and then are the location/people and the local clay used in manufacture. In one way this is good in that workshops have not disappeared despite Mexico City’s urban sprawl creeping ever nearer. The negative is that most local creativity is stifled by the need to produce souvenirs. Even these souvenirs are mostly limited to those with human and/or animal faces rather than ancient utilitarian pottery.

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Clay minatures by Amauri Galicia of San Juan Teotihuacan

However, there are some signs that at least some local artisans are looking beyond making copies. The Galicia brothers are descended from one father whose family has been involved in pottery for many generations in San Juan Teotihuacan. Like other potters, their work shifted to making figures and other pieces for the tourist market. This market is still absolutely dominates their work. What makes their work stand out is a subtle but very notiable shift from exact copies to those which some level of interpretation. All learned their techniques from the family and eventually most opened up their own workshops, with each over time developing slight differences in the appearance of their work.

 

While the template of most of their pieces are archeologial artifacts, The resulting pieces for sale can vary from a relatively faithful piece to one that is obviously an interpretation. Not all of their designs are from Teotihuacan, but can be from other sites in Mexico. For example, a stand by brother Amauri Galicia has several variations off of the funeral mask of King Pakal from Palenque, Chiapas, adding or taking off ornaments and painting in different color schemes.

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Two versions of a King Pakal mask

Santiago and Eziquio Galicia’s work has been recognized by publications such as Mexico Desconocido and others such as Amauri are regularly invited to regional fairs and other events where their wares stand out, even among at the San Juan Teotihuacan Obsidian Fair Amauri and his wife, Francisca Aguilar, have been running their workshop for over 30 years, and have traveled to fairs in the state of Mexico, Mexico City, Hidalgo and Puebla to sell their wares. However, despite the moderate recognition the family has, Galicia’s and Aguilar’s children have no interest in continuing it after them.

 

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Whether or not Teotihuacan’s clay crafts can realy get beyond the making of souvenirs will heavily depend on finding and developing markets outside of the around around Teotihuacan. A reinterpretation of ancient designs is not impossible. One needs to see the work of Guillermo Spratling and the silver industry that it sparked in Taxco. Let’s hope that something similar can happen here.

Amauri Galicia and Francisca Aguilar can be contacted at 55 1955 6545 or at artesano.teotihuacan@hotmail.com

All works by Amauri Galica and Francisca Aguilar. Photographed and published with permission.

Art dolls on the border

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Gabrielle – a polymer clay and cloth creation

There may be no more important voice for the promotion of  modern and artistic doll making in Mexico than that of Mayra Lopez Menchaca, better known as Mayra René.

Both Rene and her dolls were born on the Mexico/US border in Reynosa, Tamaulipas. This means that they have a cross-border identity, reflecting the reality of life in northern Mexico. The American and European influence is readily apparent, but this does not mean that her work is a copy of that being done in the United States. The dolls show influence from the creative skills of her grandmother, Elvira Oviedo Gaytan, as well as a woman named Ana Victoria Cardenas, who gave her a number of doll patterns. Even some of her influences have a mixed background, such as the work of artist Remedios Varo, a Spanish artist who found refuge in Mexico.

Rene’s focus is not on handcrafted dolls but rather dolls as art. Art dolls are created to excite an emotion in the onlooker, such as pleasure, surprise and even horror. For this reason, they are not toys. The evolution of her work has focused on facial expressions and body language, with the idea that each doll is a kind of sculpture.

Her interest in dolls-as-art and her proximity to the US led her to research was was being done by US doll artists such as Patty Medaris Culea, Barbara Willis, Elinor Pace Baily and Susanna Oroyan, and Rene’s early work strongly show influence from this. But it also shows experimentation to create her own unique style, which included researching cloth dolls in Mexico, especially a series of finely-made dolls from the late 19th century from Puebla. Rene continues to travel to the United States, both to continue to study but also to teach. She insists that her work is not a copy of what is being done in that country, but rather a means to learn techniques and styles to continue making her own unique creations.

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She developed a line of doll with two-dimensional bodies which she christened Liliana’s, after her middle name. The entire doll is made of two pieces of cloth sewn together with fiberfill. The facial features are only the eyes (two dots), a nose in the shape of a v. The hair is made of felt strips.

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Untitled Body of cloth, Face molded from mashed paper

Unlike many artisans (unfortunately), Rene has documented her work, both in patterns and in photography. She considers herself a professional artist specializing in dolls and registered her own trademark in 2005. Mayra René is her professional name, with René taken from the fact that many in her family have had the name, in particular an aunt who was a musician named René Menchaca. She likes how the two sound together.

René believes that the cultural heritage of doll makers do and should reflect in their creations both consciously and unconsciously. This is not limited to one’s ethnic heritage but also to how a creator has grown up and what there other interests are. She has criticized those who publicized pattern books so that people can make dolls that look exactly like the ones that the maker designed. In this case, the copies have no true authorship. She does not understand why people would want to simply copy in such a way. That does not mean she dismisses the work like those who make the María dolls. That is a different tradition with a different purpose.

Rene’s work is not limited to making dolls or even teaching others to make dolls. She has worked to promote the status and visibility of doll making in Mexico as well as handcrafts in the north of the country. The north does not have the same reputation for craft making as the center and south of the country do.  This is mostly due to history. There are no major communities dedicated to a particular craft and most of what is made (with a few notable exceptions) is practical. What does exist suffers from a lack of promotion and knowledge as many of the institutions related to handcrafts and folk art are located in the center of the country.

Her interest in promoting dolls in Mexico led her to finding a number of other doll makers in the country, but there was little-to-no communication among them. Most had no idea what others were doing. Most doll making is classified as a “manualidad” a handcraft not considered to be culturally or artistically important. She has worked to changed that.

downloadOne of her first projects was the book, El Arte de las Muñecas en Tela  (2012, Fundación Asahac) or The Art of Dolls in Cloth. It is the first book of its kind, focusing on doll making in Mexico and for the modern period, art doll making. The book has led to invitations to speak at conferences and to give workshops both in Mexico and the United States. Her workshops have had particular success in the state of Guanajuato with several of her students going on to have careers as doll makers there, exhibiting in museum and selling in cultural venues.

Building on that momentum, Rene and associate Bertha Garcia organized the first Encounter of Creators of Artistic Dolls in Monterrey, Mexico in November 2018. The event attracted about 40 participants, half of whom were foun various other parts of Mexico. The theme of that year was migration and the 89 dolls on display aimed to discuss the issue in an accessible way.

All photos provided by the artist and used with permission

Featured photo: Venado y máscara de Frida (Deer and Frida mask)