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.

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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)