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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