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.
One 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)