Rescuing a grand collection

Green glazed candle holder (1970) from Patamban, Tangancicuaro, Michoacan at the Querétaro museum

In Mexico, the somewhat dramatic word “rescatar” (lit. rescue) is used to mean to write about something that has fallen into obscurity. But perhaps in this case, “rescue” may be accurate.

Until the 1985 earthquake, Mexico City’s main handcraft museum was the Museo de Artes e Industriales Populares, located on Juarez Street near the Torre Latinoamericana in the city’s historic center. This area was hard-hit by the quake and hosts a monument to it in a plaza at the site of the former Hotel Regis.

The museum’s building was heavily damaged by the earthquake, but it and its collection of handcrafts from all over Mexico, limped along until 1997, when a fire closed the building. The museum disappeared and seemingly, so did its collection.

What happened was the the collection was boxed up and put in storage under the official care of one federal agency or another. Today, it is under the auspices of the Instituto Nacional de Pueblos Indígenas (National Institute of Indigenous Peoples or INPI). The long storage means that the collection was not scattered among other museums or worse, vanished with no trace. However, that does not mean it did not suffer until 15 years ago.

Ceramic pieces at the INPI building in Mexico City

Coming in at over 24,000 pieces, the collection is one of the largest and most important in Mexico, but very few people know about it. Many of the items are jammed into a portion of INPI’s building  in Colonia Xoco in Mexico City… not even a warehouse, but rather a section of the building with the best temperature and humidity attributes for the purpose. With the lack of a warehouse INPI has done the next best thing, the purchase specialized shelving, drawers and packing materials about 4 years ago or so. And none too soon… as another major quake 32 years to the day, shook the city in 2017. Fortunately, the collection suffered only very minor damage.

Display of traditional Otomi garb at the Querétaro museum

By sheer numbers, the most important part of the collection is pottery, followed by textiles.  However, there are some speciality collections that distinguish it from others in the country. It has the most important collection of traditional lacquerware spanning centuries and four states: Chiapas, Guerrero and Michoacan… and even pieces from the state of Durango, which I did not know produced any lacquerware. The oldest piece in INPI’s entire collection is a small lacquerware cabinet from the 17th century. The lacquerware, until a few years ago, was housed in a museum dedicated to it in Chiapa de Corzo, but it was recalled to Mexico City because the facilities could not control temperature and humidity in a environment with extremes in both. Another important sub-collection is that of handcrafts made almost exclusively by indigenous peoples in the north of the country. This is a region that is notoriously ignored by most Mexican folk art collectors, mostly because the center and south have dominated fine handcraft making since before the Spanish arrived.

Musical instruments from the north of Mexico at the INPI building
Antique lacquered plate at the INPI building

That INPI has been tasked with the preservation, and since 2004, the cataloguing and “rescue” of the pieces and their documentation (much of which was lost starting from 1985), means that, ironically, they are taking care of heritage that is mostly made by mestizo hands, not indigenous ones. The task is laborious and extraordinarily slow. Experts are sought through INPI’s other work and contacts to identify where pieces come from and if at all possible, who made them. Such efforts mean that almost all pieces are labeled with what is known (not a given in Mexican museums) but still only 5 to 10% of the pieces have an identified author.

Lacquered gourds and other pieces when they were still at the Lacquerware Museum in Chiapa de Corzo

Despite the loss of pieces and documentation of old museum collection, the collection is important enough to have attracted a number of donations, including major ones from the family of former President Echeverria and one from the Rufino Tamayo family. This last donation is still being counted and catalogued.

Part of the mask collection

Because of its overall anthropological mission, INPI has good support services to go with the collection, including a library with books, sound files and video. These are in a different building in another part of town, but are readily accessible to the public. INPI lacks a major space to exhibit the collection, which is the main reason why it is unknown to the public. It does run some small museums called the Museo Indígena, Antigua Aduana de Peravillo in Mexico City, the Museo Indígena Huatapera in Uruapan, Michoacan and Museo Indígena Queretaro, which house various handcrafts from the collection. But these are institutions dedicated to Mexico’s indigenous heritage, not to handcrafts, per se.

Huipil from Oaxaca

A number of the mestizo pieces are on permanent loan to other museums such as the Museo de Ceramica in Tlaquepaque, and the Folk Art Museums at the University of Colima and in Merida. The rest of the collection is in Colonia Xoco, where it remains available mostly for professional study and for loans to major museums in Mexico and abroad for temporary exhibits. Not all pieces in the collection are available for lending. Those deemed too valuable or too fragile stay in the hands of the agency. Same for those which have not been adequately documented.

With a limited budget and an immense task, perhaps the most impressive part about INPI’s handcraft collection is the people who work with it. Director Octavio Murillo and his staff are the most accessible federal employees I have ever had the pleasure to meet. They answer emails and other communication promptly and are genuinely interested in working with those who care about the collection as they do.


Valuable tree sap in Chiapas

There are only a certain number of ambar mines in the world. They have come about because there are certain conditions that must be right in order to form deposits. First, it is necessary to have forests of trees the exude sap, often as a means of protecting themselves against parasites. This excess sap runs down the trees, gathers on the ground and though runoff, streams and rivers winds up in shallow oceans. This process means that ambar is never really pure tree sap; there will be impurities, but they often raise the value of the ambar, not diminish it. The globs of sap undergo a process of fossilization anywhere from 25 to 50 million years, meaning that the ambar is often from the sap of tree species long extinct. In the case the vast majority of Mexico’s ambar, that collection was in a shallow sea that eventually disappeared to create what is now the Yucatan penninsula, which extends into parts of the state of Chiapas.

Raw and partially worked ambar at the Ambar Museum in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas

Mexico mines a fairly large quanity of ambar but it is not the most productive. That title is for a mine located east of Kaliningrad, Russia, in the Baltic region. It provides 80 to 90% of the world’s ambar, about 300 tons a year. Baltic ambar is also found in Lithuania, Estonia, Poland and occasionally on the shores of Denmark, Norway and the UK.  In the Americas, Chiapas is the largest producer, coming in at about 5 tons per year. However, the largest piece of ambar in the world came from Mexico, weighing 11.7 kilos.

In Mesoamerica, ambar was known and prized in  rituals related to health as well as the funeral rites of nobles and warriors. Pieces have found in tombs in Oaxaca and Chiapas. From that time to the present in Chiapas, ambar has been considered to have protective qualities. It is not unusual today to see newborns with small bracelets of ambar to “protect them from the evil eye.” The fossil is also believed to be effective against asthma, ear and throat infections as well as a means to increase fertility.

Ambar worked into Mesoamerican ear jewelry in San Cristobal.
File:Simojovel en Chiapas.svg
Location of Simojovel, Chiapas

Almost all of Chiapas’s ambar is from  mines located in the rural municipality of Simojovel, accounting for 90% of Mexico’s production. The rest is from adjoining municipalities with a minicule amount from other places. The extraction and sale of raw ambar is the main economic activitiy of the Simojovel, especially since the rise of mass tourism in the 20th century. Mining is still done by hand using picks, axes and hammers as the ground is sandy. Chiapas ambar has its own particular qualities and for this reason, it as received a legal denomination of origin status, the same that tequila has. This is to protect the ambar from that of other places in the world, but also that mined outside of Chiapas. The story of Simojovel’s ambar production has had a downside. There was a major boom in demand for Chiapas ambar from 2012 to 2015, which led to careless exploitation of mines. Although demand has since eased, the municipality is still dealing with the social and environmental fallout from those years.

Ambar necklace Maria Elizabeth Mendoza Estrada of Simojovel, Chiapas

Chiapas ambar comes in a variety of colors ranging from a transparent yellow to a near-black. There are varieties such as red, brown, blue and green, all produced by different impurities. Just about all of Chiapas’s ambar is destined for workshops in the state, and almost all of that is used to make jewelry to sell in the state’s major tourist centers, especially San Cristobal de las Casas, with some going to fine jewelry outlets in other parts of Mexico. One of this ambar’s advantages is that it is one of the world’s hardest, registering between 2.5 and 3 on the Mohs scale. This allows for more precise and complex work and designs. The price of finished ambar pieces depends on a number of factors, including, size, color, age, its working and last, but least, what kinds of foreign matter is trapped within it. Pieces with well-preserved (entire) and/or rare insects or plant matter can raise the value of a piece considerably. Ambar can even contain other animals such as small amphibians. One significant find was that of a frog found in a 25-million year old piece in Simojovel which belongs to the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Because ambar jewelry is extremely popular among both locals and tourists, there is, unfortunately, a significant problem with the sale of fakes. The counterfeits are made either with glass or plastic. Just about all of the “ambar” sold on the streets of San Cristobal is fake. If the price is low, it is most definitely fake as the working of ambar requires specialized training. It is simply not possible to sell finished products at street prices. Some vendors manage to trick the unaware, often by showing that the piece is “authentic” by showing that it does not burn, therefore not of plastic. However, not only does glass not burn, true ambar will burn slightly. One of Chiapas ambar’s unique qualities is that it gives off a pine resin like smell when subjected to flame.

Other ways to tell that an ambar piece is real are to 1) put it in salt water to see if it floats, 2) test it under black light to see if it close or 3) to rub the piece vigourously between the hands to see if its smell appears. However, most of these tests are either impractical or impossible to do before one buys. At point of sale, the best protection is a reputable dealer. In San Cristobal, a visit to the Ambar Museum is highly recommended. They have an amazing collection of over 300 jewelry and other pieces, prize winners from the annual Ambar Competition for the state’s artisans. Inaugurated in 2000, it is the only one of its kind in the Americas and one of very few in the world. It also gives talks and literature about how to buy authentic ambar from reputable outlets (including the museum itself), some of which is in English. Another recommendation is the annual Feria de Ambar, usually held in August or September.

Fossilized leaves in an ambar piece in the Ambar Museum in San Cristobal


All images by Alejandro Linares Garcia except the map by Battroid


The joy of painting Virgins

San Miguel Allende has become globally famous for its huge expat community… one that began with a private art school started in the town that attracted US soldiers with GI Bill money to spend. What is not well known is that the local population is very traditional, and in fact, the whole state of Guanajuato has the reputation of being “mocho”  (stodgy and religious). In San Miguel, tradition translates into a plethora of local festivals, processions and more. This makes the town even more attractive to foreigners, but that is far from the reason why locals preserve public spectacles.

Chichimeca dancers for the feast of Saint Michael (credit:Nan.P.182)

Over the past months, I have been researching a book on foreign artists in Mexico. Not being an art expert, I have done a ton of reading both general and specific. It seems to me that artists are looking for something meaningful and sometimes get quite convoluted in that search, to say the least.



I may have seen in a small group of housewives what many of these artists are looking for. Tucked in a house just off the beaten path of touristy San Miguel Allende is a group of local women (and one gringo), who for 20 yars have met regularly to paint.

The painting in the back is done by the group. The doll is really a cake.


All of the women are traditional housewives ranging in age from 30 to 70-something. They are also joined by one expat, tour guide operator Joseph Toone, who introduced me to them. The group started getting together to do handcrafts and share time together. Then they met an artist named Esperanza Orvañanos from Jalisco whose work they really liked and she began to teach them how to paint on canvas. Originally their work was purely traditional religious imagery. Today, all but one have a strong preference for religious imagery.  Their religious imagery is heavily focused on the Virgin Mary in various aparitions, but images of Jesus (especially as a child) and those of saints appear as well. However, members of the group branch out into other themes, such as flowers, landscapes and other folkloric imagery. In fact, they have done a number of María doll themed book covers for local resident Joseph Toone’s books on San Miguel Allende.

65027129_340527739918619_1914910224028794880_nThey call the oldest member of the group, Lupita Reyes, “Speedy Gonzalez” for her prolific output of paintings. Of the roughly 500 they have produced in all sizes over the years, they are convinced she has produced about 80%. They primarily work in oil, but work in other media such as pastels and acrylics, even mixed media, The mixed media works typically incorporate textiles, a throwback to their handcrafting days.

They spend about 6 or so hours a week painting together, but do not consider themselves commerical artists.  Their religous work is not for sale, instead most are given away and have gone as far as the United States and Europe because of all the international contacts the women have living in San Miguel Allende. After all this time, they still consider themselves students of art using it as a kind of therapy. They have had only one formal exhibition of their work, but this is not a priority for the group. I noticed looking at the paintings in the workshop that there were a variety of styles and levels of talent, but I did not ask who did what. The main reason for this is that there is a comaraderie among the women which leaves no room for competition, and I did not want to intrude on that. In fact, some of the women did not want to be mentioned in this article at all by name.

Images of Maria and Jose dolls  with the parish of Saint Michael

I came away from my visit with these women impressed by the joy they have for their lives, their faith and their painting. It may be a lot to say, and an overeducated cynic like myself feels awkward saying it, but there really is no other way to express it. These women are a great example of religion at its best… providing happiness and a sense of purpose. They are traditional women, but not “mochas”… they have no sense of superiority and are really happy with their lives. It is something those of us who wander spirtually lack, and I admire them for it.



All photos except one are courtesy of Joseph Toone



Black glass of the gods

Monkey drinking vessel from the Museum of Antropology in Mexico City (credit: Dennis Jarvis)

If you have studied anything about Mesoamerican cultures, you probably know what obsidian is. Simply put, it is volcanic glass formed at the end of an eruption when lava cools suddenly. Most finished pieces made of the substance are an opaque and shiny black, but its chemical composition, purity and how it is handled can produce different colors and finishes. Obsidian can appear in dark brown, gold, violet, certain tones of blue, red and some can even been rainbow-colored, white or translucent. In Mexico, one area is noted for producting a green obsidian.

Obsidian has a long history in Mexico and was instrumental in the development a various civilizations here. It main value stemmed from its ability to be flaked into extremely sharp points and blades. These points and blades were used to make weapons of war, such as daggers and a kind of war club called a macuahuitl – wood impregnated with blades of obsidian. Daggers and knives were also used in ritual sacrifices and the mundane task of preparing food.

Mayan spearheads from Palenque at  the Museum of the Americas in Madrid (credit:Simon Burchell)

In the Mesoamerican period, there were two main sources of obsidian. By far the most important was the region north of Mexico City. Control and trade of obsidian was the economic basis of the Teotihuacan civilization, which worked two sites, One was smaller located what is now Otumba, State of Mexico. The most important site, the Sierra de Navajas, is near the city of Pachuca, Hidalgo, and noted for green obsidian.

Teotihuacan’s trade in obsidian extended as far as Maya territory and made the city wealthy. It was not only important for making cutting implements, but was also used to for jewelry and religious objects, many of which have been found in the graves of rulers and warriors.

Obsidian mirror embedded in the atrium cross in San José parish church in Cd. Hidalgo, Michoacan. it was a symbol of the god Tezcatlipoca

Another area that was important as a source of obsidian is Teuchitlan, in the modern state of Jalisco. Through knowledge of this obsidian’s particular properties, it is known that this obsidian was traded to what are now Sinaloa, Nayarit, Guanajuato, Zacatecas, Colima and Michoacan.

With the introduction of steel and other metals, the use of obsidian fell, as it could not compare in durability. Working the material did not resurge here until about 60 or so years ago, prompted by the opening and popularity of the Teotihuacan archeological site. By far, most obsidian work is done in two of the adjoining municipalities, San Juan Teotihuacan and San Martin de las Piramides. There are almost 1,000 artisans in this valley and about a third work in obsidian. Although San Marcos, Jalisco held an obsidian workshop a few years ago, its working has not resurged in western Mexico.

First and second place pieces at the 2019 Obsidian Fair in Teotihuacan. L: by Humberto Hernandez Nieto and R: by Zenaido Joel Ortega Moreno

Interestingly, the most important source of obsidian in the Mesoamerican period continues to be the most important source today. The Sierra de las Navajas (Mountains of the Knives) is still heavily mined and its importance is such that this mountain chain appears on the state seal of Hidalgo. Nearly everyone in the nearby towns such as El Nopalillo work in mining, producing 20 tons of obsidian each month. However, 3/4 of this is exported raw, mostly to China. The remaining quarter supplies artisans in Hidalgo and Teotihuacan.

Mayan mask by Joel Rufino Oliva Olvera using golden obsidian at the Obsidian Fair in Teotihuacan

In Teotihuacan and other ancient cultures, obsidian was considered magical and sacred. It is still considered to have esoteric qualities, with different energies ascribed to the different variants of color. This has made obsidian popular with spas and new age healing centers, creating a market for hand-sized rounded stones for use in massages. However, the vast majority of the obsidian is destined for the souvenir market in the area around Teotihuacan. While this tourism has created a market where none existed before, obsidian is made into cheap trinkets, mostly imitations of pre-Hispanic artifiacts, animal figures and mini-pyramids. It can even include ashtrays. All these tend to be small, mere centimeters in width or height, with the execption of masks, which are of other materials tiled over in obsidian. In many pieces, the obsidian is paired with other stones and mother-of-pearl, making the objects look even more kitsch. However, the great demand has prompted many in the area to change their occupations as making these trinkets pays better than most other manual labor in the area.

L: Untitled sculpture by Silvia Flores Perez and R: “El Sacrificio” by Manuel Sarabia at the Obsidian Fair in Teotihuacan

The tourist means that obsidian work is spreading, primarily northward back toward the main source of obsidian in Hidalgo state. The first to work it in El Nopalillo was Juan Castlan Mata, who began his workshop 1987 after learning the craft in Teotihuacan. He has since gone on to teach others in Nopalillo, and neighboring Santa Monica and Epazoyucan. Today, about half of El Nopalillo makes finished products of obsidian. In addition, the Otomi in El Pañhe, Hidalgo have begun to work with red and black obsidian, taking advantage of visitors to the local El Pañhu archeological site and 16th century monastery.

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-From K’imā with design by David Mendez Sanchez

Obsidian is not an inexpensive material, difficult to mine and handle. Almost always motorized tools are used, with fingers milimeters from spinning saw blades and polishers. Its strong association with souvenirs and the low prices tourist pay has devalued the material. Added to this is the fact that the modern working of the material only goes back a little more than half-a-century with families having no more experience than two or three generations.  New workshops keep appearing, which also impedes the development of finer crafts that take advantage of the stone’s qualities. For this reason, obsidian handcrafts have not become popular in Mexico in general nor with collectors. The dependence on the souvenir market also means that the craft is vulnerable to imitations. A number of aristans in Teotihuacan have complained to authorities about the existence and sale of fake obsidian objects, made with black commerical glass, which they say come from China. It is difficult to distingush between real obsidian and colored glass, but one way to tell is to see that the pieces for sale are too perfectly made and identical. The most common false pieces are bracelets which sell for only 30 pesos, where the real obsidian ones sell for between 50 and 70. Other pieces commonly faked are small pyramids. Artisans state that about 15% of the pieces sold at the archeological site are fake.

Using ancient knapping technique

Using modern tools

Fortunately, there have been efforts to raise the cultural, artistic and economic status of obsidian. These include a registration of the origin of Mexican obsidian and recognition of the craft by federal authorities. Both Teotihuacan and El Nopalillo have begun annual Obsidian Fairs to promote their products, fine piees from the towns of Tecozaulta and Epazoyuan were exhibited in New York in 2018.

More importantly, there have been artisans and others willing to experiment with obsidian to create innovative and finer pieces. Although the Obsidian Fair in Teotihuacan is still disappointing as to the quality of the general vendors (and most venders were NOT of obsidian), the pieces entered for the annual contest show promise. Daniel Juarez of Artesanias Ra Xedí in Hidalgo has gone from pre-Hispanic imitations to those of minimalist design, focusing on the beauty of the material. David Mendez Sanchez, a UNAM design student, created a company k’imā’ which works to create fine products made with obsidian. The idea is to create products that are both innovative but also reflect Mexico’s identity. One innovation is the creation of pieces of obsidian paired with stainless steel. Mendez Sanchez principally works with design and with a number of artisans in the State of Mexico and Hidalgo to produce the finished pieces.  Instagram (@kimadesign). Students from the industrial design program at the Tec de Monterrey in Queretaro have also worked on projects related to obsidian. The project was prompted by the experience that one student had in Cancun, noticing that obsidian artisan could not sell their wares there. They began with tableware such as napkin holders and bowls as part of the school’s annual event dedicated to innovation.

Perhaps the most interesting use of obsidian and the skills of obisidian artisans was the Vochos (Beetles) de Obsidiana de Ecatepec, two old Volkswagon Beetles which have been tiled over in more than 50,000 obisidan pieces and semi-precious stones.  The two vehicles have been named Teotihuacano and Maya and are the brainchild of Hector Garnelo, from Ecatepec just outside of Mexico City. His initial goals with the cars were to get into the Guiness Book of World Records and to show that the talent of local obsidian craftspeople.  The cars are not simply covered black, but they have also pre Hispanic designs on them including Quetzalcoatl, the Sun and Moon Pyramids of Teotihuacan and a funeral mask. The work was done by six master craftsmen and each took about 3 years to do.  Teotihuacano was exhibited in Germany in 2017, on display at the main Volkswagon plant in Wolfsburg and then in Berlin. More tours for the cars are planned in Mexico and the United States.

Featured image: Plate and pestle by Victor Lopez Pelcastre of Nopalillo, Hidalgo for the “Hidalgo, Rituales, Usos y Creaciones” exhibit at the Museo de Arte Popular, Mexico City

Obsidian “disco” ball at the at the ARTESANO 3.0 event at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City