As I wrote last year during my time in Durango, the north of the country is very overlooked when it comes to handcraft and folk art. The main reason is that the “land of carne asada” simply does not have the history and reputation that the center and south of the country do. The second is that the north is sparsely populated with large expanses between population areas, making traveling to find artisans time- and money-consuming.
I firmly believe there is more here than even the northerners realize.
One wonderful example I had the pleasure to discover is a very new annual event called the Ciclo de Cartonería del Noreste – Arte Emergente (Norteastern Cartonería “Cycle” – An Upcoming Art) which is wholly the work of two tireless women, Mayra Rene and Berta Garcia. Garcia is the paper mache artisan (cartonera) and her story can be seen here.
It is not unusual to have a lone artisan who discovers a technique and works it out for him/herself, and there are quite a few of such in Mexico. What makes these two women truly special is their commitment to this “upcoming art” has spawned a small group who produce work of amazing quality and often originality.
For their second major exhibition, which opened on October 10, 2019, the theme was to emphasize this originality, tying it to the culture of northeast Mexico and in particular the international influence this region has due to its proximity to the United States. The exhibition features three of cartonerías traditional products: alebrijes, Catrinas and Lupita dolls. There were also three masks, but this is an area they still need to explore more.
Two of the products, alebrijes and Catrinas, kept to the traditional forms for the most part. Departures from what is done in the south are somewhat subtle. In the case of alebrijes most of those exhibited were creatures with parts from multiple animals with various and sometimes clashing colors. There were a few that were entirely or almost entirely one animal showing similarities with the Oaxacan alebrijes. Some depicted animals not commonly seen further south such as foxes and bulldogs (very reminicent of ceramic decorations found in department stores). Coloring was somewhat different… less gaudy and more earthy tones appeared, but the most striking difference was the willingness to experiment with texture. “Traditional” alebrijes are smooth, with any kind of texture indicated by the paint. Here small pieces of paper are folded, crimped and/or torn and placed on the “skin” for form scales, gills, and other small details.
Many of the Catrinas on display showed strong influence from further south as this image has been well-known here for a long time. There were three that caught my attention. The first was that of a flamenco dancer. The topic is not too far off from tradition, but the making of a stable figure with an extremely arched back shows a high level of talent by the artist. The second has a traditional body, but the head is inspired Surrealist paintings done in Mexico between the 1930s and 1950s. This and the last example carry masks of living human faces, something that has deeper meaning even if I cannot place my finger on it. The last is that of a mermaid skeleton. The issue of how to mount is cleverly resolved by making the piece wall hanging rather than a statue.
As promising as the above changes seem to be, a distinct identity has most definitely blossomed in the making of Lupita dolls. This is not surprising as Mayra Rene is a noted art doll maker. The range of doll images was astounding, from “baby” forms of traditional Lupitas, to those which are elongated, to male versions, to those depicting women from the mid 20th century.
In addition to the exhibition’s message that there is and should be a regional variation for Monterrey, it also made a strong, if somewhat apologetic statement that said identity is tied to the region’s relationship with the United States. I don’t think there is anything to apologize for. Mexican visual arts have shown strong international influence for many decades without any apologies, and handcrafts by definition, should and do reflect local culture and circumstances. This does mean that much of what is produced will not be what the typical tourist (and often collector) is looking for, but perhaps that is because the typical tourist is wholely unschooled in just how varied Mexican culture truly is and that it, like all other cultures, is changing.