On October 29, the Angel Gil Hermida Folk Art Museum in Villahermosa, Tabasco held an unusual and very appropriate memorial for an icon of Mexico’s art world, Francisco Toledo.
Although classified as part of the Ruptura (Breakaway) generation, which rebelled against Mexican muralism, Toledo himself would breakaway from them to found the Oaxaca School of Painting. He returned to imagery from Mexico’s (especially Oaxaca’s) traditions and pre Hispanic past, but in his own way. His art and his activism made Oaxaca a center for art in Mexico.
At first sight, a tzompantli is gruesome. After knowing the story, it is not less so, but here are reasons to associate it with honor. In Mesoamerica, the heads of captured warriors and sacrificial victims were displayed prominently on a rack for this purpose, a tzompantli. But to be a “victim” of sacrifice was not always something to be avoided. Those chosen to “feed” the gods often brought on honor on themselves and their families. The display of their heads honored their loss of life for the good of the community.
Needless to say, this ritual was one of the first to disappear with the Conquest, but the memory never completely died. The concept appeared in art and literature, especially in work since the Mexican Revolution. Associating it with Day of the Dead is extremely easy and it has been in such decorations for at least decades.
What is novel about Fernandez’s work is that this particular skull rack is dedicated to one man, artist Francisco Toledo, who died on September 5, 2019. Normally, honors to a major figure on Day of the Dead come in the form of an altar. Fernandez decided on the tzompantli as a kind of multifacited format that would pay “artistic homage diverse in forms and content.”
Fernandez’s tzompantli may also appeal to his theatrical background. He has been involved in the arts in one way or another since his childhood. By the age of 15, he was making puppets and scenery for his father’s educational puppet troupe called the Taller de Teatro Educativo de Muñecos Animados, which was active in the 1960s and 1970s. Later, he went to art school, but in addition to the typical media of the fine arts, Fernandez still makes and teaches the making of puppets, masks, nativity scene figures and decorative skulls of all kinds.
This is because the maestro was hired in 1988 to work at Tabasco state’s Centro de Estudios de Investigación de Bellas Artes (CEIBA) in Villahermosa. He has since developed his career in this poor state in the southeast of the country, not only as a teacher but also as a cultural promotor. It has included the founding of a number of traditions such as the annual Day of the Dead parade and projects using paper mache and other materials to promote various cultural, social and historical concepts in Tabasco itself and in other parts of Mexico.
One such project was the making of a decorative tzompantli sometimes in the 1980s. In 2012, Fernandez decided to try the idea out in Tabasco, exhibiting the result done with students and other teachers at a cafe in Villahermosa. It has since turned into an annual event, with skulls made from paper mache and decorated with various technique and materials. It also moved from a cafe to the Villahermosa Cultural Center and has state support.
It has been an annual event since, using skulls made from paper mache and decorated with various techniques and materials, eventually moving to the Villahermosa Cultural Center and sponsored by the state.
Previous, tzompantlis had been done similarly to those in other parts of Mexico. Toledo’s sudden death on September 5 shocked the country, none more so than those who work to perserve Mexico’s traditional culture. Fernandez’s put out a call on various social media for contributions of skulls in honor of Toledo and both the artist and artisan communities responded. Tabasco recieved 134 donations of skulls from other 100 creators including those that were drawn, painted, photographed, in relief and mixed media. They came from Mexico City, Oaxaca, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Mrelos and the state of Mexico.
Perhaps most telling about how loved Toledo was is the fact that Mexico’s paper mache/cartoneria community responded to the call. The months before Day of the Dead are by far the busiest for these artisans, whose biggest commissions come at this time of the year. Despite this, skulls for the tzompantli came in from both major centers of production, Mexico City and Celaya, Guanajuato from names such as Silvia Lara, Sergio Cruz, Maricel Martinez and Karel Gorenc.
Francisco Toledo was a charismatic, passionate man who did things his own way. One might be hard pressed to think of a more fitting Day of the Dead tribute to this artist.