Reinterpreting the past for modern homes

Mata Ortiz potters (authors unspecified) on display at the 2010 FONART exhibition in Mexico City

In the 4+ years of this blog, there are a few major topics that have not yet been covered. One of these is Mata Ortiz pottery. The main reason is that I live in Mexico City, though I admit that is only a partial excuse as I lived 11 years in Arizona previously.

Mata Ortiz pottery and just about every other handcraft from the north is all-but ignored here. One reason is that the center and south of the country has an overwhelming number of vibrant craft traditions, many of which have been done, uninterrupted for centuries.

This is not the case for Mata Ortiz pottery. It is a unique reinvention of Mogollon pottery that was native to the area in and around the Casas Grandes archeological site. The story behind it is interesting. The man behind the pottery is Juan Quezada Celado, who lives in the modern town of Mata Ortiz, not far from Casas Grandes.

Valley of Mata Ortiz, Chihuahua
Casa Grandes jug dating from the mid-13th–mid-15th century at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The archeological site is the inspiration of the pottery, but it is far from a simple recreation. As the pottery decoration suggests, the site has far more in common with native cultures in Arizona and New Mexico than anything to do with central Mexico. The Aztec Empire never extended that far north. Casas Grandes reached its height around 1400 but eventually disappeared, its pre Hispanic tradition completely lost long before the Spanish arrived.

However, shards from the old pottery and the clay used to make them still abound in the hills and mountains of the area. In the early 1960s, Juan Quezada was a very poor farmer and firewood collector. He found fragments of the Mongollon and even older Mimbres style. Intrigued by what he found and with absolutely no help, he figured out that the pottery was made by coiling ropes of clay then smoothing the sides. He also figured out means by which to temper clay and to fire it using local materials, turning out high-quality works by 1971.

Pot by Juan Quezada on display at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City at an exhibition of handcrafts from the north

What he did not do was try to recreate absolutely authentic pre Hispanic pottery. Although the fragments served as inspiration, he quickly riffed off of what he found, creating new vessel shapes and modifying the designs to create a more fluid look. Initially, Quezada gave his works to friends and family as gifts, and it may have never gone farther than that if it weren’t for a chance find in a Deming thrift shop.

One of Quezada’s pieces wound up in this place just north of the US border where anthropologist Spencer MacCullum found it. Fascinated by the piece, he spent much time in northern Mexico trying to track down its origin. His work finally paid off in 1976 and he quickly formed a partnership with Quezada to sell his works in the US. They quickly became popular in the US Southwest as the designs fit with modern homes in this region.

Juan Quezada unveiling piece at the Trail of the Mountain Spirits Scenic Byway – Fiesta de la Olla (Joe Burgess)

One major difference in the development of this craft was that MacCallum convinced Quezada, and later other potters, not to sell their wares cheaply. He rightly guessed that this would devalue the work overall. Such promotion meant that pieces soon were exhibited in fine art galleries and museums.

Despite the pottery’s phenomenal success north of the border, its remains a localized phenomenon. Just about every in Mata Ortiz is now involved in pottery making, and it has raised living standards here. But nearby communities have not adopted it. Juan Quezada won the prestigious National Sciences and Arts Award in the handcrafts category, but it mostly ignored by collectors and barely appears in museums in the center and south of the country. 

One reason for this is that the north is not particularly well-regarded by handcraft institutions in the center and south of the country. This area did not have large-scale societies producing luxury goods at the time the Spanish arrived. Those Spanish who settled the north spent much of their energy trying to survive the harsh climate and even harsher indigenous peoples, so crafts were mostly limited to those things of absolute practical value with some exceptions such as iron and leather work. 



L: Work by Oliva Dominguez Renteria, UR: By Jorge Quintana and LR: By Noé Quezada Olivas

The more likely reason is the craft’s strong connection with the United States. It has developed recently and in alignment with the tastes of US buyers. There has been no effort to recreate authentic pieces nor connect the craft with the dominant sense of mexicandad (mexican mestizo identity). The very modern look of most pieces can be off-putting to many Mexican cultural institutions, not to mention its very recent origin. 






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