Charming kitsch available online

The Arzolike (ar-so-LEE-kay) workshop mixes new and old in surprising ways. The basis of their work is classic Mexican imagery and pottery techniques but reinvented and urbanized. Many of the 50+ original designs have the same appeal as pop culture items from the US and Japan, but the use of clay and more earthy tones keeps it real, avoiding the cheesiness that can come with plastic and bright colors.

The name is derived from the first two letters of the following words: ARcilla (clay in Spanish), ZOquite (clay in Nahuatl), LImo (fine clay in Spanish) and KEramos (ceramic in Greek).

It is a family workshop founded in 2009, headed by Mónica Alejandra Barajas Hernández.

In 1995, Monica took ceramic classes as a hobby, but it has turned into much more than that.  She tuaght her mother and other family members what she had learned. By 1998, the family was working with some other artisans in Mexico City, but after a decade of this, they found that their priorities had changed and decided to strike out on their own. Mónica’s mother, María Teresa Hernández Ramos, provided the initial space in her home in the southeastern Mexico City borough of Tlahuac. There, they and sister Ana Luisa began producing in this relatively rural and isolated area of the city, selling at local fairs and other events and gaining experience.

Over time they did have some success but quickly learned that they needed to reach a wider market. Mom stepped in again and through a contact, the family obtained a store in the Alamos neighborhood, just southeast of Mexico City’s historic center. The business has grown and now involves brother Noel and associate Maricela Villela, who work part time when demand is high.

Today, most production is still done by Mónica in the original workshop in Tlahuac, with mother doing some at the Alamos location. María Teresa is mostly involved in logistics and administration.

The designs are relatively simple, but the quality of the work is high. Mónica and her family has exhibited heir work in venues such as the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the Franz Mayer Museum, the Folk Art Museum (Museo de Arte Popular), the National Institute of Fine Arts and the National Institute of Anthropology and History.

In an interview with Mexico City’s Reforma newspaper, Mónica Barajas stated that other parts of Mexico have identifiable ceramic, but Mexico City no longer does.  One of the workshop’s aims it to create one. This is not easy because Mexico City is generally not considered a handcraft producing area.

Arzolike product lines include animal figures and toys, mermaids, knickknack containers, bells, magnets, mobiles, lucha libre figures, jewelry, and creatures from their own imagination such as the Luchilangos and Nahualis. Their best-known product line is a series of xoloescuintle (Mexican hairless) dogs. Some have masks; some are dressed as wrestlers, and some have an ecological message. Their techniques include the use of molds and hand modeling, high and low firing. In a nod to ancient history, the paints are always clay slip with mineral pigments, and the shine is from burnishing with a quartz, not glaze. All pieces are naturally lead-free.  In some of their pieces, clay pieces are mixed with other materials such as natural fibers, paper and even metal bottle caps.

The original workshop is still located in Tlahuac, in an area that is rapidly urbanizing. Only a few years ago, a Metro line reached this part of the city, and the workshop is located right by the Tlaltengo stop. However, they maintain the store at Avenida Xola 1961 Local 2 in Colonia Alamos even though it is not the main sales site.

At least until the current crisis with COVID 19, cultural events accounted for between 60 and 70% of sales. Over the years, they had become selective about the events they signed up for, finding that those catering readers, ecological issues, organic food and the like most receptive to their wares. There are some distributors of their work such as a shop in the trendy San Angel neighborhood and the gift shop important Franz Mayer museum.

One advantage to being in an urban environment is that there is easy access to digital resources and a greater willingness to be able to use them. Arzolike had set up both a Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/arzolike/) and regular web page (https://www.arzolike.com.mx/index.php) before this year, but the current situation is forcing them to take better advantage of them. Before they did not sell to individuals in this manner, but now they do.

Although on hold for now (of course), the business has a history of community involvement. They are active members of Cerámica DF, an organization to promote ceramics making in Mexico City, and Red de Artesanos Anáhuac, an organization that seeks to organize artisans in Mexico and Latin America to promote their common interests. At schools and events, they have given free and low-cost ceramics workshops. The goal of these classes is not to train new artisans as it is to give the public a better appreciation of the work and skills handcrafts require.

The current crisis is making the family reconsider priorities. Previously, their long-term focus was to resurrect a ceramic tradition in Tlahuac and had been doing training in the borough to this end. However, because of economics, they may have to dial it back a bit and focus more on producing “more basic” and “more utilitarian” items that sell easier in order to keep the business afloat.

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