Reviving and reinventing a nearly forgotten technique

Rene Angeles Navarro with one of his inlay boxes

In 1994, professor Carlos Romero Giordano wanted a reproduction of an inlaid chest that collector Ruth Lechuga had brought from a small village in the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca. He had trouble finding a person capable of doing the work until a young 18-year-old working in maintenance told him he could do it …. and did. That young man was Rene Angeles Navarro. Decades later, he considers that experience the work of destiny.

It led to the making of more reproductions for the department of anthropology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 1996, and only one year later, winning the Gran Premio de Arte Popular Mexicana, the highest honor an artisan can achieve at the time. He was only 21.

Angeles says it is “atypical” in a number of ways. Certainly, the speed from novice to recognized maestro is one reason. However, he does feel that he is not as respected as an artisan because he is not from a family or community that has been doing the work for generations. Indeed, many would class his work as a kind of “rescue” or “recovery” rather than as a traditional handcraft.

However, it is this “recovery” aspect which makes his work so special. With some help from specialists, he deduced the details of how the inlay of that original trunk was created. This was necessary because the technique is almost extinct.

The technique, Angeles says, is not that complicated, but it does require patience and a steady hand. Essentially portions of a chest, a small box, or a piece of furniture are gouged to allow the insertion of a decorative element. Angeles’ base wood most often is red cedar, followed by walnut, but it usually depends on what is available. Whatever wood he uses must be of good quality, not too hard nor too fibrous, saying that given the weeks and months he puts into a piece, it’s better to spend the extra pesos. The design is cut into this wood to create spaces to be filled.

Placing a piece of bone in the slot cut for it

The inlay is most often bone, followed by shell, but sometimes it is wood of a different color. Angeles uses ordinary beef bones obtained from local butchers, which he then cleans, degreases and blanches. Shells need to be cleaned, with all mineral deposits polished off. Both are then cut into shapes that allow the filling of the spaces. His largest project was a colonial-style drawer/secretary about 1.5 meters high for the Banamex collection in 1999. He has made boxes with over 1,000 elements, each shaped by hand, inlaid into the wood individually.  However, he must contract with another craftsman to make the base boxes, chests, and furniture as he does not have room in his house to do this work.

Angeles states that there are decorating techniques that use the same names but are not the same as what he does. He specifically contrasts his work to that done in Santa Maria del Rio, San Luis Potosi where pieces of wood are pieced together to make a decorative layer. In Ixmiquilpan, Hidalgo, bits of shell (sometimes bone) are used to decorate wooden objects, but the smooth surface of the piece is created with the use of a black paste and polishing to even the surface. Angeles work is a recreation of what was commonly done 400-500 years ago.

“Professionally, I have been very successful; economically, no.” His works are part of the collections of the Museo de Arte Popular and the Fundación Banamex in Mexico City, included in the latter’s Grand Masters of Ibero-America book, 20th edition. His work has been sold in venues such as the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market and auctioned off in New York by the Amigos de los Grandes Maestros de Arte Popular. However, he must work other jobs to make a living. When he does sell pieces, this money often goes into the next projects, making family and friends scratch their heads as to why he continues.

Angeles continues because he loves doing it, not just recreating what was done before, but reinventing it. He is not content to have a few designs that he repeats over and over. He has somewhere between 80-90 basic designs and even more that are only on paper for now. He believes in creating truly unique pieces, not the minor details but the overall look. He repeats elements and general styles but arranges every project differently. To get to the level he is at now, he says, took him 20 years of practice.

His designs are both traditional and innovative, but he no longer does reproductions. Innovative designs get their inspirations from the reproductions, but also from modern art and other handcrafts, all Mexican. This gives his pieces a familiar Mexicanness about them, even though they are original. Designs are also somewhat determined by the limitations posed by using bone and shell, naturally curved objects with need to be cut into flat pieces.

Angeles says the innovation has a downside. Unlike many handcrafts, potential buyers cannot look at the work and identify what it is or where it came from. He lacks “points of reference” and connection with a community that is part of what gives handcrafts their value. In this case, it is rare to find a market that would know or understand what he does and its importance.

Fortunately, he has received tremendous support from the Fundación Banamex, with one of the most important handcraft collections and support programs in Mexico. They have been buying regularly from him for the past three years, reselling his work in Mexico and the United States. He was also invite to a conference of Latin American woodworkers sponsored by the organization, where he was able to connect with others who are reviving and reinventing past handcrafts.

Such focus on reinvention seems to be common among urban craftspeople. Angeles says that he is a product of his environment and history. Born in what was rural State of Mexico, north of Mexico City, his family moved to the satellite city of Naucalapan when he was nine. His was one of many families that made the move for economic and social reasons. He has the rural background to learn and appreciate how to work with his hands, but living in the metro area gave him contact with and knowledge of the craft he has now dominated.

The maestro can be reached at https://www.facebook.com/rene.angelesnavarro

All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia

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