Starting around twelve years old, Juana Gomez Ramirez provoked the ire of her mother by spending time making jaguar figures instead of the traditional pottery the family made to survive.
Gomez is from Amantenango del Valle, a Tzeltal village between San Cristobal de las Casas and Comitan, Chiapas. It has a long history of producing pottery, traditionally utilitarian items with dove motifs and some animal figures as toys. About fifty years ago, there were only five potters left. A group of women banded together to promote their work among the women and to new markets, reaching Tuxtla Gutierrez and even Mexico City.
Pottery is women’s work, with men dedicated to working the land. Techniques and designs are passed down from grandmothers and mothers to the next generations, with girls starting to work when they are very young, making pots, small fireplaces called chimeneas and flowerpots.
Gomez’s goal was not really to create a new product, but rather to indulge her fascination with the creatures. She had never seen one, but learned about them, and their significance to Mayan culture, through her textbooks. Gomez says that by making them from clay, she can “feel the energy of the jaguar in her hands.”
Her jaguars are each molded by hand; no molds are used. The feet are made first and the figure built from the bottom up, ending with the head. Then the figure is sanded and burnished with a smooth stone to give it a matte shine after it is fired.
Firing is done in the traditional way. The figure or figures are set on the ground and local wood piled around and over it, then set on fire.
After firing, natural pigments and/or vinyl paint is judiciously applied, giving the finished product a realistic, rather than fantastic look.
Like most other women in the town, Gomez wears traditional clothing, even when she works with clay and wood.
When she was a child, she had to carry pieces on her back to sell in nearby cities and towns, but today, clients come to her at her home/workshop just off the main square. Today her work is exhibited and sold in the United States, Europe, and Australia.
In 2013, she was recognized by the Banamex Foundation in their book, Grandes Maestro del Arte Popular. Gomez has met 2 Mexican presidents, 1 first lady and the country’s richest man, Carlos Slim.
The success of the jaguar figure has brought national and international attention to Amatenango and has buoyed all pottery production. Pots have incorporated the jaguar motif. The highway going by the town is filled with stands of local artisans selling their wares. Slowly men are becoming involved. At first this was resisted, with a belief that men who did this were not really men, but Gomez and others refused to accept this. Today, there is one notable male potter, Alberto Bautista Gomez. Even those who do not focus on jaguars are become more visible. Rufina Lopez Lopez makes traditional animal figures such as dogs, peacocks, doves, the occasional jaguar, and others.
However, buyers do need to be aware and buy either direct from the artisan or from a reputable dealer. Although the style of the jaguars is unique, Gomez’s work in particular, there are galleries that sell fakes.
Featured image from Mexico Desconocido