Creating an identity in the north

71894432_10217482249881288_2535362346365222912_nAs I wrote last year during my time in Durango, the north of the country is very overlooked when it comes to handcraft and folk art. The main reason is that the “land of carne asada” simply does not have the history and reputation that the center and south of the country do. The second is that the north is sparsely populated with large expanses between population areas, making traveling to find artisans time- and money-consuming.

I firmly believe there is more here than even the northerners realize.

One wonderful example I had the pleasure to discover is a very new annual event called the Ciclo de Cartonería del Noreste – Arte Emergente (Norteastern Cartonería “Cycle” – An Upcoming Art) which is wholly the work of two tireless women, Mayra Rene and Berta Garcia. Garcia is the paper mache artisan (cartonera) and her story can be seen here.

It is not unusual to have a lone artisan who discovers a technique and works it out for him/herself, and there are quite a few of such in Mexico. What makes these two women truly special is their commitment to this “upcoming art” has spawned a small group who produce work of amazing quality and often originality.

For their second major exhibition, which opened on October 10, 2019, the theme was to emphasize this originality, tying it to the culture of northeast Mexico and in particular the international influence this region has due to its proximity to the United States. The exhibition features three of cartonerías traditional products: alebrijes, Catrinas and Lupita dolls. There were also three masks, but this is an area they still need to explore more.

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20191010_173727[1]Two of the products, alebrijes and Catrinas, kept to the traditional forms for the most part. Departures from what is done in the south are somewhat subtle. In the case of alebrijes most of those exhibited were creatures with parts from multiple animals with various and sometimes clashing colors. There were a few that were entirely or almost entirely one animal showing similarities with the Oaxacan alebrijes. Some depicted animals not commonly seen further south such as foxes and bulldogs (very reminicent of ceramic decorations found in department stores). Coloring was somewhat different… less gaudy and more earthy tones appeared, but the most striking difference was the willingness to experiment with texture. “Traditional” alebrijes are smooth, with any kind of texture indicated by the paint. Here small pieces of paper are folded, crimped and/or torn and placed on the “skin” for form scales, gills, and other small details.

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Many of the Catrinas on display showed strong influence from further south as this image has been well-known here for a long time. There were three that caught my attention. The first was that of a flamenco dancer. The topic is not too far off from tradition, but the making of a stable figure with an extremely arched back shows a high level of talent by the artist. The second has a traditional body, but the head is inspired Surrealist paintings done in Mexico between the 1930s and 1950s. This and the last example carry masks of living human faces, something that has deeper meaning even if I cannot place my finger on it. The last is that of a mermaid skeleton. The issue of how to mount is cleverly resolved by making the piece wall hanging rather than a statue.

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As promising as the above changes seem to be, a distinct identity has most definitely blossomed in the making of Lupita dolls. This is not surprising as Mayra Rene is a noted art doll maker. The range of doll images was astounding, from “baby” forms of traditional Lupitas, to those which are elongated, to male versions, to those depicting women from the mid 20th century.

 

In addition to the exhibition’s message that there is and should be a regional variation for Monterrey,  it also made a strong, if somewhat apologetic statement that said identity is tied to the region’s relationship with the United States. I don’t think there is anything to apologize for. Mexican visual arts have shown strong international influence for many decades without any apologies, and handcrafts by definition, should and do reflect local culture and circumstances. This does mean that much of what is produced will not be what the typical tourist (and often collector) is looking for, but perhaps that is because the typical tourist is wholely unschooled in just how varied Mexican culture truly is and that it, like all other cultures, is changing.

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Silk and lace and ribbons and beads and…

The wonderful thing about cloth dolls is that there are few limits to an artistan’s creativity in making one. Materials for construction of all kinds abound to be purchased or even found. For this reason, most doll makers find their niche through the kinds of materials they use, a particular style, or both. In some cases, a doll maker will also look to bring something they believe into the making.

Isabel Monter has always liked rag dolls because, she says, they have a warmth that plastic dolls like Barbie can never have. Her interest in collecting dolls began young. Her father was a gem miner who travelled all over Mexico and the world. Every time he traveled, he brought a doll back for her. Although born in Santa Rosalia, Baja California Sur, her family also moved around a lot. She spent her childhood in 17 different places until the family finally settled in Mexico City.

 

Monter’s need to be creative also began young, doing things with her grandmother such as knitting and embroidery. She moved onto wire, palm fronds and even learned to cut stones to make jewelry.

In college, her interest in crafts did not stray far. She majored in anthorpology, with a specialization in linguistics, but she became interested in traditional Mexican textiles. This led to her eventually amassing a large collection, along with researching, exhibiting, buying and selling. While putting on a exhibition of Mexican textiles at George Mason University in Washington DC, she came in contact with artisans who painted on silk cloth.

Fascinated by the process, Monter learned to paint on silk, making clothing items and accesories … and producing scraps of precious painted silk. What to do with these scraps was answered by a “free spirit” by the name of Dahlia, who lived life her own way. She made a living by doing ritual cleansings in the Mexico City main plaza but also by creating and selling dolls. Dahlia’s work inspired Monter to take these silk scraps, along with her grandfather’s old hankerchiefs to make two dolls. She has been making dolls ever since and started selling her creations in Coyoacan in 1989

 

She found that making dolls from scraps fit in with another passion, collecting small items that are attractive to her, but no one else wants. The dolls give her a way to use the boxes and bags of buttons, old jewelry, ribbon and of course fabric (new and used) that piles up in her house. Some she finds, some she gets from friends who are seamstresses, but much comes from people who hear of her penchant for collecting and give her stuff.

Essentially, Monter has been “upcycling” since long before such a word entered the popular vocabulary. Her repurposing work also includes creative patching of clothing and other items, as well as teaching clases on how to repair and otherwise save clothing, but by far the most successful activity has been the making of her dolls. Her goal is to make the dolls entirely from recycled materials when possible, although that is often difficult when it comes to stuffing them. But for the making of the dolls’ bodies and in particular dressing them, her large, wholly disorganized collection of stuff forms the basis. She even does dolls by special order when a client asks her to take something of sentimenal value, such as a child’s old dress and use it to make a doll.

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However, most dolls are completely from her own mental and material resources. Her dolls often are not made to imitate reality, but rather fantasy. She particularly likes to make dolls she called “female shaman protectors, those that protect dogs and other animals…”  Her repertoire also includes ballerinas, elves, fairies, archangles, mermaids, ladies-in-waiting… She also makes more stereotypical Mexican images such as La Catrina, Aztecs as well as Frida Kahlo, although she has mixed feelings about doing the latter. She recognizes Frida’s popularity and her positive effect on promoting Mexican culture but worries that commercializing her image also commercializes her suffering in life. Her answer to this dilemma is to reinterpret the image of Frida (keeping the trademark eyebrows of course) instead of just copying how she looked in life.  Notably, Monter states that she “cannot” make dolls that represent men.

19Monter’s faces are always embroidered as they matter much to her. However, her work is better defined by the use of recycled materials, especially in the heavy decoration and the use of silk, often as the “skin” of the dolls. This silk skin is often painted and does not represent any kind present in nature, but most dolls contain at least 30% silk in one form or another. When the silk is colored, it is her own work, using various techniques such as batik. The individualization of the dolls does not come from the construction of their bodies but rather in their dress and decoration. Inspirations for the heavily decorations comes from her father’s work with gems, her own work with jewelry and her love of baubles.

As much as Monter is a creator, she is also a businesswomen. For a number of years, she owned a craft and novelty store in the historic borough of Coyoacan. She still does a lot of buying and selling, especially related to items she has a personal interest in. This activity provides her income as well as chances to travel. Dolls have always been an important part of her inventory. In addition to Coyoacan, she sold for many years at the Saturday handcraft bazar in San Angel. However, most of her selling today is to small retailers in various parts of Mexico includine one client who has resold her work in Queretaro and San Miguel Allende for over 14 years.  Today, Monter makes only about three to seven dolls per week. Making dolls of this quality is a highly laborious process, she refuses to streamline it. She has also cut back on the number of hours she works for quality-of-life reasons. However, there are no indications that she is to retire anytime soon.

Photos used with permission by the artisan and photographer (photographer credit: Ricardo Suárez)

 

 

Huizache-finding strength in numbers and tradition

A perennial problem that artisans have is the push-pull between production and sales. Any time spent on sales takes time away from production, but relying on resellers results in very low prices for artisans.

One answer that a number of artisans have found is in cooperatives. The simplest and most successful of these have been small groups of producers, often women, who make similar items and take turns selling, especially at fairs where one needs days of travel and sales time.

However, there have been attempts to take the cooperative idea and develop it into something further, both economically and culturally. Huizache Arte Vivo de Oaxaca is one of these.

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Most people’s first look at Huizache is their store, located on one of Oaxaca City’s main tourist avenues, Macedonio Alcalá (near the corner of Murguia) in the historic center. It is an old colonial building that the cooperative practically rebuilt. The building has ten rooms, each concentrating on the different handcrafts produced in the state of Oaxaca. These include the famous barro negro from San Bartolo Coyotepec, the pottery of Santa Maria Atzompa, various huipils and other textiles along with lesser-known items such as gold and silver jewelry, knives, a multitude of textile products (cotton, wool and silk), baskets, leather and more. All of the state’s eight regions are represented. The fixed, prominent location of the store has given the artisans associated with it a number of benefits, but perhaps the real beauty of Huizache is what is behind the scenes. First, of all, there is an organization behind it strong enough to send representatives to other parts of Mexico to promote their project and network. I became aware of the organization by meeting member Pedro Mendoza at the First Reunion of Cartoneros in Orizaba, Veracruz.

The idea of an artisans’ cooperative is not new in Oaxaca. Huizache itself branched off from a similar organization called the Casa de las Artesanías de Oaxaca, which was established in 2001. Thirteen years later, a number of families from the Casa wanted to create a more inclusive organization, one not only open to artisans, but other kinds of creators as well. They were also interested in adapting traditional rural and indigenous organizational concepts to a modern cooperative.

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Today, seventy families form the membership base of Huizache Arte Vivo de Oaxaca.  Almost all members are artisans making Oaxacan alebrijes, various types of pottery, textiles, jewelry and more. In addition to products made by the member families, products from 400+ more make their way into the shop, with a board of authenticity making sure that all products are handcrafted 100% in Oaxaca. Huizache has worked to have artisans from a variety of age groups. About 40% are over 40, but the rest are between 26 and 40 years of age. But the main goal of Huizache is help artisans live as such “with dignity.” They combat the idea that being an artisan is only for very poor people with no other means of making a living. About 40% of their membership has college degrees. Some have abandoned their professions entirely in favor of their craft. One example is Pedro Mendoza Ko, who now works full time in wood and paper mache, creating a number of very visible projects.

 

 

 

But perhaps one of the main ways that Huizache works to raise the prestige of artisans is through its cultural programs. In addition to the store, the building is a cultural center as well. It supports and promots musicians, artists, anthropologists and those practicing traditional medicine. One reason for this is discontent with the state’s annual Guelaguetza extravaganza, which many consider to be nothing more than a money-making scheme. In addition, there are many aspects of Oaxacan culture that do not adapt well to large stages and are ignored by the annual event.

In additon to art and handcraft exhibitions, concerts, literature events, the center offers classes in cultural studies such as Zapotec cosmology. Perhaps with activity with the most direct link to the artisans are those which teach the making of the various crafts. The goal of these classes is to teach tourists and others to appreciate the time and skill needed to make fine handcrafts, although the classes have produced a number of people who decide to pursue the activity.

 

 

 

Unlike other artisan cooperatives, Huizache has welcomed visual artists, musicians and writers present at their facilities and even be members. The current president is a radio announcer. But all members, artisans or not, produce something for the organization; none are there only to do administration. One benefit to inviting other kinds of creators is that Huizache has been able to promote itself in ways many other artisans do not, in particular taking advantage of social media. They have a blog, a Facebook group and a YouTube channel.

That is not to say that administration is not important. It is extremely important and extremely difficult. One the the artisans’ main concerns create an administrative system that remains true to their values and avoids power getting concentrated into a few hands… or worse… shifting to the government.

 

 

 

In Huizache, all admininstrative function are done via unpaid community service by members, a concept traditionally called tequio. There are many administrative positions and these rotage among the membership with two-year terms. No position can be held by the same person for a second term without a ten-year gap inbetween. This means that just about all members are performing administrative functions, all eventually learn all aspects of administration and it works to keep “vicios” (lit. vices) away.

 

The concept of tequio is just one of five traditional concepts that underlie the organization and which come from the traditional organization (usos y costumbres) of rural and indigenous communities. These are the Asamblea (assembly), the Tequio (unpaid community service), Guelaguetza (festival), Trueque (barter) and Tianguis (market). The Asamblea is the main authority of the community.  For the cooperative, members meet once a month to make communal decisions affecting their operations. Tequio underlies the building maintenance and care along with administrative tasks. In Huizache, Guelaguetza is achieved through its various cultural events.  The last, tianguis, refers to economic activity necesary for the organization’s survival. The organization also encourages members to trade goods and knowledge among themselves.

The organization exists in part because its members feel that official government channels do not meet their needs, or worse, thwart them. Huizache and other similar Oaxacan organiztions promote these traditional ideals as a way to resolve many of the social and economic ills that plague one of Mexico’s poorest states, not just as a way to run a cooperative. When artisans are doing shifts in the store, they have to resist the urge to focus on the sale only on their own wares, but to promote everything in the store.  They need to think communally to the point of taking classes and workshops so that artisans of any type can explain what is important about any other kind of handcraft in the store, not just the ones they personally make. But perhaps one of the most dignified things that Huizache does is individualistic… it DOES give credit to the artisan (family) that made the item. This is something most galleries, even government-run ones, do not do. 

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Huizache is completely self-sustaining, receiving no government or NGO help. The organization takes only 10% of the purchage price to cover expenses, which includes rent for the space (prime real estate), utilities, etc. Sometimes extra costs are taken on voluntarily by the group. A member was fined heavily by her local community for teaching classes in her craft at the cooperative, something prohibited by the local council. Although she only asked for a loan to pay the fine, the membership decided to chip in and pay it for her. This independence gives the organization freedom to operate how they want, and the government cannot ask them for “favors” such as supporting certain policies. It also gives them a kind of authority and reputation in Oaxaca. They have worked to discourage the very Mexican tradition of negotiating prices down. The main reason for this is that such “regeteo” comes from an ignorance of just how much time and talent is needed for the making of fine handcrafts. It also disrepects the communities that produce them, which are often very poor, very rural and indigenous.

 

 

 

The case for a broader definition of “artesanía”

Researching paper mache in Mexico and contact with cloth doll makers here has led me to be interested in what can be called “urban handcrafts and folk art.” Almost all Mexican folk art collectors think of Mexico’s rural and indigenous peoples doing a craft for generations when it comes to what makes for “real” handcrafts. I admit, this makes for a relatively easy way to distinguish between something that is or is not culturally relevant even though this rule is often ignored.

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Working on a ceramic piece at the Tibercio Soteno workshop in Metepec, State of Mexico

But it also relegates Mexico’s cultural identity to a number of frozen forms. These pieces of past time are attractive to many of us in the long-industrialized world as it satisfies a longing we have for some kind of simply idyllic past. However, Mexico does not exist in a bubble. The country is undergoing the same urbanization processes that the rest of the world has and is still going through. More people live in cities than in the countryside. The Mexico of the past still exists and should still be cherished, but it is worth a look to see how these traditional values can translate to an urban setting. The main one here is the ability to create something wonderful with whatever is on hand.

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Weaving a Chiapas style textile at the Textile Festival in Mexico City

A good laboratory for this is, of course, Mexico City. It has long attracted people from all over the country primarily for economic reasons. But people from Oaxaca, Chiapas, Michoacan, Yucatan etc. don’t leave their regional identity behind just became they have become “chilangos.” It is possible to find people doing some of the same handcrafts they did back home, from textiles to pottery and more. It is also possible to find a couple that have been done here since the colonial period. The two most important today are cartonería (paper mache) and silverwork.

However, of more interest here are those forms of folk creativity that have sprung up only in the past 50 years or so and shaped by urban reality. Two aspects of urban life in Mexico City seem to be really important here… the federal government’s greater interest in the economy of the city (which accounts for about 25% of the entire country’s GDP) and the lack of natural raw materials.

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Minatures made outside of Mexico City arranged in scenes by Mexico City resident Esteban Bautista

Unlike the fine arts, handcrafts and folk art have always been tied to locale and local materials. For Mexico City of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the two most abundant materials are cheap commercial materials (cloth, wire, paper, plastic….) and of course, trash.

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Catrín or “dandy” figure from paper mache (20th century) from the Juan Jimenez collection

Both are main staples of paper mache production in Mexico City and other urban areas. Originally, only waste paper was used as the creators of piñatas, Judas effigies and the like had little access to anything else. However, in the past 50 years there has been a shift to buying new paper, especially craft paper, in bulk as the price of this paper has come down, newspaper is disappearing in the digital age and the craft has experienced a surge in popularity and status. One of the most popular items made with this technique now is the alebrije, which has been internationally popularized by the Disney movie Coco.  The development of cartonería in the past 50 years has been the inclusion of more commerical items, but this can be controversial. The use of acrylic paints is not, but other commerical items, glass or plastic are not accepted by older generations of artisans. The question to ask here is “Does authenticity come from recreating techniques exactly as they were done in the past, or do we take the creative impulse of generations before who took whatever is at hand to make something to satisfy a need?”  There is no easy or one answer to this question.

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Monumental alebrije named “Aguas Vivas” at the Alebrije Parade. Paper mache figures of this size are a recent innovation going back only about 20 years. This figure incorporates a very non-traditional figure, a track and wheels to allow the legs to move around the figure

Another important urban/modern craft has been the recent resurgence of cloth doll making all over Mexico. Although cloth dolls can be documented to the colonial period, and the National Museum of Anthropology has a marvelous collection of late 19th century cloth dolls from Puebla, documentation is sparse and way too often non-existant. They have even been left out of modern documentation of Mexican folk art that began in the 20th century.

One cloth doll that is widely known all over the country is the María doll. She is instantly recognized by her wide face, braided hair generously decorated with ribbons, smiling face and colorful, vaguely indigenous dress. There is much misinformation about the origin of this doll, with the two main indigenous groups claiming her being the Otomi in Querétaro (and even Guanajuato) and the Mazahua in Michoacan. Colorful stories about her origin exist and the town of Amealco has done much in recent years to cement its reputation as the home of the dolls.

Marias made by the Flor de Mazahua cooperative, one of the last groups of women still making the dolls in Mexico City

However, the truth is that these dolls were invented in Mexico City in the 1970s as part of a government program. From the 1940s to 1970s, there were several large waves of migration of Mazahua and Otomi from the northwest of the State of Mexico, especially in the municipality of San Felipe del Progreso. There were a number of economic and political reasons for this, but their proximity to Mexico City made migrating there attractive. However, they face major discrimination in the city, relegated to menial jobs and selling food and handcrafts in the street. Women were also readily identified by their traditional dress, which became the basis of a television and film comedian named “La India María.”

The government found that these women faced horrible abuses by authorities and other vendors and looked for an alternative. The federal government (which ran the city at the time) set up centers for both the Mazahua and Otomi peoples with the idea that the women would work making their traditional handcrafts but the city would commercialize them. Other services were also offered. The woman in charge of establishing the centers was Guadalupe Rivera Marin, the daughter of Diego Rivera and she came up with the idea of creating a doll representing the “Marias” in part because of the popularity of Barbie. The prototype was created in Mexico City by Otomi hands, but the dress was based off that of the Mazahua because it is more colorful.

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Maria doll decoration for Independence Day at a school in Durango

The dolls were initially very successful in Mexico City, but their popularity in both making and selling has shifted to outside. Today, almost all Marias are made in Queretaro, parts of Michoacan and State of Mexico and Guanajuato. Their making has also spread to other parts of Mexico, especially north to places were Otomi have since migrated.

The dolls are urban for two reasons. First, they originated in an urban areas and have been made then and since with commercial materials. They cannot get “denomiation of origin” status since that depends on the old notion of handcrafts being tied to materials obtain in a certain area (like the agave of Tequila). The second is that the construction is nothing like traditional dolls of the center-north of Mexico, where rolled cloth dolls dominate those traditional made by mothers and grandmothers for little girls. Although Marias have become of Mexico’s main tourist symbols, they are a modern invention.

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 Frida and Calavera Catrina rag dolls from Creaciones Mixtecas of Ensenada, Baja California
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Modern doll by Ana Karen Allende from Mexico City

Cloth doll making in general have undergone a resurgence in Mexico, thanks to the dolls. Many indigenous groups now make them, often with very authentic local dress. These are almost exclusively made for the tourist trade, but get more acceptance in folk art circles because of the authentic dress and lack of plastic. Those made by non-indigenous in Mexico’s cities have not seen a similar level of acceptance because Mexico does not have a reputation for cloth doll making and the dolls are modern in appearance, leading many to think they are simply copies of what is being done in the United States. While there is influence from the US, especially in art dolls, Mexico does have its own traditions and realities to draw from, not in the least images of Frida Kahlo, La Catrina, lucha libre and Sor Juana de la Cruz. That there a foreign origen or influence does not preclude a number of accepted kinds of artesania such as glazed pottery, introduced from Europe in the colonial period or high fire ceramics, introduced much later.

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The popularity of alebrijes in Mexico City have led to the invention an ilumnated version. These may have been the inspiration for the Disney ones that flash colors.

Looking around on the streets of Mexico City, it is possible to see other kinds of handcrafted items from cheap furniture, to lamps made of industrial waste products, knitted sweaters. decorated sneakers and other clothing and more. It is not to say that all of these should have “folk art” or artesanía status, but they do come from the same impulses that the venerated forms do… the need to make do with something… including having something to sell and earn a little money. If the criterion is to be a tradtional culture, than some forms that are accepted now should not be. If the criteron is simply how long it has been done in Mexico, that length of time should be better established.

Featured image – two Maria dolls in the doll museum in Amealco, Querétaro

 

Setting up miniatures in the city

20190909_160454Mexico City has long brought people from all over Mexico to live and work. This means that, if you know where to look, you can find food and handcrafts and even craftsmen from just about everywhere. However, the vast majority of these people and even the food is not available in tourist areas or even in the center of the city. Most of the people who migrate to Mexico City are poorer and live east and north edges of the urban area.

Craftsman Esteban Bautista lives in a community called Chicoloapan, State of Mexico. It is on the far eastern edge of the Mexico City metropolican area, very close to the border of the Mount Tlaloc natural reserve. East of that is the state of Puebla. It is barely metropolitan and not easy to get to. There are small vans that go there from a point in eastern Mexico City proper, but it takes about an hour in said van. The municipaly shows signs of both its rural and suburban history, with remnants of the old Costitlan Hacienda and various cookie cutter housing developments. But the traffic is becoming more and more like the rest of the Mexico City area.

Bautista’s family moved to Mexico City when he was just a boy, but he was born in the rural municipality of Tlalpujahua, Michoacan… today a noted former mining town that makes Christmas ornaments. However, the more traditional crafts of this area focus on clay. The village he is from, and still identifies with, is Santa Maria de los Angeles, locally known as “Jarrolandia” because most of the residents make pottery pitchers (jarros). Nearby is Estanzuela, which specializes in high-fire ceramics.  The family moved because it is not easy to make a living in here, although not all of the extended family moved. He still has aunts and uncles back “home,” maintaining his connection.

Bautista had a typical city upbringing, and handcrafts were not in the picture. He went to school and became an industrial electrician. However, this job sometimes has low periods when he needs to earn income from another source. Michoacan is not as well-known as Oaxaca and Chiapas, but it is one of Mexico’s major producer of traditional handcrafts. He became interested in this and began to research with the idea of bringing merchandise to Mexico City to sell. His hometown, as well as other areas, makes miniature versions of their traditional wares, originally as toys for children. Bautista found these attractive as they were relatively easy to transport and sell. He found they sold even better if he arranged the minatures in sets, even something as simple as putting dried flowers in a tiny flower vase.

He also began collaborating with number of his coworkers who came from various parts of Mexico. They formed a kind of club where they taught each other skills they knew to work on crafts such as wire animals and stone pieces to sell. They were successful enough to need a space to work and store merchandise.

About eight years ago, he began putting this all together to create small scenes in boxes. Almost all of these are of traditonal or historic Mexican kitchens. He began with what he remembered of his grandmother’s kitchen with its wood shelves, brick counters and wood fired stove. With research, he began making models of traditional kitchens from other parts of Mexico as well as those from the 19th century and earlier.

He says that this activity makes more sense than trying to recreate an activity that is done in Michoacan an elsewhere. It also allows him to give work to artisans who live in these rural areas. He began with miniatures from Michoacan and most of what he buys is from that state, followed by Guanajuato and some particular pieces from Tonalá, Jalisco. In Mexico City, he married a women from the Mixtec area of southern Puebla and through that connection has important suppliers, especially of miniature woven items, which can be hard to find.

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With the growth of his business, he has also been able to put in special orders for miniatures of things that have not been done on that scale before such as mats and crucifixes.  His miniatures are made with various materials. Most are from clay, which can be molded, but there are those made from cloth, straw, palm fronds, wood, glass and metal.  His scenes lack human and animal figures generally as these miniatures have not been done at such a small scale.

20190909_132259Most of his boxes scenes are about the size of a cigar box or a bit larger, but he has made some up to a meter in height with multiple compartments. These boxes he makes from scratch, along with the internal infrastructure (shelves, counters….) on which the miniatures will be organized and affixed. No two kitchens are the same as each is made individually, often determined by what miniatures he has available and his mood. The costs of the scenes vary widely depending on size and the cost of the pieces he uses. Some are made from relatively expensive material such as tin and copper, but the biggest cost for miniatures is that, despite their small size, they use many of the same processes that the larger pieces do.

He has started experimenting with setting up scenes in other enclosures. Those in pots used principally for making atole and “cazuelas” (a kind of wide, shallow clay pot) have been successful. The pots are either made with a side missing for this purpose, or at times he has to carefully cut a common pot. He is also working with using traditonal baskets and large gourds as backdrops. He has even done very small scenes nestled in the cup part of the huge wooden spoons traditionally used for making mole for large gatherings, with the rest of the spoon painted in bright colors and designs.

He also makes miniatures of the old fashioned wooden racks used to store dishes and pots in traditional kitchens, holding minature pots, plates, spoons and more.

Bautista has an online presence, but mostly sells through fairs and personal contacts as he much prefers to see and meet the buyer. He stated that he has done some distance selling and even has contacts in the United States that are interested in his work, but for both practical reasons and own personal comfort, he has been hesistant to pursue this. He especially appreciates buyers who are aware of what is involved in the making of miniatures and what they represent in Mexican culture. These include those adults who played with miniatures as children.

Bautista admits that most of his dedication to this activity is for the love of doing something creative. He is a fan of the work of late artisan Teresa Nava, who made similar works for Mexican writer Carlos Monsivais, and are on display at his museum in the historic center of Mexico City. It is very difficult to make any money making these scene, especially with the cumulative cost of the miniatures. Another problem is the strong tendency to bargain in Mexico as miniatures in particular are not valued. He will sell only at cultural events and the like where this tendency is somewhat ameliorated.

Thanks to the artisan for the majority of these photos.

You can contact the artisan directly on his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/esteban.bautista.3576

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The art of lotería

320px-Gallo.svg“Se va y se corre con la vieja del pozole! ¡La dama! (She goes and runs with the old woman of the pozole!  The Lady!)

Pórtate bien amiguito, si no te lleva: ¡el diablito! (Behave yourself, my good little friend so that he doesn’t tak you: The Devil!)

Yo con mi elegancia y distinción: ¡el catrín!” (With elegance and distinction: The dandy!)

If you spend enough time in Mexico, you will run into a traditional board game for sale all over Mexico, from bookstores, to department stores to traditional markets. It is called La Lotería or The Lottery.

The game came to Mexico from Europe, but it probably has origins in China. The European version dates back to Italy in the 1400s and became popular all over the continent. By 1769, it had become part of Mexican culture, played by the upper classes, who had time for such diversions. Soldiers popularized it during the War of Independence, spreading it all over the country.

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Wood block print by Alec Dempser depicting a kind of Huasteca tamale called zacahuil for the Lotería Huasteca board game

Lotería has always been a handcrafted game with huge variation in style and how finely the cards are made. Originally, the cards and the boards were hand painted, with content varying depending on the craftsman making the set.

A sort of a standardization occurred in the 19th century, when Frenchman Clemente Jacques started a business called Pasatiempos Gallo, registering a lotería set called Gallo Don Clemente with the 54 images seen on most lotería sets today. The images reflect Mexican traditional life and culture, from skulls representing Day of the Dead, to chalupa boats representing the canals of Xochimilco, to the rooster of farm life, the soldier, the nopal cactus…. Although the game has lost popularity in modern times, you would be very hard pressed to find a Mexican who has never put beans on board in a bingo-like fashion.

This does not mean that all lotería sets must look like those designed by Don Clemente. Often with a didactic or promotional purpose, sets with themes have been made over the years, such as a set that was produced by the Catholic Church with images related to religion and another with images from the fine arts.

The game lends itself extremely well to printing, which is recognized in Mexico as both a craft AND as an art form. Artist Alec Dempster’s work has included creating sets of lotería combining artistic printing processes to promote Mexican regional culture, principally that of the Huasteca region. Dempster has an interesting history and relationship to Mexico. He was born in Mexico City, but only because his foreign parents happened to be here at the time. He was raised in Canada, but his Mexican back story always stayed with him. As an adult, that part of his story drew him back here, not only to live, but also become an expert in Huasteca son music after an extended stay in Veracruz. In fact, he is a recognized expert and promoter of Huasteca music and culture in Canada and among the Huasteca son community in Mexico.

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Alex Dempster with book at presentation in Mexico City

He is a graphic artist and author with many prints, books and other products to his credit, many of which can be seen at http://www.alecdempster.org/ Much of his graphic work has classic themes and styles from traditional Mexican printing and more than a little in common with the printwork that proliferated in Mexico in the decades after the Revolution.

His most recent work is the Lotería Huasteca,  a book and a set of cards in artistic black-and-white done in wood block printing. Nothing digital about this design. Dempster cut blocks of wood by hand to create the original images. The “mass” production of cards and boards is done in offset printing.

The book serves to reinforce the didactic purpose of this lotería game, with detailed descriptions of each of the images used in his version, along with the meanings these have in Huasteca culture. Some are versions of those found in more typical lotería games such as the rooster, the sombrero, the mermaid and the drum. For these, the descriptions focus on the meanings these have specifically to the Huasteca, as part of the Mexican whole. But most of the images are specific to Huasteca culture from food to agricultural work, to handcrafts, musical instruments and celebrations. Often these have indigenous names rather than Spanish ones. These include La Acamaya (a kind of shellfish), (Carnaval) Carnival, (Caña) sugar cane, El Nukub (a kind of percussion instrument), La Curandera (healer) and many more. The boards simply have the images and the names, but the cards used to call out the images come with verses that describe the image in an poetic way, taking advantage of the tradition of calling to teach about the concept.

*** Update- the game is available in English and Spanish. The English version is available at The Porcupine Quill or you can contact Alec  for either the English or Spanish version.

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The art and craft of printing is not something that is normally associated with Mexican handcrafts but the making of toys and games are. However, there is also a long tradition of handcrafts inspiring art and art inspiring handcrafts. This intermixing has been to the benefit of both and serves to keep both “Mexican” no matter the physical origin of the hands that make them.

 

Women in wool

 

The state of Veracruz is not one that is well-known for handcrafts. Except for the port city and perhaps son music (think La Bamba), very little is known of its culture outside of Mexico. The main reason for this is that, despite being on the coast, it does not have a major tourism industry.

Even less known are the rugged mountain areas away from the coast. The terrain juts up sharply as one travels west from the Gulf of Mexico. This makes for very rainy climates, and depending on the altitude, cool or even cold temperatures. However, it is these inland regions which are home to a wide variety in indigenous and other traditional communities and cultures, which include the Nahuas, Tepehuas, Otomis, Huastecas, Totonacas and Popolucas. Perhaps the most widespread and varied type of handcraft here is textiles. Depending on the climate of the region, the dominant fiber for these crafts is either cotton or wool.

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Fortunately, at least one area of the state is starting to get its due attention for its handcrafts and traditional culture. The Sierra de Zongolica is a rugged, mountainous areas in the southwest of the state, bordering the state of Puebla. It is an important center of Nahua peoples in the east of Mexico. 

The region is only 100km from the state capital, but it takes hours to get there because of the terrain and lack of highways. Isolation over its history has allowed it to maintain a traditional way of life. About 80% of the people here speak an indigenous language, principally Nahuatl. Subsistance agriculture is the main economic activity, although some cash crops such as coffee and oranges are grown in lower elevations. However, the price of this conservation has been severe economic marginalization.

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The women of Zongolica have woven clothing from wool grown on their own sheep, using spindles and backstrap looms, traditionally for home use. These women learn young, as children, working with their mothers and grandmothers in all aspects of the work from shearing sheep with hand scissors to cleaning, carding, dyeing, spinning and weaving. This means that many of the women here have decades of experience as weavers.

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The story of the commercialization of Zongolica textiles begins in 1992, when a number of women decided to work together to find ways to produce and sell what they make. They formed cooperatives such as Cihuamechikah (women who weave) which over time began to work with local and state cultural and economic authorities. Many of these women live in very small villages away from the “main” town of Zongolica, which itself has only thousands of people. Weavers are principally found in places such as Tlaquilpa, Mazetualla, Xoxocotla, Tequila and Alhuaca.

The women have worked with traditional techniques for centuries, making items such as rebozos,  jorongos (sarapes cut to fit like a loose shirt or jacket), sarapes and blankets. This area is one of the few in Veracruz that still grows, spins and weaves local wool, although commerically bought wool is also used. The use of local wool means that a natural gray can appear, which is unusual because many herders no longer raise gray-haired sheep. These women work the most number of weaving techniques (seven) and have the widest variety of designs in the region. Dyes are made with plants gathered from local forests, although this is something that has been resurrected in more recent years after the knowledge was all but forgotten. This resurgence was due to efforts between outsiders and some of the last of the women who knew the techniques to teach them to others and keep them alive.

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The collaboration with outside entities has meant some innovation in products with an eye to what outside markets want. In addition to the traditional items, they have added scarves, backpacks, wool animals and dolls. The traditional hair ties called tlalpiales have been modified to make necklaces and earrings. There was even a project for the Xalapa Antropoligy Museum were monumental decorative pieces were made as works of art.

Much of the progress has occured in the past eight years or so. At this time, anthropology student Miguel Angel Sosme Campos came to study the women of Zongolica and their lives in the mountains. Sosme is not from here but rather from the southern Veracruz city of Coatzacoalcos. His involvement with the women came with the Proyecto Sierra Norte-Huasteca Sur, affiliated with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History.

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One of Sosme’s first efforts was the publication of his research into the Zongolica region including the book  Tejedoras de esperanza. Empoderamiento de los grupos artesanales de la sierra de Zongolica. In Tejedoras de esperanza, Sosme tells these women’s stories, many of which had never been documented before. The book has won various awards such as the Fray Bernardino de Sahagun in 2014 and the Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, both national-level prices as well as a number of state-level recognitions.

Not content with simple research, his efforts have extended into advocacy for the Nahua women here. Of particular concern to the anthropologist was that the women’s efforts to organize and market their products were hampered by the men in their society. Women in traditional indigenous communities often have no economic, political or religious influence. Unfortunately, according to Sosme, domestic violence against them is not uncommon either. Efforts prior to 2011 were hampered because many husbands could not believe that the women could earn money from the work they did and assumed any money was earned through prostitiution or other immoral means. The backlash caused many women then, and even now, to not participate in such activities.

DSC09359However, for the women who have participated, the impact on their lives has been astouding, both economically and socially. They are able to contribute to practical needs such as medicines, school supplies and food stuffs either through sales or barter. This is particularly true with sales of smaller items such as belts and hair ties as they are sold more frequently. The sale of larger items allow women to support social and religious events, elevating their status in their communities. Because of this, women are traveling outside of their communities, learning Spanish and making long term contacts in parts of Mexico. They regularly travel to Xalapa, Veracruz (city), Mexico City, Monterrey, Oaxaca (city) and even Europe to sell and even receive invitation to present about their work and life.

Collaboration of these women’s cooperatives and outside organizastions has included conferences, exhibitions and fairs to not only promote textiles and other handcrafts, but also local culture and language. One of these events is the Festival Regional de Artes Textiles in Zongolica in December, which has only been around for the past 3 years or so. The purpose of the event is not only to showcase the textiles but also the region’s culture, with expositions related to art, music and photography. Sosme did not start this process, the women themselves did, but his advocacy and ability to network in Mexico and even beyond has allowed for Zongolica’s name to be recognized far more than it might have been otherwise. In 2018, Sosme was awarded the Premio Nacional de la Juventud (National Youth Prize) for his efforts.

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Sosme’s efforts are not done by any means. A more recent project as been the ambitious 30-minute documentary called Tlakimilolli: voces del telar, in Nahuatl with Spanish and English subtitles. It is the first documentary of its kind in the Nahuatl language were eleven women from the region talk about their knowledge and processes that have been transmitted over generations. Financed by the Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes (FONCA), it was researched and produced by Sosme along with Belinda Contreras. It has been presented in film festivals and other events in Mexico, Spain and France, with a showing scheduled next year in the United States.

The recent efforts have caught the attention of international  organizations such as Amigos de Arte Popular in the United States and the Feria de Maestros de Arte, a prestigious handcraft exhibition and sale in Chapala, Jalisco.  A number of the women have even been invited to Europe to exhibit, sell and demonstrate how they work.

The viability of the women’s industry still faces challenges. These include low prices (even compared to similar items from other parts of Mexico), long trips to where products can be sold for good prices and and outlets limited to fairs and other events that can be months apart. There are still women afraid to participate, either because they are afraid to leave their home area or their husbands will not let them. The success of the weavers means some have been targets of crime, including kidnapping for ransom. Lastly, the future is in doubt because the younger generations are not interested in learning how to weave.

Sosme believes that anthropologists have a role in social change because simply gathering knowledge is useless if it does not result in better living conditions. The success of his and his organization’s work has led to similar efforts for women artisans in Chiapas, Puebla, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Morelos, State of Mexico and even Peru.

Photos used with permission from Miguel Angel Sosme Campos, from the documentary Tlakimilolli: voces del telar

 

 

Rescuing a grand collection

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Green glazed candle holder (1970) from Patamban, Tangancicuaro, Michoacan at the Querétaro museum

In Mexico, the somewhat dramatic word “rescatar” (lit. rescue) is used to mean to write about something that has fallen into obscurity. But perhaps in this case, “rescue” may be accurate.

Until the 1985 earthquake, Mexico City’s main handcraft museum was the Museo de Artes e Industriales Populares, located on Juarez Street near the Torre Latinoamericana in the city’s historic center. This area was hard-hit by the quake and hosts a monument to it in a plaza at the site of the former Hotel Regis.

The museum’s building was heavily damaged by the earthquake, but it and its collection of handcrafts from all over Mexico, limped along until 1997, when a fire closed the building. The museum disappeared and seemingly, so did its collection.

What happened was the the collection was boxed up and put in storage under the official care of one federal agency or another. Today, it is under the auspices of the Instituto Nacional de Pueblos Indígenas (National Institute of Indigenous Peoples or INPI). The long storage means that the collection was not scattered among other museums or worse, vanished with no trace. However, that does not mean it did not suffer until 15 years ago.

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Ceramic pieces at the INPI building in Mexico City

Coming in at over 24,000 pieces, the collection is one of the largest and most important in Mexico, but very few people know about it. Many of the items are jammed into a portion of INPI’s building  in Colonia Xoco in Mexico City… not even a warehouse, but rather a section of the building with the best temperature and humidity attributes for the purpose. With the lack of a warehouse INPI has done the next best thing, the purchase specialized shelving, drawers and packing materials about 4 years ago or so. And none too soon… as another major quake 32 years to the day, shook the city in 2017. Fortunately, the collection suffered only very minor damage.

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Display of traditional Otomi garb at the Querétaro museum

By sheer numbers, the most important part of the collection is pottery, followed by textiles.  However, there are some speciality collections that distinguish it from others in the country. It has the most important collection of traditional lacquerware spanning centuries and four states: Chiapas, Guerrero and Michoacan… and even pieces from the state of Durango, which I did not know produced any lacquerware. The oldest piece in INPI’s entire collection is a small lacquerware cabinet from the 17th century. The lacquerware, until a few years ago, was housed in a museum dedicated to it in Chiapa de Corzo, but it was recalled to Mexico City because the facilities could not control temperature and humidity in a environment with extremes in both. Another important sub-collection is that of handcrafts made almost exclusively by indigenous peoples in the north of the country. This is a region that is notoriously ignored by most Mexican folk art collectors, mostly because the center and south have dominated fine handcraft making since before the Spanish arrived.

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Musical instruments from the north of Mexico at the INPI building
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Antique lacquered plate at the INPI building

That INPI has been tasked with the preservation, and since 2004, the cataloguing and “rescue” of the pieces and their documentation (much of which was lost starting from 1985), means that, ironically, they are taking care of heritage that is mostly made by mestizo hands, not indigenous ones. The task is laborious and extraordinarily slow. Experts are sought through INPI’s other work and contacts to identify where pieces come from and if at all possible, who made them. Such efforts mean that almost all pieces are labeled with what is known (not a given in Mexican museums) but still only 5 to 10% of the pieces have an identified author.

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Lacquered gourds and other pieces when they were still at the Lacquerware Museum in Chiapa de Corzo

Despite the loss of pieces and documentation of old museum collection, the collection is important enough to have attracted a number of donations, including major ones from the family of former President Echeverria and one from the Rufino Tamayo family. This last donation is still being counted and catalogued.

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Part of the mask collection

Because of its overall anthropological mission, INPI has good support services to go with the collection, including a library with books, sound files and video. These are in a different building in another part of town, but are readily accessible to the public. INPI lacks a major space to exhibit the collection, which is the main reason why it is unknown to the public. It does run some small museums called the Museo Indígena, Antigua Aduana de Peravillo in Mexico City, the Museo Indígena Huatapera in Uruapan, Michoacan and Museo Indígena Queretaro, which house various handcrafts from the collection. But these are institutions dedicated to Mexico’s indigenous heritage, not to handcrafts, per se.

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Huipil from Oaxaca

A number of the mestizo pieces are on permanent loan to other museums such as the Museo de Ceramica in Tlaquepaque, and the Folk Art Museums at the University of Colima and in Merida. The rest of the collection is in Colonia Xoco, where it remains available mostly for professional study and for loans to major museums in Mexico and abroad for temporary exhibits. Not all pieces in the collection are available for lending. Those deemed too valuable or too fragile stay in the hands of the agency. Same for those which have not been adequately documented.

With a limited budget and an immense task, perhaps the most impressive part about INPI’s handcraft collection is the people who work with it. Director Octavio Murillo and his staff are the most accessible federal employees I have ever had the pleasure to meet. They answer emails and other communication promptly and are genuinely interested in working with those who care about the collection as they do.

Valuable tree sap in Chiapas

There are only a certain number of ambar mines in the world. They have come about because there are certain conditions that must be right in order to form deposits. First, it is necessary to have forests of trees the exude sap, often as a means of protecting themselves against parasites. This excess sap runs down the trees, gathers on the ground and though runoff, streams and rivers winds up in shallow oceans. This process means that ambar is never really pure tree sap; there will be impurities, but they often raise the value of the ambar, not diminish it. The globs of sap undergo a process of fossilization anywhere from 25 to 50 million years, meaning that the ambar is often from the sap of tree species long extinct. In the case the vast majority of Mexico’s ambar, that collection was in a shallow sea that eventually disappeared to create what is now the Yucatan penninsula, which extends into parts of the state of Chiapas.

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Raw and partially worked ambar at the Ambar Museum in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas

Mexico mines a fairly large quanity of ambar but it is not the most productive. That title is for a mine located east of Kaliningrad, Russia, in the Baltic region. It provides 80 to 90% of the world’s ambar, about 300 tons a year. Baltic ambar is also found in Lithuania, Estonia, Poland and occasionally on the shores of Denmark, Norway and the UK.  In the Americas, Chiapas is the largest producer, coming in at about 5 tons per year. However, the largest piece of ambar in the world came from Mexico, weighing 11.7 kilos.

In Mesoamerica, ambar was known and prized in  rituals related to health as well as the funeral rites of nobles and warriors. Pieces have found in tombs in Oaxaca and Chiapas. From that time to the present in Chiapas, ambar has been considered to have protective qualities. It is not unusual today to see newborns with small bracelets of ambar to “protect them from the evil eye.” The fossil is also believed to be effective against asthma, ear and throat infections as well as a means to increase fertility.

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Ambar worked into Mesoamerican ear jewelry in San Cristobal.
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Location of Simojovel, Chiapas

Almost all of Chiapas’s ambar is from  mines located in the rural municipality of Simojovel, accounting for 90% of Mexico’s production. The rest is from adjoining municipalities with a minicule amount from other places. The extraction and sale of raw ambar is the main economic activitiy of the Simojovel, especially since the rise of mass tourism in the 20th century. Mining is still done by hand using picks, axes and hammers as the ground is sandy. Chiapas ambar has its own particular qualities and for this reason, it as received a legal denomination of origin status, the same that tequila has. This is to protect the ambar from that of other places in the world, but also that mined outside of Chiapas. The story of Simojovel’s ambar production has had a downside. There was a major boom in demand for Chiapas ambar from 2012 to 2015, which led to careless exploitation of mines. Although demand has since eased, the municipality is still dealing with the social and environmental fallout from those years.

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Ambar necklace Maria Elizabeth Mendoza Estrada of Simojovel, Chiapas

Chiapas ambar comes in a variety of colors ranging from a transparent yellow to a near-black. There are varieties such as red, brown, blue and green, all produced by different impurities. Just about all of Chiapas’s ambar is destined for workshops in the state, and almost all of that is used to make jewelry to sell in the state’s major tourist centers, especially San Cristobal de las Casas, with some going to fine jewelry outlets in other parts of Mexico. One of this ambar’s advantages is that it is one of the world’s hardest, registering between 2.5 and 3 on the Mohs scale. This allows for more precise and complex work and designs. The price of finished ambar pieces depends on a number of factors, including, size, color, age, its working and last, but least, what kinds of foreign matter is trapped within it. Pieces with well-preserved (entire) and/or rare insects or plant matter can raise the value of a piece considerably. Ambar can even contain other animals such as small amphibians. One significant find was that of a frog found in a 25-million year old piece in Simojovel which belongs to the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Because ambar jewelry is extremely popular among both locals and tourists, there is, unfortunately, a significant problem with the sale of fakes. The counterfeits are made either with glass or plastic. Just about all of the “ambar” sold on the streets of San Cristobal is fake. If the price is low, it is most definitely fake as the working of ambar requires specialized training. It is simply not possible to sell finished products at street prices. Some vendors manage to trick the unaware, often by showing that the piece is “authentic” by showing that it does not burn, therefore not of plastic. However, not only does glass not burn, true ambar will burn slightly. One of Chiapas ambar’s unique qualities is that it gives off a pine resin like smell when subjected to flame.

Other ways to tell that an ambar piece is real are to 1) put it in salt water to see if it floats, 2) test it under black light to see if it close or 3) to rub the piece vigourously between the hands to see if its smell appears. However, most of these tests are either impractical or impossible to do before one buys. At point of sale, the best protection is a reputable dealer. In San Cristobal, a visit to the Ambar Museum is highly recommended. They have an amazing collection of over 300 jewelry and other pieces, prize winners from the annual Ambar Competition for the state’s artisans. Inaugurated in 2000, it is the only one of its kind in the Americas and one of very few in the world. It also gives talks and literature about how to buy authentic ambar from reputable outlets (including the museum itself), some of which is in English. Another recommendation is the annual Feria de Ambar, usually held in August or September.

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Fossilized leaves in an ambar piece in the Ambar Museum in San Cristobal

 

All images by Alejandro Linares Garcia except the map by Battroid

 

The joy of painting Virgins

San Miguel Allende has become globally famous for its huge expat community… one that began with a private art school started in the town that attracted US soldiers with GI Bill money to spend. What is not well known is that the local population is very traditional, and in fact, the whole state of Guanajuato has the reputation of being “mocho”  (stodgy and religious). In San Miguel, tradition translates into a plethora of local festivals, processions and more. This makes the town even more attractive to foreigners, but that is far from the reason why locals preserve public spectacles.

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Chichimeca dancers for the feast of Saint Michael (credit:Nan.P.182)

Over the past months, I have been researching a book on foreign artists in Mexico. Not being an art expert, I have done a ton of reading both general and specific. It seems to me that artists are looking for something meaningful and sometimes get quite convoluted in that search, to say the least.

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I may have seen in a small group of housewives what many of these artists are looking for. Tucked in a house just off the beaten path of touristy San Miguel Allende is a group of local women (and one gringo), who for 20 yars have met regularly to paint.

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The painting in the back is done by the group. The doll is really a cake.

 

All of the women are traditional housewives ranging in age from 30 to 70-something. They are also joined by one expat, tour guide operator Joseph Toone, who introduced me to them. The group started getting together to do handcrafts and share time together. Then they met an artist named Esperanza Orvañanos from Jalisco whose work they really liked and she began to teach them how to paint on canvas. Originally their work was purely traditional religious imagery. Today, all but one have a strong preference for religious imagery.  Their religious imagery is heavily focused on the Virgin Mary in various aparitions, but images of Jesus (especially as a child) and those of saints appear as well. However, members of the group branch out into other themes, such as flowers, landscapes and other folkloric imagery. In fact, they have done a number of María doll themed book covers for local resident Joseph Toone’s books on San Miguel Allende.

65027129_340527739918619_1914910224028794880_nThey call the oldest member of the group, Lupita Reyes, “Speedy Gonzalez” for her prolific output of paintings. Of the roughly 500 they have produced in all sizes over the years, they are convinced she has produced about 80%. They primarily work in oil, but work in other media such as pastels and acrylics, even mixed media, The mixed media works typically incorporate textiles, a throwback to their handcrafting days.

They spend about 6 or so hours a week painting together, but do not consider themselves commerical artists.  Their religous work is not for sale, instead most are given away and have gone as far as the United States and Europe because of all the international contacts the women have living in San Miguel Allende. After all this time, they still consider themselves students of art using it as a kind of therapy. They have had only one formal exhibition of their work, but this is not a priority for the group. I noticed looking at the paintings in the workshop that there were a variety of styles and levels of talent, but I did not ask who did what. The main reason for this is that there is a comaraderie among the women which leaves no room for competition, and I did not want to intrude on that. In fact, some of the women did not want to be mentioned in this article at all by name.

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Images of Maria and Jose dolls  with the parish of Saint Michael

I came away from my visit with these women impressed by the joy they have for their lives, their faith and their painting. It may be a lot to say, and an overeducated cynic like myself feels awkward saying it, but there really is no other way to express it. These women are a great example of religion at its best… providing happiness and a sense of purpose. They are traditional women, but not “mochas”… they have no sense of superiority and are really happy with their lives. It is something those of us who wander spirtually lack, and I admire them for it.

 

 

All photos except one are courtesy of Joseph Toone