Art and craftsmanship

GeneroMoreno015While I understand Género Alejandro Moreno Ramirez’s need to be taken seriously as an artist, it is a shame that his chosen media makes him a bit defensive.

Many artists and artisans cross the very fuzzy lines among fine art, folk art and handcraft, often enriching all of the various pursuits. Famous examples include Diego Rivera’s inclusion of folk art images in his paintings as well as patronizing several artisans whose work he admired.

Many artisans take artistic training as part of their professional development. And there are many who consider themselves to be both artists and artisans both for artistic as well as economic reasons.

But there is tension between the idea of “serious art” and “just handcraft.” It is even worse when said handcraft is associated as women’s work, especially that of housewives.

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Textile art is nothing new. The fine tapestries of the Middle Ages are considered to be art with no discussion. But it is true that the Western concept (at least) of true art is intimately tied with painting and sculpture in stone or wood.

Fine art, folk art, and handcrafts all have elements of creativity and craftsmanship to them. Artists need to master technique as much as cabinet makers do. Fine furniture makers, whether consciously or not, need to have an aesthetic sense. The distinction among the three is how it is judged by the culture… focusing on a message or feeling or more focused on execution of technique.

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In cases where both become important, we get the concept of folk art. There are cases in Mexico where handcraft designs make their way to a two-dimensional “canvas.” The best example of this is the amate paper paintings done by the Nahua people of Guerrero, who took traditional designs from their pottery to develop intricate works of art on a new medium.

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The problem for textile techniques is that 1) it is associated with women at home “wasting time” and 2) the resulting work of art is not as durable as paintings. Many paintings centuries old survive to this day. The same cannot be said for tapestries, no matter how well valued. Time is not kind to plant fibers without layers of paint to help preserve them.

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Be this as it may, textile is a fascinating medium which invites the study of how technique and imagination interact. Paint has limited variables, allowing for artists to tame it readily. The same cannot be said for fibers and dyes (especially natural ones). Even the best of weavers and dyers will have imperfections in their work. Those imperfections can be seen as a defect in the medium or an opportunity.

Only a true artist can see opportunity.

Moreno is not from an artist or artisan family, but like most artists discovered his passion for drawing and other creating in early childhood.  However, his road to his artistic vocation has been somewhat convoluted. He is currently finishing his studies in visual arts at the local university, but he studied and experimented with various paths before then. These included traditional painting, graphics and fashion design, found that none of them suited his talents and interests exactly. There is absolutely no tradition of textile arts in Durango, but Moreno was fortunate enough to discover the field in Guadalajara.

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He was worked with various techniques but has settled to two main ones, the dying of fabrics with natural materials and embroidery. Much of his inspiration comes from a number of Japanese textile techniques as well as western ones. Dying is with a heavy cotton material called manta, which is colored with natural materials specifically to create “imperfections.” The main technique is to take materials found in Mexico such as marigolds and cochineal insects, press them into the fabric and prompt the dying through the use of steam. This creates a series of stains in subtle colors. These stains become the basis and guide for the embroidery that is then applied. He mostly uses commercial embroidery thread for this, most likely because it provides a counter to the unconstrained coloring of the background. The goal is to create an image that is both expressive and harmonious.

 

What is fascinating about Género’s work is that it is indeed art. However, its artistic value comes from both expression and fine craftsmanship. It would not work any other way. It straddles the world of arte and artesanía in a way that the amate paintings cannot. In Genero’s work, all the media used is respected. In the case of the amate paintings, the paper is dominated by the painting. The paper is not respected in the same way. The initial idea to use it came from its ease in transportation and sale of such painting to tourist markets. The paper does give the paintings a folk art and ancient feel, but it appears more as a frame for the painting, rather than an integral part of the work.

Género’s work has value for both art and handcrafts, giving both new directions to explore.  It brings back the artistic element of the tapestry to needlework.

The artist can be reached at https://www.facebook.com/genaromorenor or through https://www.instagram.com/gen.genaro.gen/

(Photos from the artist’s Instagram account used with permission)

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Finding handcrafts among cowboys

Mexico’s major handcraft-producing states such as Oaxaca and Chiapas have known for some time the value of having their better handcrafts for sale at major cultural events. States such as these have events dedicated solely to handcraft traditions, but often one of the better ways to find authentic handcrafts is to attend other kinds of cultural events as well.

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Most of Mexico’s major and best-developed handcraft traditions are located in the center and south of the country. This is not only because the Spanish conquered these areas first, but more importantly, these areas had major civilizations such as the Maya and the Aztecs, whose wealth and concentrations of populations allowed for the creation of what were essentially luxury goods for the elite. Here the Spanish simply added a new layer of such production and in a number of cases really didn’t even do that.

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Traditional filigree earrings by Alfredo Perez of Jerez, Zacatecas

The north of the country did not have major civilizations or major population centers until the colonial period. The Spanish found nomadic and semi-sedentary people, who were considered crude even by their southern indigenous cousins. Such lifestyles do not lend themselves to the creation of time-consuming luxury goods, especially those which require stationary installations such as kilns. There are a few exceptions, such as the Paquimé pottery found in Chihuahua, which has been reincarnated as Mata Oritz ceramics.

The state of Zacatecas is part of Mexico’s “wild” north, though the southern edge of such. It was home to nomadic peoples, almost all of which were wiped out in the colonial period despite fierce resistance. The Spanish dominated this area early in the colonial period because of the discovery of silver, establishing the city of Zacatecas in 1546.DSC_0058

Despite the lack of an indigenous handcraft industry, the Spanish had more time to transplant their traditions here. For this reason, there is more varied handcraft work overall to be found than in other parts of El Norte.

dsc_0042.jpgHowever, it is not as widespread or as well-developed as in the south, so handcraft fairs are rare and small. To see the best of what the state has to offer, it is necessary to go to events related to the culture’s strengths, such as the annual National Charro Congress and Championship which is held each October. The commercial pavilion is dominated by cowboy and charro gear, mostly but not always made in the state, but other elements of the state’s heritage can be found here, too. There are representations of many (but not all) of the state’s major handcraft traditions from leather, to various textiles to silver. It has a number of surprises, such as Huichols and their work, but notably absent was the state’s really fine cantera (volcanic stone) sculpting and relatively nascent paper mache (cartonería) work.

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The state has been more active in promoting and supporting its artisans, with programs such as Voluntariado, which seeks to give small artisans in very rural areas of Zacatecas a route for selling handcrafts, particularly traditional housewives making textiles.  However, efforts here suffer from the same problems as those even in the more developed states. There is little to no information available about the state’s traditions and their histories. In the state cooperative efforts, the creators of the items are not identified, nor even the place of origin. Emphasis is on immediate sales, not creating awareness, which hurts long term efforts.  Even questions to the people in charge of the booths and permanent stores in the capital yield the most rudimentary of answers, principally because they themselves do not know.

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That said, events such as this are fundamentally important, especially to the individual artisans fortunate to have a presence there. At the very least it is easy to determine which vendors are local to the state, from outside of it or are simply resellers. Those from the state proper do know their products and their history. For such serious artisans, events like this charro congress provide an outlet. Even if it accounts for only a small portion of their total sales,  it provides national and international visibility for their products.  One silversmith told me that international sales now account for up to 20% of his business, almost all contacts made through highly visible events such as this.

This year, the National Congress is on from 13 October to 4 November and definitely worth a weekend trip to Zacatecas, not only for the local products and food, but for demonstrations of some of the best of Mexico’s charros.

 

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Stage sets and artesanía

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Cactus at his home/workshop

For a handcraft or any other kind of artistry to stand out, there needs to be a personal and cultural connection between the creator and the creation. Straight out technical talent is not enough. That connection can be through family history, the material and/or the techniques used, but often this connection comes through the themes expressed in the work.

José Flores is best known by his nickname Cactus, prominent on his business cards. He is a native Durangan, born and raised in the city’s iconic Analco neighborhood. He does not come from an artist or artisan family; he came to be so through the movies.

Cactus lives in the modest neighborhood of Granja Graciela, but the interior of his home is an impressive reflection of his aesthetic sense and personal history. The garage has been converted into a kind of large foyer/bar area with a decoration style I’ll call not-quite-Wild-West. Kind of like Durango itself, it is the frontier but with a number of other elements of more “civilized” areas.

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I had a few minutes to look at several of his crafts, both completed and in-progress as I had gotten there before the maestro. Cactus’ wife pointed out a few of them. Without knowing much of anything about the creator, one type of craft stood out immediately – miniature facades of Wild West buildings recognizable from the cowboy movies of the mid 20th century.

That may seem odd for a Mexican craftsman. Cactus has been criticized for this work, especially with their signs and other elements in English rather than in Spanish. But knowing a bit about Durango and the artisan explains why this works in their favor.

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At the height of the Western in Hollywood, Durango experienced a heyday as a setting for many of these movies, starting with White Feather, shot here in the mid 1950s. This boom continued into the 1960s and 1970s, with John Wayne himself shooting a number of movies here, including The Sons of Katie Elder. Wayne even bought himself a ranch not far from Durango City. The movie companies used area towns and landscapes but also built sets recreating the classic scenes of one dirt road bordered by wood buildings representing saloons, post offices, general stores, etc.

DSC_0509Fast forward to the 1980s… Cactus grew up during Durango’s movie heyday and decided to become a movie set designer, studying in Los Angeles for a number of years. When he returned to Durango, there was still a movie industry but it had gone in decline along with the popularity of the western.  By the 2000s, many of the old stage sets had been abandoned or put to other purposes, including a tourist Wild West Show and one that has become a real town, with people living under the old English-language signs for 19th-century establishments.

Cactus worked on some restoration projects at some of the old sets at the turn of the century, but it became clear the he needed other sources of income. He has taken his artistic and design skills to produce lines of several handcrafts and some artistic works.

In addition to the facades, Cactus creates interior scenes and other miniatures such as log cabins and horse-drawn carts which keep more-or-less to the Western theme. Other works include small decorative chests and crosses. These tend to be Spanish in design but not Baroque. Rather they are simplified versions that at home in both Western settings and colonial Mexican homes. This also reflects Durango. While it is squarely in the North, it is also the outer periphery of the Central Mexican Plateau. Influences from farther south can be readily seen here in the architecture and the food.

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His artistic work runs from typical canvas paintings, to sculptures made from organic and recycled materials. The most interesting are his air-brush paintings, oddly enough. Forsaking gaudy colors and unrealistic space scenes, Cactus uses the technique to paint realistic images on old and cracked wood, most often salvaged from decayed buildings. He prefers this because this wood has character and he must “negotiate” with it in order to create an image. Indeed, one of his favorite themes in our conversation was the concept of “respecting the medium.”

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The artist can be reached through his web page at https://www.facebook.com/cactusoldwestart/

 

El maestro Trino Núñez

In a corner of Durango city’s main cultural center, the Casa de Cultura, works a quiet man whose humble appearance belies the impact he has had on this state’s handcrafts and art, especially ceramics.

At seventy years old, Trinidad Núñez Quiñones (generally known simply as maestro Trino) appears a good 15 years younger. Long hair streaked with gray, he was often be either stooped over a batch of clay, or working with students from ages seven to adult.

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Núñez’s work in the Museo de Culturas Populares

Unseen by the casual visitor to the workshop is maestro Trino’s long history and contributions to his home state. This career is due in part to a twist of fate. Núñez was born into a solid farm family in the tiny community of San José de Gracia in the municipality of Canatlán (famous for its apples). The youngest of six children, Núñez had a very traditional family life, which included taking care of family livestock. However, in 1953 this was turned upside down when another farmer came to kill Núñez’s father over a dispute about horses. The result was that the farmer laid dead and his family took revenge, burning the family home, forcing his father to flee to the mountains and the rest of the family to the outskirts of Durango city to start over. However, it was in public school here that Núñez discovered his talent and passion for creating. He says that no matter what else happened in his life, his art was always first… he true “mistress.”

He prefers that his work speak for him. As an artist, Núñez was trained in various fields of visual arts, but has specialized in ceramics and ceramic sculpture. He has his own workshop and gallery, Taller Toltecatl, where he works with his wife Norma Elizabeth Campos Galindo and one of his sons, Gerardo.  His work ranges from souvenir-type pieces produced serially to one-of-a-kind artworks. The line of handcraft that stands out most are covered vases and other decorative items that have been painted with a slip, usually burnt orange, blue or green then a primitive but finely-detailed sgraffito scratched into it. Like Mata Ortiz pottery, the decoration is inspired by the Chalchihuite culture (of historical significance to Durango) but unlike the pottery to the north, the vessels and their making are modern.

098355e5-8f6a-43e2-baa4-ded6dff62cffNúñez says the vessels do not have a long history in the state, stating that they are his creation and to date only he and students he has trained are making them.  Núñez makes two styles of pottery using acrylic paints. One line uses bright colors and bold designs and other uses a combination of colors to imitate the look of copper and bronze pieces. These imitations are surprisingly realistic, especially considering that acrylics are used and the piece is not fired again after decoration. The last straight-up handcraft line that the maestro does is a line of black pottery pieces that are inspired by the barro negro done in the southern state of Oaxaca.  However, the work done is completely his own, designs are either local to Durango and/or modern imagery and the black color is achieved by causing an excess of smoke in the wood-burning kiln during the firing process, so that the clay absorbs the black. It cannot be washed or rubbed off after the firing process.

NunezQuinones010Núñez is an artist as well as an artisan. Most of his artistic works are ceramic sculpture, often with a sexual or kind of a nightmarish appeal. These are followed by mixed media works combining painting on canvas or wood along with ceramic elements. He also does some purely paint-on-canvas pieces.

His career as an artist, artisan, teacher and researcher spans over four decades. A stint in the army interrupted his formal artistic training in the late 1960s, but he completed this and started teaching at the School of Painting, Sculpture and Handcrafts, part of the Juarez State University of Durango.  In 2012, after almost forty years, Núñez retired from the university.

He estimates that he has taught over 8,000 students in various capacities. He is proudest of the students he has taught and mentored who have gone on to promote Durango traditions inside and outside the state. He has worked with extremely poor communities such as La Guajalota in Mezquital to teach pottery and ceramics techniques with the aim of making more and better pieces, both to use and to sell. In 2001, the federal government sponsored a project to teach the Tepehuan in several communities better ceramic techniques. Núñez had success in doing just that; however, changes in the government since then has changed the focus in these same communities from ceramics to textiles, particularly blanket-making, converting many of his ceramic workshops to this purpose.

Today, Núñez may be best known for the workshop with bears his name at the city cultural center. He founded this workshop in 1980 and it still the primary instructor here, teaching students by setting up projects for them and letting them come in and out of the workshop anytime between 3pm and 9pm Monday to Friday. Not content to teach only ceramics, although this still occupies most of his time, about four years ago he began making and teaching cartonería (paper mache) in particular the fantasy creatures called alebrijes. He considered several options for the second craft in the workshop but decided on cartoneria as it is very economical, making it accessible to more people.

Núñez has numerous awards for his work over the course of his career, mostly from the Juarez State University of Durango and the city of Durango. His biography “Clay, paper mache and Life” was published by Durango’s publishing house. The maestro has been exhibiting his artwork since his was 25 years old, mostly locally and in the state of Durango, but also with important shows at the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City and the National Museum of Ceramic Handcrafts in Tlaquepaque, Jalisco.

Credit for the fantastic photos (all but the one at the museum) to Anthony Arena.

Mercado de arte Rosarito

Despite its short time on the Mexican handcraft and folk art scene, the Mercado de Arte Mexicano in Rosarito has become an important event promoting folk and fine artists from all over the country.

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Given its target markets of collectors in southern California, retailers in the U.S. and retirees in the Rosarito area, it was originally called the Mexican Folk Art Market but recently changed its name to the Spanish version. However, it still maintains its mission of promoting Mexican artisans to the U.S. market, promoting the event through Mexican consulates in the country and even offering transportation to Rosarito from San Diego.

mexican folks art market mercado de arte popular artesanos artesanias Rosarito Baja CaliforniaThe festival was established as a private initiative, but has since gained state support. It has been in operation only for five years, but has already become the most important Mexican handcraft event in northwest Mexico. It features well- established grand masters,  up-and-coming artisans along with Mexican designers and other products from Baja California, especially wine. This year, the event expects over fifty exhibitors including artists such as:Enedina Vazquez (Oaxacan ceramics), Angelico Jimenez (Oaxacan woodcarvings), Natividad Sanchez (Mexican textiles, traditional shawls), Dania Elisai (paper mache dolls), Jesus Hernandez (Oaxacan woodcarvings), Fernando Jimón (Tonala burnished ceramics) and Olivia Dominguez (Mata Ortiz ceramics).

It, among other events, has made Rosarito a cultural destination. The event regularly attracts artisans from well-established handcraft traditions such as those from Mata Ortiz, Chihuahua, Santa Maria Atzompa, Oaxaca, alebrije makers from Mexico City and Mazahua textile producers from the State of Mexico and Michoacán. Many of the artisans have won national level awards. Exhibitors from the fine arts include painter and sculptors and there are musical and dance shows as well.

mexican folks art market mercado de arte popular artesanos artesanias Rosarito Baja California2It is organized each year by the Los Naguales Arte y Cultura Mexicana with support from the Rosarito Art Fest and the Baja California Secretariat of Tourism.  The director of the festival is Benito del Águila.In 2018, the event will be held on November 10 and 11th at the Centro Estatal de las Artes Playas de Rosarito (Playas de Rosarito State Center for the Arts).

.For more information, you can contact the organizers (in English or Spanish) at
mexfolkarts@yahoo.com.mx o https://www.facebook.com/mexicanfolkartmarket/

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Painting life and spirituality

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Leonor Chacón Vera greeted me at the door of her former home, now studio, wearing a Yucatan-style huipil and apron. The initial impression is that of a middle-aged housewife, but she is much more than that.

Chacón is a survivor, an artist and fierce fighter for nascent artists in the state of Durango.

Like most artists and artisans, she discovered her talent and passion early. Growing up in Durango, she did not have dolls because of her family’s economic situation. So she began drawing dolls and clothing for them from cardboard and paper, discovering that she liked using her imagination. At preschool age, she was given a “marvelous” gift, a set of colored pencils. The use of color and range of colors has captivated her ever since.

Her teens and early adult life were wandering years, filled with challenges. Problems with her authoritative family over her behavior, such as participation in sports, forced her to leave her parents’ home, live with several friends and even be homeless for a short time. A sympathetic brother found her sitting in the bus station to escape the cold and managed to get her to an aunt’s house in Aguascalientes, also paying for her schooling. Chronic pain in her legs led to a doctor’s diagnosis of a “rare illness” that gave her only a few years to live, depressing her to the point that she thought about suicide.

Despite this, she graduated high school and married an agricultural engineer, whose work took them to various parts of Durango, Zacatecas and eventually Tabasco. The union produced two daughters, which helped Chacón will to live although the pain was spreading to other parts of her body.

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La vendadora

Although she had no formal training there, her years in Tabasco were a formative period for Chacón, discovering the joys of rural life, in particular alternative medicine and the use of local materials that the Earth provides. Locals recommending apitherapy for her chronic pain, she began working with bees, eventually becoming a successful beekeeper. In the meantime, she was stung “in every part of her body” considering every sting to be a “blessing.”

As a child and young adult she had had no artistic training.  But in Tabasco, she learned about natural pigments, using clays and plants to produce colors and painting on whatever paper, cardboard, etc she could find as art supplies were nowhere to be found in the extremely rural, interior part of the state.

Due to the breakup of her marriage and other family concerns, Chacón eventually decided to return to Durango with her growing daughters. There was a stint in Mexico City, where she took open classes at the National School of Painting. Later, after several problematic starts, she managed to get a degree in visual arts from the School of Painting, Sculpture and Handcrafts in the city of Durango.

Chacón’s formal training means that she can and sometimes does, produce the kinds of paintings one expects from an artist, still lifes, portraits often realistic. But these are not her passion. Her life experiences have led her and her art to embrace native spirituality.

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It would be extremely unfair to call it New Age, as the term has taken on a negative connotation, plus Chacón’s spirituality is also highly nationalistic. Although she is from Durango and with northern indigenous blood, she identifies more culturally and spiritually with the center of the country, making regular pilgrimages to Teotihuacan and other sacred sites in the region. She is also an integral part of Durango’s temazcal community, which comes together to celebrate ritual steam baths for both physical and emotional purification.

Her most important artwork also reflects these beliefs, depicting pre Hispanic gods, sacred animals, stylized landscapes and indigenous ceremonies. All elements in these paintings have specific significance and their style is more purposefully “rustic” rather than the refined Western styling of work asked of her by patrons.

Chacón states that as a woman, it is very difficult to break into Durango’s extremely small art world. After graduating from the School of Painting, Sculpture and Handcrafts, she found doors closed to her because she had not had exhibitions anywhere else previously. Her answer to this was to form her own art associations with people in similar situations. Her first was a group of women artists in Durango, which succeeded in negotiating the staging of collective shows in venues in the city, allowing the women to have something on their CVs to gain access to more traditional events. After a number of years with that group, she left to form a mixed-sex group, Yolotl (heart in Nahuatl), which she continues with to this day. The group has staged nine major shows over the years with the tenth in the planning stages… negotiating support from European sources. All shows are open to all artists, regardless of their exhibition experience, only their artwork needs apply. They even set up sections for children to exhibit.

All this while working a full-time job with the state government, from which she only recently retired.

More of Chacón’s work can be seen at http://www.yolotl.org/leonor/pag/galeria.htm Her Facebook is leonor.chacón.79

Crafts of the mountain people

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Image of a Tepehuan woman in traditional dress at the Museo de las Culturas Populares in Durango City

The state of Durango has been multi-ethnic since well into the prehistoric period. Due to its geography, it has been a connection between Mesoamerica and what is now northwest Mexico and southwest US.  Today, there are several important indigenous groups: the Mexicaneros, the Tarahumara, the Huichol and the largest ethnicity, the Tepehuans.

They are divided among a group that lives in the north of the state and several that live in the south… a division that came about with the Spanish conquest and Tepehuan resistance.  Although southern Durango is only about 11 hours from Mexico City, Tepehuans speak a language which is more closely related to the Pima of Arizona than the Nahuatl of central Mexico. The largest Tepehuan communities are Santa María de Ocotán, San Francisco, Teneraca, Taxicarinaga, San Bernadino de Milpillas and Lajas.

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Tepehuan morral at a temporary exhibit at the San Luis Potosí Railway Museum

Tepehuan beliefs are a syncretism of indigenous and Catholic. The most important type of ceremony is the mitote or xibtal, which centers on a dance around a bonfire, accompanied by one-stringed bow instruments.

The state’s indigenous people in general produce pottery and textiles, almost always for utilitarian and ceremonial purposes. The southern Tepehuans are noted for the making of traditional carrying bags called morrals, distinguished by bags made by other groups by their geometric designs. These and certain other small items are woven on backstrap looms and the designs are woven into the fabric, embroidered or both. Most Tepehuan women and many men still wear traditional dress, but the material used for these garments is commercially-made. The women’s dress bears a striking similarity to that of Otomi women, which makes sense as the Spanish brought indigenous from this and other central Mexican groups to Durango to help conquer and settle the area.

Pottery is also done but all of Durango’s native peoples. The state does not have a large or long history of fine pottery making and that made by Tepehuans and others is particularly rustic. It is mostly limited to simple bowls and other containers as well as some figurines, especially those of deer.

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Despite being told that this was all that the Tepehuans do. I did come across a cooperative doing one other craft, pine needle baskets. Durango has wide expanses of pine forests. The O’dam Cooperative is based in a very small town about 200 km from the city of Durango (I could not catch the name) although they have a presence in the city. I found a young boy selling these baskets at a park and bought a small one.

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I met briefly with the representative of the cooperative, Rosalio Caldera, who told me the family group began with collecting wild oregano, but moving on to several handcrafts as oregano is seasonal. Pine needles are abundant here, but lighter in color than those used in State of Mexico/Michoacan to produce their baskets. Nevertheless, Caldera told me that one of the main purchasers are handcraft merchants from this area who buy Durango wares to sell.  Their work is as good as anything from there, but unfortunately, the lack of connections and poverty means that the cooperative is still dependent on such middlemen to make any sales at all. They can be contacted, however, through email at cooperative_camar@hotmail.com or Rosalio Caldera can be found at Rosalio caldera on Facebook.

 

 

Going his own way

DSC_0302Roberto Macias is hard to miss. He is a big sturdy man, sporting double-pierced ears and other prominent jewelry. While definitely duranguense, he comes across as a bit of a stranger in his own land.

He began to show artistic inclination as early as age 5, surprising teachers with his ability to model clay. However, he was also getting into trouble for carving figures out of his wooden pencils instead of paying attention in class. Although he took some classes at the city university, Macias considers himself self-taught, indicating that he was (and still is) something of a rebel among Durango artists and artisans. But it is people like Macias who think outside the box, and create surprising new forms.

His most prominent work is the making of decorative masks using the petioles of palm fronds, which after the thin part of the frond is cut off, make for a kind of thick triangular or diamond shape. This shape forms the basis of his masks, making most elongated, almost African-like. In fact, a number of his works even have cowrie shells, which he states is his recognition of Mexico’s African heritage. Macias says that Mexico does not like to acknowledge that the country even has one, but since African slaves were more numerous than Spaniards in the colonial period, he considers them more important to Mexico’s mestizo heritage than even the Spanish.

DSC_0290He began making masks in relation to theatrical productions, as a way to earn money. He still does this… and makes certain artistic and specialized musical instruments. He began experimenting with working with palm frond petioles while in college, although he says that he took some flak for this from his teachers. He claims that the local art teachers have little imagination and are mostly interested in doing what was done before.  Despite this, he has continued to make masks of this and other materials, particularly ceramic and various metals, finding enough of a collectors’ market to make the activity viable. While the masks have a definite signature style, one that influences masks made with other materials, no two are exactly the same.

Macias’ creativity extends into other areas as well.  There is a gray area between folk and fine art and Macias’ work not only blurs the line, sometimes it stomps all over it. He has experimented with just about any material an artist might use, and then some. But aside from the masks, most of his work has been wood sculpture and a novel take on cartonería.

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In Durango City, one can see a number of dead trees, often very large ones, which have been converted into sculptures. The tree itself often determines what will be carved but almost always it is something figurative and human. Macias’ work of this type mostly dates from the early 2000s and in locations just south of the city center. While his fotos, taken during and just after completion show his talent, unfortunately these sculptures have not been maintained since.

Cartonería is at best nascent in Durango, but it does exist. Macias take on it is to create a base form with Styrofoam then cover in paper and paste. The purpose behind this is to avoid having the final structure hollow, making it sturdier and less-prone to collapse. The innovation does not stop there. Most of his works are then given other layers, usually with amate (a bark paper whose history goes back at least as far as the Aztecs) and often with leather and even metals.

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Taking his own road has had its benefits as well. He has a permanent exhibition of his palm and other masks at the Museo de las Culturas Populares in Durango and has had a number of exhibitions of his work, most recently at the Instituto Municipal de Arte y Cultura in the city of Durango.

The maestro can be contacted via his cell phone at 618 134 5683. He does not have a web presence.

Mexican mandalas

Sometimes when exploring new areas, you see something that seems quite out-of-place, but upon learning more, find out it is not.

This was my experience discovering a craft called “woven mandalas.”  I knew the term “mandala” as related to the ephemeral artworks made by Buddist monks but did not know the word’s meaning has been extended to cover a number of artistic and semi-artistic objects with a spiritual, cultural or psychological significance.

GodsEyeGreen440Ojos de Dios or God’s Eyes. People of my generation at least remember making these in grade school with colored yarn and Popsicle sticks. I’m sure I was told of the Eye’s cultural history, but I forgot it until I came to Mexico many years later and saw them again in Jalisco.

The Folk Culture Museum in Durango city has a temporary exhibit of the “woven mandalas” (mandalas tejidos) called “Cardinal Points” by an artist and artisan called Patricia Gonzalez. Like God’s Eyes, they are of various types of colored yarn and/or other types of string, wrapped around thin wood sticks that criss-cross in the center. But these weavings are far more complicated than any God’s Eye.

Intrigued, I managed to get contact information for Gonzalez from the museum (which is quite helpful in this respect) to see if I could learn more about her and the mandalas.

37031082_439954809815409_2079566260701495296_nPatricia Gonzalez is a 27-year-old native of the city of Durango. She comes from an average family with deep roots in the state. However, this family does not have an artist or artisan history. She is the first to study visual arts, attending the School of Painting, Sculpture and Handcrafts affiliated with the Juarez University of the State of Durango.  She graduated four years ago with abilities in various arts and handcrafts, including sculpture, photography and cartonería.

She began drawing and making figures when she was a child, especially in school.  When it came time to go to college, she originally wanted to study marine biology but her parents made her stay in Durango. After looking at a number of options, none of which she liked, her father brought home a brochure for the program at the School of Painting, Sculpture and Handcrafts. She was particularly drawn to the program in graphic design but opted for the more rounded program in visual arts. Her mother was not terribly supportive of the decision, and worries that Gonzalez will “die of hunger.”

37026364_10211945982621232_5441877796307599360_nNeither Gonzalez nor anyone in her family is Wixáritari (Huichol), but she became interested in God’s Eyes after meeting a Durango Huichol woman and began researching it while Gonzalez was still in school. Quite possibly out of respect as well as artistic curiosity, Gonzalez quickly moved away from doing the Wixáritari-style Eyes to new forms called mandalas.

The origin and development of these complicated weavings is unclear. Almost nothing at all seems to be written about them but a Google search brings up the work of several artisans in the United States. Gonzalez says she has seen similar weavings from Europe and even Brazil. Gonzalez believes they are derived from God’s Eyes, but also have various foreign influences (including the name).The craft also has a strong connection with psychology, used both to help diagnose patients and as therapy, and Gonzalez works with a local psychologist. She says one use it diagnostically can be to give a patient very thin string or yarn to work with. If the patient is highly anxious or stressed s/he will have trouble working the delicate material, and may ask for something sturdier.

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However they developed, most of Gonzalez’ work has the same basis as God’s Eyes, two crossed sticks that represent the cardinal direction (NSEW) with others added depending on how complicated the final weaving is to be. No two weavings are alike and there is much flux in what is made. Some of her displayed work abandoned the circular format completely and some adds other media such as masks and dreamcatchers (itself considered a type a mandala).

Thanks to the artisan for images of her work. She can be reach through her Facebook page.

A rant about scorpions

I have been writing this blog for almost 3 years and those of you who read regularly know that I keep it positive.  There is so much good that happens in this field that when I come across a craft or artisan that, shall we say, is not the best, it is easy to simply ignore it.

However, there is one “artesanía” here in Durango that comes up on all the tourist websites and many other resources related to the state. In fact, if you believe some of them, it is almost the only one… this is the encapsulating of scorpions in plastic and using this to decorate souvenirs. I will say up front that I am not a fan of this.

I could simply say that this is a cruel way to dispatch these creatures, but that is kind of hypocritical. I have no problem with leather, bone and other crafts made with animal parts. I could also say that the problem is that the resulting “crafts” are purely tourist souvenirs, but it is the tourist industry that supports much of Mexico’s handcraft industries… for better and for worse.

I think the main problem I have with it is that it is not really creative. It does not take talent to drop a scorpion in hot plastic then glue the result onto something. Unlike other animal-based crafts, it also has no historical value. It does not create something that was useful now or in the past. It does not represent a way to use a part of an animal that might otherwise go to waste. The animal is killed specifically to create the souvenir. It does play on the very real danger that the arachnids had, and to some extent, still have. But the result is still kitsch. I would class it as a “manualidad” not an “artesanía.” I have no problem that people need to make a living, but I do not think this activity should be in the same class as others with much higher cultural importance.

The state of Durango does have some real artesanía that is lost behind the overwhelming abundance of dead scorpions in the Gomez Palacios market. My hope is that in the next few months, I can showcase them here.