A slightly darker, Baroque take on folk sculpture

Jose Juan Garcia Aguilar comes from the world-renowned Aguilar family from the small town of Ocotlán de Morelos in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. The family’s feat is no small thing given Oaxaca’s reputation for producing many of the best artisans Mexico has to offer in so many different fields. Ocotlán itself is home to a vibrant pottery tradition, as well as the making of fine knives and other blades.

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The family’s fame began with Jose Juan’s grandmother, Isaura Alcantara Diaz. Although she died at the young age of 44, she managed to break from the town’s traditional utilitarian pottery to found her own tradition, the creation of decorative human figures, depicting life in rural Oaxaca with emotion. She was followed by her daughters including Jose Juan’s mother, Josefina Aguilar Alcantara, who reinterpreted these new figures. Josefina became known for creating sets depicting events such as baptisms and large female figures called “muñecas” (lit. dolls). These became famous after Nelson Rockefeller began adding them to his impressive collection of Mexican folk art.

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Jose Juan at the Feria Maestros del Arte

The next generation continues to reinterpret the craft, but keeping with the idea of depicting life in and around Ocotlan. However, in this case the sons stand out, principally Demetrio and Jose Juan. Jose Juan is Josefina’s younger son, born in 1974. He began watching his mother as a child, and at age 8, began to work the clay himself. Initially, his work was influenced by Demetrio, but he has since gone on to create his own unique style, and is recognized as a premier folk artist in his own right.

Jose Juan generally works on his own, with only the help of his wife, who generally paints the primary colors. While Jose Juan does make some sets, most of his figures are solitary pieces. Much of his inspiration comes from religion, with images of saints, virgins and angels, but he is also known for creating almost grotesque insects and animals with skull heads. He states that much of his inspirations comes from his area of Oaxaca, but also from Mexican folklore such as naguals (a kind of animal spirit), alebrijes (fantasy creatures of different animals parts, with highly detailed painted designs) and his own imagination. His idea is to reinterpret the culture in his own way.

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He works to make his works more fine, and less rustic than that of his mother and grandmother. He also works with watercolors and metallic paints (generally gold and silver) instead of acrylics. He also prefers darker colors and large quantities of details in his figures, giving them a Baroque effect.

Jose Juan’s work has been sold and exhibited widely in Mexico and the United States and can be found in a number of important public and private collections of Mexican folk art.

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Perfection not within sight, but within reach

Sergio Alberto Ortega Álvarez is a 33-year-old musician and stringed instrument maker, who is located in the small community of Ajusco, in the far south of the Federal District of Mexico City. Although born and raised here, Sergio’s specialty is the traditional music of the state of Veracruz and the Huasteca region, which extends from the north of this state.

 

Sergio began playing music when he was a child, and quickly developed a preference for traditional music. He has family roots both in the Hidalgo state portion of the Huasteca on his father’s side and a connection with southern Veracruz through his mother’s father, home of Son Jarocho. He belongs to a Huasteca musical group which plays mostly in Mexico City, with invitations to other parts of Mexico, mostly to Huasteca festivals in the region.

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To state that he is a blind musician who plays both the Huasteca and Veracruz jaranas, guitar and requinto (a small guitar) may not be impressive, as there are a number of famous blind musicians. However, it is another thing to state that he also makes and repairs these and other stringed instruments…

Sergio was born blind with music coming into his life early. He became a proficient musician but wanted to learn how the instruments he plays were made. He stated that people thought that it was not possible for a him to learn to make instruments because of the need for precise measurements. However, about eight years ago he found one of several instrument makers who were willing to teach him apprentice-style, adapting crafting methods to being touch-centered, rather than sight-centered. He has since continued to develop his craft, from buying specialized tools such as a tape measure that speaks the measurements to continuing to find new ways to make his works.

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Sergio specializes in the same instruments that he plays, jaranas, requintos and guitars, selling most of his work through attendance at traditional music festivals in Mexico. He also uses these festivals to network with others interested in preserving and promoting traditional Mexican folk music to find long-term clients.
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The craftsman’s work has been featured in the Mexico City newspaper La Jornada, and on the National Polytechnic Institute’s channel Canal 11.

He can be contacted on Facebook at Super Jaranas Ortega and reached by cell at +52 (55) 10 11 20 19

 

Photographs courtesy of Sergio Ortega

Dolls out of prison

I had no idea how much working on the dolls affected the women’s self-esteem. I have had comments like “I’ve been told all my life that I’m good for nothing, but I can create something this beautiful. So I now know that that’s not true.” – Rebecca Roth

 

Sometimes treasures come out of unusual places and from unlikely circumstances. Such is the case of Original Friends Dolls, a program for making one-of-a-kind cloth dolls in the  Reclusorio Feminil of Puente Grande, just outside of Guadalajara, Mexico.

The story behind the dolls is a fascinating one. It started with Rebecca Roth, an American who moved to Mexico in 1998 and until early 2006, ran a business in Puerto Vallarta. In March of that year, she was taken by Mexican authorities for questioning about an incident in 2001. Unfortunately, there is no presumption of innocence in Mexico upon accusation, Rebecca had to go to prison while her case wound through the court system for four years. Her case was finally dismissed for lack of evidence.

Prison is hard for anyone, but especially when you don’t know the language well, and find yourself shared a 6-person cell dormitory with 13 women and one young child. Rebecca found a number of outlets to help her cope with prison life, but the good to come out of this bad situation came in relation to the little girl.

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Edith Margarita Muñoz, who continues to work with the project

Lupita at time was only 15 months old, having been born in the prison after her mother became pregnant after a conjugal visit from her husband. Mexican prisons allow such babies to stay with their mothers until age 3, but there isn’t much for a young child in such a place. Lupita had only a couple of empty plastic Coke bottle to play with. Having had taken some basic sewing classes, Rebecca decided Lupita needed a doll. She asked for scraps and created a doll with orange yarn hair, purple eyes, a white blouse and multi-colored skirt. Lupita fell in love with it instantly, and named the doll “Mia” (mine in Spanish). That doll went everywhere with the girl, including to Islas Marias facility that her mother was transferred to later on.

Rebecca didnt think much more about the doll until a cellmate complained about the need to make better money than what the prison shops could afford. Mexican prisoners need to make money to pay for their basic supplies such as toilet paper, and the earning opportunities are pitiful. Rebecca thought about the doll and suggested that they make some for an upcoming prison art show to see if they could sell. So Esmeralda Hernández José joined Rebecca to makethe dolls and to their surprise, their first customer was the warden!  The prison still very much supports the project, taking no cut of the proceeds and making sure visitors to the facility see it, as Rebecca says, “… it gives them bragging rights.”

Before Rebecca’s release in 2010, the two women sold about one hundred dolls, to guards, visitors and others. Despite the unjust incarceration, Rebecca still loved Mexico and wanted to stay and continue the project, now called Original Friends Dolls, a name suggested by Esmeralda. The imprisoned women who participate made about one doll a week and are paid for their production every Friday. It is up to Rebecca, Esmeralda and others to get them sold on the outside. The program is so popular that is there is a waiting list.

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The witch Rhielle by Esmeralda hanging around her new home

1,500 named, number and signed dolls later, Original Friends have evolved quite a bit since the creation of Mia, although they are still made almost entirely of scraps, ribbons, lace, buttons and more, most of which is donated from the outside of the prison. The dolls are no longer meant to be children’s playthings but rather collectibles.  Almost all are figures of women, with a few of men, and tend to be long and lithe, measuring about 60cm tall, with the exceptions of the mermaids which are “shorter” because of the curved tails. They have long extremities which are often movable. One interesting technique is with the legs , with bendable knees achieved by making the legs in two pieces and connecting them with a large wood bead “knee.” Almost all have some kind of lace or sequins, jewelry or other sparkly bits. Faces are painted on but any small elements such as sequins, chains, glasses, etc are sewn on, no glue guns used at all. Rebecca trains all the women that participate, and her basic design is influenced by the work of Elenor Peace Bailey and Patti Medaris Culea

As they are collectibles, they are not cheap trinkets. Almost all the dolls for sale at the 2015 Feria Maestros del Arte ran for 1,200 Mexican pesos (about $90 USD). The Feria is one of their main outlets, but the program is looking for more venues, as another prison, a small women’s facility in Ixtapa, has joined the program, allowing for much higher production.

 

Monsters and pulque

 

In Mexico, folk art is not limited to rural or indigenous communities. Although covered by hardly any artesanía publications, there are artisans in Mexico City and other urban areas, creating rather extraordinary works.

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Section of Iztapalapa (Photo by Correogsk)

Mexico City’s borough of Iztapalapa is the entity’s largest and most populous, often a landing zone for people migrating from other parts of the country and even Central America looking for a better life. This also means that the area  has been overrun with blocks upon blocks of grey cinderblock houses and other buildings, generally poorly made by the residents or landlords with little or no attention paid to aesthetics or sense of neighborhood. It is particularly poor and is not a stranger to crime, with a recent hanging of a dead body on an overpass, mostly likely by a drug gang.

Despite this, the borough is home to people dedicated to various handcrafts. Perhaps the most important of these culturally is cartonería, a kind of hard paper mache, which continues to be used in Mexico to create seasonal decorations, piñatas and more. One particular form which is indigenous to the city is the making of alebrijes… a kind of fantastic multicolored monster, which consists of representations of various parts of animals, real or imaginary. These are then painted in various bright colors, often with intricate designs.

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Bar area at El Tecolote (The Owl)

Two artisans dedicated to cartoneria work in a small “pulquería” or bar that serves pulque, a mildly alcoholic, slightly viscous liquid fermented from the sap of a maguey plant. It used to be as ubiquitous in the city as beer, but today one needs to know where to look to find it.

You would never find the place unless you were looking for it, even though it is on the corner of Avenida República Federal and J. Espinoza streets, only blocks from the Peñon Viejo metro station. The pulqueria is little more than three cinderblock walls, partially roofed, but the front part, where customers enjoy their beverages, is covered only in a tarp. It looks like a strong wind could blow the place apart… and yet…

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The interior speaks of the creativity of the bar’s owner Daniel Vera Sierra, along with his associate, Clara Romero Murcia. I met the two at the annual “Monumental Alebrije” Parade, where artisans create giant versions of these monsters, to parade from the historic center of the city over

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to Paseo de la Reforma Avenue, where they are displayed on this street for the following two weeks. Their creation, called either Metamorfósis or Chanehqueh (guaridan in Nahuatl) stood out not only for its creativity, but by the fact that it was accompanied by a dozen or so people as an entourage, who dressed similarly and danced to bring attention to the creation. In addition, Clara’s very young daughter, in wings and a mask, was on the cart used to wheel the alebrije, stealing much of the spotlight.  Metamorfósis now dominates the center of the pulquería, sitting among the tables.

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Daniel began working with cartonería around 2007, but considers himself to be an artist, rather than an artisan. Indeed, the one solid wall of the pulquería’s customer section is covered in a mural done by him, as well as some smaller paintings on doors in other areas. Daniel’s artistic inspirations include Pink Floyd videos, pre Hispanic art, Salvador Dalí and other surrealistic artists. His interest in cartonería is more in the design and painting, rather than the actual construction and while he has sold pieces, he does not do this for a living. His main cartonería activity of the year is creating an alebrije for the parade, with 2015 being his third year of participation. For him the goal is not to sell the alebrije, or even to win one of the various prizes offered, but rather to see the reaction of the crowd to his work.

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On the other hand, Clara is more the businesswoman and artisan in the sense that most of her work is made for sale. She makes traditional pieces such as Catrinas (a skeletal woman in elegant dress of the late 19th century), other Day of the Dead decorations, masks, costume pieces, paintings with cartonería elements and more. She began this work about 4 years ago, learning from Daniel, calling herself “the teacher’s pet.” However, she has also taught the master. Having taken a class in the use of recycled plastic bottles in handcrafts, she and Daniel now use this material to create a base for the paper to be laid upon, as well as to make a number of details in the final product. This is a rather new innovation in cartonería work, which traditionally used only paper, paste, wire or reed supports and paint.

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Dragon’s head base with plastic and tape

Daniel sells works haphazardly, if someone sees something and wants to buy it. But Clara does market her work, almost entirely on Facebook, with most of her clients being foreigners, principally from the United States. She now has regular clients who order custom pieces. Clara calls cartonería “noble” in the sense that you take very humble materials, garbage really, and make something beautiful. People are not paying for the material, but rather the creativty and sensibility that she puts into each piece.

Despite its obvious creativity and completely non-utilitarian existance, alebrijes are still considered to be artesanía rather than art. But after seeing and hearing Daniel and Clara’s work, this is definitely one very grey area between the two.

 

 

 

Why?

Why?

One thing that captures the attention of many foreigners here in Mexico is the wide range and depth of Mexico’s handcrafts and folk art tradition, nicely distinguished in Spanish with the word “artesanías.”

This is not your primary school arts and crafts, or simple handmade decorations for a party. (Those are separated with the word “manualidades”) Instead, these are items whose value today are both historical and cultural as well as utilitarian and/or decorative, and have a far greater quality than most handcraft traditions. In the United States, perhaps the closest “artesania” tradition is quilt making. Many of these pieces are heirlooms, worthy of passing down, and there are many notable collections of Mexican handcrafts and folk art, such as that amassed by Nelson Rockefeller, who spent considerable time and money investigating and visiting notable artisans.

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Lacquer plate with gold inlay by Mario Agustin Gaspar of Michoacan

Despite its greater appreciation outside of Mexico than within, so much of the wonderful work that is done here, both traditional and innovative, remains highly unknown to the average tourist who sees things like amate paintings of the Nahuas, beadwork by the Huichols, pieces of major pottery traditions such as barro negro of Oaxaca and Mata Ortiz of Chihuahua and the numerous textile traditions….

 

Do you know what a “huipil” is? If you have traveled Mexico or Guatemala, especially in indigenous communities, you have very likely seen one, or a takeoff of one without knowing it. You may have even bought one.

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This is a Chintaneco huipil from Oaxaca

I have lived for over 12 years in Mexico, and have been captivated by various aspects of Mexican culture. I first began delving into it in 2008 by writing Wikipedia articles, reading almost exclusively Spanish language sources, but writing articles in English. Almost all Mexican artesania articles in English Wikipedia were developed by yours truly. I still believe Wikipedia is a very important way to spread knowledge about Mexican handcrafts. Artisans who have Wikipedia pages have told me that they, and others, have noticed them. Carlomagno Pedro Martinez told me that his Wikipedia article “impressed the kids” in his community.

 

But Wikipedia has limitations, the main one being that it requires that all information that remains in the encyclopedia be cited in a reliable source. This means that while it is a great way to get basic information about the subject out to the public, it can only repeat that which is already stated in traditional media sources.

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Giant “alebrije” figure made from hard paper mache or “cartonería”

There is soooooo much important information that is NOT in traditional media sources because for the most part, they have to make money, and there is little money in covering artisans, even those who have won prestigious awards such as Mexico’s National Arts and Sciences Prize. Even that which has been printed is in primarily in traditional paper books, generally available in specialty or academic libraries, not (easily) accessible to the public.

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Weaving an ixtle fiber belt

 

After almost disappearing in the early 20th century, Mexican handcrafts and folk art made a comeback, most recently because of the rise of the tourism industry. But if the common tourist does not know what s/he is looking at in the market, why is a pot, or a huipil, or a silver bracelet from Taxco more than just a shiny bauble? And why would they pay 2-5x the price for the genuine article, instead of the cheap (often Chinese) knock-off?

 

The overall principal goal of this blog is to made more information available online about Mexican handcrafts and folk art. It will profile various artisans from as many parts of the country as possible and not just the better known, but also those who are not known, but doing interesting work. It will also cover other developments in the field, including its relationship to fine art… as there is overlap and a gray area between the two.

 

This is a labor of love and completely non-profit. It is not meant to replace work in Wikipedia, but rather to supplement it.