Oaxaca: Craft as Culture

Oaxaca: Craft as Culture

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Making alebrijes, like this jaguar carved by Florencio Fuentes Melchor and painted by his wife, Paula, is usually a family affair in San Martin Tilcajete near Oaxaca.

In the Mexican colonial city and its surrounding villages, the arts are a way of life.

You have to work hard not to find craft in Mexico's colonial city of Oaxaca; if you're not careful, you'll literally bump into it, as women with textiles slung over their shoulders (low overhead!) stroll through the central square. At the other end of the economic spectrum are upscale galleries and shops; somewhere in between are the outdoor booths and the craft market, all selling locally made textiles, ceramics, tinwork, and whimsical wooden carvings called alebrijes.

The area draws from a rich culture that includes indigenous peoples such as Zapotecs and Mixtecs (among others), and is justly renowned for the quality and impressive diversity of its crafts, most of which trace their roots back generations, if not centuries. Most of the artisans whose work can be found in the city come from nearby villages, each of which specializes in a particular medium. (The Xochimilco neighborhood in the city where much of the hojalata, or tinwork, comes from is an exception.) Given this history, a source of local pride, it's little surprise that artists often speak of la herencia - heritage.

To preserve that heritage, many artists have banded together in cooperatives to help stay afloat economically. The 10-year-old Casa de las Artesanías de Oaxaca started with four partners who sold from a booth in the zócalo, or central square, where the government charged them rent. Today, 65 artists working in a wide range of media comprise the co-op. They share all costs and revenue - regardless of who sold what - on a prime piece of real estate near the high-traffic, high-tourist andador (pedestrian street) of Macedonio Alcalá.

"It's been really good for me and my family, since we had no space to sell our work," says Serafín Martínez González, who comes from the nearby weaving village of Teotitlán del Valle. Casa de las Artesanías director Francisco Jaime López García and Anselmo Cerqueda García, who runs the recently opened Plaza de Artesanías co-op, both stress that the organizations have a social as well as an economic dimension: an ethos of community and service.

The Centro de Arte Textil Zapoteco Bii Daüü, another co-op, sprang up in Teotitlán in the past several years (bii daüü means "divine breath" in the local language). Its members are particularly intent on preserving the tradition of all-natural dyes, which had been supplanted in recent decades by faster, cheaper artificial ones. The traditional dyes are derived mostly from plant sources, as well as cochineal, an insect that lives on cacti and yields a rich, deep magenta-red. The co-op has initiated its own farming project, using earth-friendly practices and solar energy. It's also the first village co-op to include both men and women, and younger and older artists, says director Mariano Sosa Martínez; younger artists include his 16-year-old son, as well as up-and-coming 20-year-old weaver Javier Lazo.

The prosperous homes with storefronts that line the road into Teotitlán bear witness to the economic benefits many have reaped from their craft; even in San Martín Tilcajete, a more modest village where alebrijes are made, artists like the Fuentes and Melchor families have been invited to the United States for demonstrations and workshops. No one is unrealistic, however: Most of the trade depends on tourist purchases. La Plaza's Cerqueda García estimates that at least 70 percent of their revenue comes from tourists. Carlomagno Pedro Martínez, ceramist and director of the Museo Estatal de Arte Popular de Oaxaca in San Bartolo Coyotepec, puts it even higher, at 95 percent.

And while the artisans are not working in a factory, alebrije artist Ivan Fuentes voices a common frustration: striking a balance between products made to sell - even if handmade and one of a kind - and artistic expression. (Still, if you fall in love with a specific work, be it an alebrije, jewelry, or black pottery, you'd be well advised to buy it; you may never find another with the exact combination of colors or motifs that entranced you.)

La herencia also remains a living thing. At Casa de las Artesanías, López García and fellow ceramist Juan Ramón Acevedo Ruiz are exploring decidedly contemporary forms. Carlomagno Pedro Martínez, whose family is one of the oldest in San Bartolo, a center of black pottery, is part of a larger generation of university-trained artists who emerged in the 1970s and '80s. Now a maestro of the medium, the ceramist made a name for himself with his impressive tableaux based on oral traditions mixed with social and political themes, a kind of visual magical realism.

Moreover, craft artists are arising from the city of Oaxaca itself. Weaver Adrián Gómez stumbled on his calling when he went to Teotitlán some 40 years ago as part of a government initiative to install electricity. His work is highly representational and technically intricate, with subjects ranging from playful, dreamlike scenes to a striking meditation on violence. Also based in Oaxaca, Sergio Lazo creates spare, modern designs for woven handbags, which can be seen at the city's Blackbox gallery, a gemlike showcase of cutting-edge Oaxacan artists. The Museo de los Pintores Oaxaqueños recently exhibited Rosendo Pinacho's ceramic vessels barnacled with sea flora and fauna, and Hugo Tovar's sly, large-scale sculptures of hip, urban animals made from scrap metal.

Thirty-year-old Luis Pablo, whose wood carvings are gaining a following, also comes from outside the traditional artisan villages. "I was just a kid in Oaxaca; I saw the alebrijes, I liked them, and I started doing them. I was completely self-taught in the beginning." A cousin who worked in a gallery placed a few of his items in the shop, and they sold. "Once I started earning money, I started looking at the grand masters [like Martín Melchor] and my interest really awakened."

He occasionally has had trouble, however, playing against type. Some patrons don't believe that he is the artist when they finally meet him, he says. They're expecting "an old guy with a gray mustache and a sombrero."

It's perhaps a bit ironic, since the alebrije tradition itself is of relatively recent vintage, about 100 years. And even though the craft wasn't handed down to him through the generations, Pablo is continuing the practice in his own fashion: His partner, Reny Curiel Bautista, and his 13-year-old son, Benjamín, are now part of the family business.

Judy Arginteanu is a freelance writer and American Craft's copy editor.