Folk Art Traditions of Mexico
¡Feliz Cinco de Mayo! In celebration of this Mexican holiday, MIR is highlighting some of the beautiful folk art traditions from our neighbors to the south that many Americans may not know about. In recent years, these items have been elevated from being viewed simply as crafts to being considered as fine art in their own right. Perhaps you’ll be inspired to find something unique to add to your collection!
Alebrijes are brightly colored and densely patterned painted papier mâché or wood sculptures of imaginary creatures, often consisting of an amalgamation of components from different animals. The origin of the alebrije comes from the mind of Pedro Linares, a cartonero (papier mâché craftsman) working out of Mexico City. The story goes that, in 1936, Linares fell very ill and had a fever dream in which he found himself in a forest surrounded by fantastical animals chanting the nonsense word “alebrije”. Upon waking, Linares’ fever broke, and he got to work making the creatures he had seen out of papier mâché. He started selling these creations at the mercado, and did so well that Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo began commissioning Linares to make alebrijes for them. Linares, a native of Oaxaca, shared the alebrijes with craftsmen from his hometown of Arrazola, and Manuel Jimenez, a local artisan, started to make the creatures out of copal wood. The Zapotecs from the Oaxaca area have a long tradition of woodcarving, and copal wood was considered to have magical properties.
Descendants of both Linares and Jimenez carry on the tradition of making alebrijes, as well as other artisans, and sometimes even entire families and villages. The alebrijes borrow elements from different animals, including dragon bodies, bat wings, dragonfly wings, antlers, bird feet, leopard heads, turtle shells, fish bodies, lizard bodies, and skulls. Any animal part you can think of can potentially be included to form an alebrije. They also come in a variety of sizes, ranging from small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, to monumental in scale. In Mexico City, the Museum of Folk Art organizes an alebrije parade each year, which consists of hundreds of artisans parading their giant alebrije creations through the downtown area of the city. An award is given for the 3 best alebrijes. In the short time that the craft has been around, it changed from a local specialty to being considered a fine art prized around the world.
Given Mexico’s Catholic inclinations, it might be odd to learn that a prominent type of folk art from the country is sculptures of devils. These sculptures, called diablitos (“little devils”), take a wide variety of forms, from a single figure to an entire tableaux, consisting of scenes from religion, folklore, or everyday life. What unites them is that all have a sense of comedy, eccentricity, and debauchery. It is also not uncommon to see other mythical figures included in the tableaux, such as mermaids and ancient gods.
The practice started in the rural state of Michoacán, with a man named Marcelino Vicente, in a small town called Ocumicho. The area has an abundance of natural clay well-suited for pottery, and artisans there have been making pottery using the same method for over 500 years. Though traditionally considered women’s work, Vicente became interested in making ceramics, and was soon recognized to possess quite a talent. He started making diablito sculptures, which were an immediate hit at artisan markets. His work became so popular that in the 1960s Vicente established a workshop with a group of skilled artisans to expand production. The workshop eventually received funding from a government art agency, which helped spread the sculptures throughout more of the country, and Vicente even had a solo gallery exhibition in Mexico City, which sold out. Unfortunately, Vicente was murdered in 1968 at the age of 35, but the workshop persisted with the diablitos, and the genre is still a signature of Ocumicho ceramics today.
Tree of Life Sculptures
Tree of Life sculptures are a form of coiled pottery from central Mexico, particularly the cities of Metepec in the state of Mexico, and Acatlán de Osorio and Izúcar de Matamoros in the state of Puebla. It is likely that the form was inspired by candelabra brought to Mexico by European friars in the 19th century. In the 1920s, a man named Aurelio Flores was the first potter to start making the Tree of Life candelabra form out of clay. The original designs consisted of depicting the Biblical Tree of Life, with Adam and Eve and a serpent.
As time passed, the sculptures became increasingly elaborate, including not only things like animals, flowers, and leaves, but the general themes expanded as well to include other Biblical scenes such as the Nativity, important historical moments, and scenes from everyday Mexican life and culture. These sculptures are painstakingly hand-painted to give an intricate amount of detail to each piece. The Tree of Life sculptures were originally given as a gift to newlyweds as a symbol of fertility and good harvest, however, that practice is less common nowadays.
Mermaids are frequently depicted in Mexican folk art, particularly from the Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Michoacán regions. The prevalence of mermaids stems from a mixture of Spanish imagery with indigenous beliefs. Many natives who had been recruited to help build churches would have seen illustrations of mermaids on Spanish maps and on the title pages of books, where they were frequently depicted. They conflated these mermaids with the Aztec goddess Chalchiutlicue, the wife of Tlaloc, the rain god. As such, Chalchiutlicue is associated with both fresh and salt water, and was the patron goddess of fisherman, sailors, and water sellers. Chalchiutlicue was also believed to be a virgin mother of some of the lesser gods in the pantheon, and therefore it is common to see mermaids in Mexican Nativity scenes.
Huichol Bead and Yarn Art
The Huichol, or Wixáritari as they refer to themselves, are descendants of the Aztec, and are found in the Sierra Madre Mountains throughout the states of Nayarit, Jalisco, Zacatecas, and Durango. The Huichol are known for their colorful bead and yarn artwork, which historically shamans would have made either as an offering to a deity or to illustrate relationships with the spiritual world. Essentially, this art is a form of visual prayer, and, as such, Huichol art is very symbolic.
Huichol beaded artwork is made by covering a carved wood or gourd form with a thin layer of beeswax. The artists then push small, colorful glass beads into the wax, meticulously working to create bright, complex patterns. These designs are impressed onto boxes and plates, as well as on the sculpted forms of masks, animals, and skulls. The Huichol are also known for their yarn paintings, which consist of colorful, complex imagery formed out of yarn pressed into beeswax. These items tend to be two-dimensional wall hangings. Sophisticated Huichol bead art and yarn paintings have become quite renowned on the international art market.
Retablos are a form of ex voto paintings that became popular in Mexico during the Spanish colonial era, reaching its height in the late 19th century. Translating from Latin to mean “from the vow”, ex votos are gifts made as a way of giving thanks for divine aid from a saint or holy person. Typically, the votary is thankful for surviving a perilous situation, such as disease, war, natural disasters, fires, assault, or childbirth. Retablos are most often painted on small sheets of tin, and the designs typically follow a formulaic pattern consisting of a narrative scene of the incident, portrait of the holy person, and explanatory caption. Some retablos consist only of a portrait of a holy figure. Though originally made to be displayed in churches, retablos became popular with art collectors, including Frida Kahlo, who had quite a few retablos in her personal collection. Retablos are still made in Mexico today, and can be purchased at artisan markets. Some contemporary artists have injected a bit of humor into the medium, creating retablos for fake, outlandish scenarios such as surviving an alien abduction.
Esau, Erika and George A. Boeck Jr. “The Mermaid in Mexican Folk Creches”. Southwest Folklore. Volume 5, Number 1, Winter 1981. http://www.esauboeck.com/The_Mermaid_in_Mexican_Folk_Creches Accessed 3 May 2021.
Museum of Anthropology. “Mexico: Create a Huichol Yarn Painting”. Wake Forest University. May 6, 2020. https://moa.wfu.edu/2020/05/mexico-create-a-huichol-yarn-painting/ Accessed 27 April 2021.
NPS. “Alebrijes: Surreal Oaxacan Folk Art”. National Park Service. 2/24/15. https://www.nps.gov/cham/learn/historyculture/oaxacan-art.htm Accessed 26 April 2021.
Oatman-Stanford, Hunter. “Diablitos in the Details: The Curious Tale of Mexico’s Most Peculiar Pottery”. Collectors Weekly. April 5th, 2013. https://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/the-curious-tale-of-mexicos-most-peculiar-pottery/ Accessed 28 April 2021.
Zinnia Folk Arts. “What is a Mexican Tree of Life?”. Zinnia Folk Arts. https://zinniafolkarts.com/blogs/news/what-is-a-mexican-tree-of-life Accessed 30 April 2021.