There are many ways of getting to know a country, its people, its customs and traditions. One is traveling the country from North to South and from East to West. Another is studying what has been written about it. And another is observing its daily life, talking with the people, investigating its customs.
Art is one of the fundamental elements of a people’s temperament; it is a faithful reflection of their relationship to the world and their way of looking at life.
A visit to Mexico is marked by the colorfulness found in the streets, the homes, and the utensils, an example of the joy every Mexican emanates, of his imagination, his skill in producing the most wonderful works, and in particular, his ability to create fantasies.
Crafts are a people’s imagination, dexterity and dreams, expressed in an article that brings together the past and the present. The fact is that in practically all areas of life in Mexico there is a fascinating mixture of the native and the contemporary.
A large number of the crafts that are produced today come from pre-Hispanic times, and many of them are still made with the same techniques that were used hundreds of years ago!
In those times, the art of the people was basically religious.
Works were created to be used in ceremonies. The adoration of gods inspired the creation of masks, paintings and drawings, ritual objects such as bowls, incense holders, ceremonial robes…
On the other hand, trade between the different towns was very important because objects had to be made that served as merchandise.
The conquered peoples also had to pay, so they produced luxury articles, ceramic, precious fabrics, and objects made with feathers.
Later, when the Spaniards reached America, they brought new craft-making methods and new forms of organization. Native art was nourished by the European influence; originating a mixture that today results in the craftwork we admire so much.
The vast majority of crafts are made by hand or with the help of very simple tools: a hammer and chisel, a rudimentary loom, a kiln for baking clay pieces.
Handicrafts are produced by small groups of people who generally work in their homes, meaning that the entire family takes part in the process.
Sometimes, as in the case of silverwork, the father casts and makes the large pieces and the children produce the smaller pieces, consequently, they learn the trade when they are very small and learn to do it, usually to help out with the family economy, and later on, a their own trade. Thus, the tradition is handed down from generation to generation.
Sometimes, it may take a family of craft artists several weeks to produce what we find in a market, since the manufacturing processes are slow.
They generally work during the week, and on the weekends, they go to the markets to sell their small production.
Craftsmen are patient individuals who love their work. Endowed with great imagination and ingenuity, their work is the result of an extraordinary creative capacity and their own experiences of daily living.
Handicrafts are not just decorative objects with a great attraction for tourists; rather, they are actually articles that serve in carrying out daily tasks: clay pots and large wooden spoons are used for cooking, glasses and plates for eating, embroidery and weaving for dress; sombreros are used to shade one from the sun, and almost all tools for working the earth. And naturally, artisan-made toys are especially popular among children!
Objects produced for religious ceremonies and fiestas are also especially important.
For Christmas, there are ornaments, nativity scenes, lamps and piñatas; on the Day or the Dead, there are little paper or sugar skulls, plaster skeletons, incense holders, candle holders, and toys for the “ofrendas” (or offerings for the dead), as well. For the Fifth of May and Independence Day celebrations, there are straw sombreros, wooden noisemakers, and all types of flags.
Most of the artisans live in constant contact with nature, since many of them are also country-dwellers. They spend part of the year sowing and cultivating crops, and the rest of the time, while they wait for the harvest, they produce handicrafts, supplementing their income.
Their source of inspiration are the lovely landscapes they are accustomed to seeing, the animals, birds, flowers… in other words, they are nourished artistically by Nature that surrounds them. For this reason, they have ample contact with the raw materials they use, such as the clay used in ceramics, or the plants and vegetables from which they get their pigments, or the stones for their sculptures…
The imagination and creativity of the artisan is inexhaustible; no two pieces are the same; there are always new, original details… and for this reason, the person who buys a handicraft has in his hands, an object that is unique in the world!
Different types of crafts are produced throughout the country. Each place specializes in a type of work, depending on the geographical characteristics. Weaving is made in some places, in others ceramics, and in still others, metals are the raw material that is worked.
Particularly in indigenous areas, textiles have remained pure in style and production methods that date from pre-Hispanic times.
There is a wide variety of weaves, decorations, dyeing styles, and great wealth of design.
The loom used most frequently by native artisans is of pre Hispanic origin, and is called a waist loom. It is built by the weaver herself, who ties one end to a post from which the loom hangs, and the other end, at a lower level, to her waist. The decoration of the weavings are finished with multicolored embroidery.
Known worldwide are the objects made of precious metals such as silver and gold. For the indigenous peoples, silver was the god of darkness. The artisan who worked these metals was highly esteemed, and was said to be a man who was “experienced, who knows the face of things”.
Taxco is a small town of narrow, cobblestone streets with small red roofed houses, whose inhabitants work exclusively with silver.
Copper has been worked since before the Spanish Conquest, and today in Santa Clara del Cobre, in the state of Michoacan, it is hammered to produce jugs, glasses, bells, and candlesticks.
One of the best tests of the skill and passion the artisan employs in his work can be seen in the finishings known as lacas (lacquers), a very complex production that requires great care of detail.
In the hands of artisans, both quarry stone and hard stone forsake their inanimate state to become saints, virgins, fountains and animals. The carving of quarry stone has a grandiose history in the pre-Hispanic period.
All the indigenous cultures had magnificent sculptors; proof of this are the enormous Olmec heads and the Toltec Atlases. Quarry stonework today is generally used to decorate gardens.
Glass reached Mexico with the Spaniards. Filled with wonder, the natives exchanged their gold for the glass beads the Conquistadors offered them.
The first glass factory was established in 1542, in the state of Puebla, where the “blown glass” technique became popular. The most popular blown glass handicrafts are beer mugs, glasses and jugs.
There are innumerable crafts made from paper.
Amate paper is obtained by pounding the bark of a Mexican tree of the same name, after which it is decorated with landscapes, figures of birds, and flowers. This handicraft combines the work of two Mexican states: the amate is made in Puebla, and is painted in Guerrero.
A trend has recently begun, of painting amate paper with scenes of daily life of the
region’s inhabitants: peasants working the land, the celebration of a wedding, a bullfight. These are called “Story” Amates because they recount an event. Most of the painters make human and animal figures in profile, like those of the pre-Hispanic Codices.
Also made of paper are the piñatas which are used for parties. Because they are much in demand, these craft objects are produced in many of the country’s markets.
Clay pots are lined with newspaper and then decorated with thin wrapping paper. Traditional piñatas have the shape of a five point star, but today there is an unlimited variety of designs: balls, animals, and even movie and T.V. characters!
Paper with cutout designs is produced for parties with a hammer and a small chisel to perforate rice paper, giving it the form of silhouettes.
Papel Picado and Paper Puppets
As we can see, craftsmen transform the materials that nature offers them, into exceptionally beautiful objects for daily use.
The genius and skill of the Mexican artisan is demonstrated in the enormous variety of articles he creates with his hands, in – which he leaves a little piece of his heart and soul.