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The New Breed
Of Mexican craftsmen

by Javier G. Buj

An exciting new breed of artisan is capturing the attention of international collectors, pushing exports of Mexican handcrafts to record highs.
Drawing from traditional skills and techniques, these young craftsmen are wooing markets abroad and at home with stylish new designs and ideas for some of Mexico's most time-honored crafts. Black and white cowhide equipales, colorful paper maché furniture, leather covered pottery, glass and steel creations... the commonplace items of this nation's past are being reinvented to meet the twenty-first century.
Look around with wide eyes, in nearly any modern Mexican home it is almost impossible not to catch sight of some object of folk art, or artesania as it is referred to here. These colorful pieces are a manifestation of the Mexican spirit. Some have practical uses, others are decorative additions to our spaces, or aids for communicating with other times and different cultures.
A companion to man's evolution, the actual date of birth of handcrafts is lost in pre-history. Through folk art, we are reminded how human we are. In the past, these pieces were used to help communicate with the gods, along with numerous other items which were believed necessary in performing religious ceremonies. More recently, in part as a result of the Industrial Revolution, these items have become decorative objects. Within each piece, from the materials used to the techniques, the endless possibilities of human creativity is evident.
The countries and regions with richly diverse climates, resources and village populations tend to produce a wider variety of hand made items. Mexico, and the Americas in general, are perfect examples of such places.
Materials such as clay, paper, horn, wood, stone, metal, glass, wax, textiles, fiber, molded sugar, and many others, are converted into unique works of art in the hands of the artisan. Many techniques have been inherited from prehispanic times.
Styles vary from the different regions, each having an unique and unmistakable touch. From Oaxaca, Guerrero, Michoacan, Jalisco, Nayarit, Puebla and many other states, the forms and colors of the traditional arts are assorted and stimulating. Other states are not as fertile in the production of creative arts. For example the northern Mexican states of Chihuahua, Sonora and Durango do not possess a great tradition of folk art. Part of the explanation for this is the ethnic origins of the people. The villages are largely nomadic, and as any seasoned traveler can attest, when moving from place to place one carries only what is most necessary. Thus, part of the reason for the folk art being more limited and rustic in these areas.
It is not easy to classify the many different types of artesanias, but professor Ivette Ortíz Miñique, from the University of Guadalajara, has given us the following basic outline:
Ethno Artesania: handmade arts created by indigenous peoples. These objects invariably demonstrate a spirit of creativity beyond just the materials and techniques used in their formation. The individuality of the artisan and customs of the village are reflected in the pieces. The traditional means in which most indigenous folk art is created has been handed down through the generations, and to date many objects are produced in the exact same fashion, and for the same purposes as they were thousands of years ago. Examples of such items are the metate, a small stone platform used for grinding corn by hand, and the molcajete, which is also made of stone, used commonly throughout Mexico for grinding chiles for salsa or making a delicious guacamole.
Neo-Artesania: contemporary hand made items, but with distinctive quality. These pieces are from all corners of the world, and are most frequently known as imitations of museum originals. As Mexican artisan Luis Mariano Aceves explains, "neo-artesania" is something that is well made, a piece which one is proud to sign his name to. It can be an adaptation of a museum piece, but with the design changed, improved upon."
Mexican Curios: industrially or semi-industrially mass produced objects which are of a lower quality, commonly referred to as "tourist art." Produced for commercial reasons, the unique originality which characterizes hand created items is lost, replaced by a lower grade consumer product used for decorative purposes.
In coming editions we will explore the creations of contemporary Mexican craftsmen, the innovative young designers who draw from a wealth of traditional skills, bringing our past to the future.
Note: Only 1.5 percent of Jalisco's 20,000 artisans have the resources to directly export their products abroad.
Director of the National Crafts Fund, Maria Ester Echeverria, said the majority of producers either use a trading house, or don't export at all. She adds that most artisans end up receiving only a small part of the 120 percent markups their products sell for overseas. Promotion and the development of international events are key to the continued growth of this important industry.