Traditional Crafts in the
Age of Sustainability
The case for Mexican Crafts
Curated by Juan L. Scott
Mexican indigenous crafts encompass a complex, diverse and wide array of objects that stretch back to the ancient civilisations of Mesoamerica. In this exhibition, we will follow the day of an archetypical Mexican to explore some of Mexico’s most distinguished crafts, but also lesser-known traditions that are at risk. We will uncover the hidden knowledge, stories and beauty behind authentic Mexican crafts and cultures.
The exhibition is divided into three sections, suggesting the three stages of the day: morning, afternoon and evening. In each section, you will be presented with crafts that are used according to the time of the day.
During the morning, xumos and bules, are used to cary water; latter in the day an olotera is used to extract grains from the maize cobs, —a staple ingredient of Mexican cooking—. Baskets are used to store those grains, which are then nixtamalized with a pichancha. Once the maize is clean a metate is used to grind the maize, which is then be stored in a cajete; then, a fire is lit using a blower, while a comal is placed on top of the open fire to make tortillas, which in turn are stored in a tortilla holder basket.
During the afternoon a big pot is used to cook either food; when it is time to rest an equipal is used to rest, while someone else plays a tune using a cántaro, which is not only ideal to carry water but also serves as a musical instrument. Later on a molcajete is used to prepare a sauce; salt is added to the foods using a clay container and to protect the dinner table from food stains or heat damage a henequen woven placemat Is used.
In the evening a molinillo is used to to make chocolate, —a favourite drink of Mexico— and serve it in a clay cup. Finally, after a long day, a petate is used to rest and restore the body for the next day.
For each craft, you are invited to reflect on its significance, the people who make them possible, the reasons they persist and what cultural, aesthetic and environmental value do they hold.
In addition to being useful, crafts embed the truth and beauty of a culture
Artisans from the Huasteca (a region in northern Hidalgo) make a variety of earthenware pots and utensils. Many have been designed to contain and transport water. Such is the case of this xumo that has been handcrafted and decorated with 3 distinct slip colours.
Water is introduced and poured from a single opening, which is sealed with a shortened maize cob called olote, from Nahuatl olotl. The xumo, as well as most earthenware, has the property that, once filled, it cools the water that it contains, acting as natural cooler.
Chililico is a small Nahuatl village located in Hidalgo state near Veracruz. Alongside Macuxtepetla, Oxtomal and Tepexititla these communities provide earthenware for the whole region. The distinctive style and technique have been used from pre-hispanic times. The colours of the natural slips alongside the peculiar motifs makes this craft particularly attractive.
An un-used xumo handcrafted from clay and decorated with natural slips.
Artisan: Guadalupe Hernández Castillo
Provenance: Chililico, Hidalgo
Dimensions: 23 x 27 x 26 cms
A 360º photo of a xumo. Photo: Artefacto, 2020.
Detail of a xumo. Photo: Artefacto, 2020.
This beautiful bule, as it is known in México, has been crafted by Nahuatl artisans from northern Hidalgo state. This bule has been supported and protected by a bejuco structure, which also aids to carry it around with a cord.
Gourds have been traditionally used by most Mesoamerican cultures to carry and consume liquids and foods. The fruit of the calabash tree (Lagenaria siceraria), also known as the bottle gourd is dried and carved hollow to create a container to carry water around like a canteen.
While it is still commonly seen in rural settings, with the introduction of plastic bottles, these crafts are being rapidly displaced. Yet gourds provide a sustainable alternative to disposable containers.
An un-used bule with bejuco, cord and a wood cap.
Artisan: Julio Hernández
Provenance: Humotitla Candelaria, Hidalgo
Dimensions: 17 x 21 x 17 cms
A ésta hermosa artesanía se le conoce como olotera, del Nahuatl olotl. Esta herramienta consiste en un conjunto de corazones de maíz que son atados firmemente, sobre la cual se friegan las mazorcas secas, logrando así separar el grano del maíz.
Lo interesante de esta pieza en particular es el uso de un rodete de carrizo para sujetar los olotes.
Esta artesanía es ejemplar en el uso de materiales ya que utiliza se emplea el mismo desperdicio de la mazorca del maíz quebrado para crearlo. Un claro ejemplo que el concepto de la economía circular se ha entendido y empleado desde hace mucho tiempo por las culturas originarias de México.
An un-used olotera made in Oaxaca with maize cobs and reed.
Provenance: Tlacolula, Oaxaca
Dimensions: 30 x 6 x 30 cms
Vista 360º. Foto: Artefacto, 2020
Detalle olotera. Foto: Artefacto, 2020
A woman in Durango, using an olotera. (Photo: Ayala21, 2020)
A woman in Milpa Alta, Mexico City using an olotera.
- Maize cobs are shortened to a uniform length
- The shortened cobs are placed inside, cords, or wire loop
- The cobs must be as tight as possible to prevent the object from falling apart and work effectively
Source: (Argelia G, 2019).
Cesto de palma
This small round basket with lid is primarily used to store seeds and small goods. Handcrafted from palm by Otomi artisans from Hidalgo state, Mexico.
The people from Tezoquipan in the Mezquital valley are known as Xamati. Artisans harvest palm leaves which are used for thatching, mats, baskets, fans, hats and more.
Basketry is an ancient technology that has been ideality suited for packaging. We can promote the use of baskets instead of the unsustainable use of disposable packaging that continue to pollute our shared environment.
An un-used palm basket with lid.
Artisan: Verónica Delgadillo
Provenance: San Antonio Tezoquipan, Hidalgo
Dimensions: 12 x 9 x 12 cms
Palm basketry making process
- Leaves are harvested from wild palm trees
- Palm leaves are softened by boiling them into water
- The softened leaves are left to dry
- Once dried, they are cut and the sharp edges removed with a needle or a maguey spike
- Before weaving, the leaves are wet and stored in a ximbo, a large maguey leave that keeps the leaves humid and flexible
- Finally, the leaves are cut into various widths and lengths and can be weaved into different patterns
Photos: Artefacto, 2018 and Verónica Delgadillo
A pichancha is a cooking utensil used in Mesoamerican cultures to rinse the excess lime stone from maize after it has been cooked, a process known as nixtamalization, a significant invention that has several benefits over unprocessed grain.
To make tortillas, the dried maize is boiled with lime stone, which softens the outer shell and makes the maize easier to grind and to digest.
The word pichancha comes from the Tzotzil language pin, meaning pot and chachab, strainer, hence strainer pot; when the pot is large and has legs, it is called tlalchiquiuhtle, from Nahuatl tlal (earth) and chiquiuhtle (basket).
Pichanchas are handcrafted from a variety of materials, including fibrous materials, clay and gourds. With the introduction of inexpensive plastic strainers, the use of pichanchas is becoming increasingly rare.
An unused, unglazed and slightly burnished pichancha.
Artisan: Manuela Velasco
Provenance: Santa María Atzompa, Oaxaca
Dimensions: 27 x 23 x 27 cms
Deep inside Oaxaca’s highlands of the Sierra Juarez is Tavehua, a small Zapotec village. Artisans create traditional cookware and a variety of crafts.
The process to create this craft begins with the sourcing of the clay and slips that provide Tavehua pottery’s peculiar orange colour.
This pichancha has been commissioned as part of an effort to revitalise traditional kitchen utensils. Handcrafted in collaboration with Elsa González.
In the Zapotec language, pichanchas are known as shaa’ nhilhe, shaa’ meaning pot and nhilhe meaning nixtamal, the process of removing the husks of maize, before the preparation of maize dough to make torillas and other foods; this process is fundamental to Mexican cuisine.
An unused, unglazed and slightly burnished pichancha with handles.
Artisan: Elsa González
Provenance: Santa María Tavehua, Oaxaca
Dimensions: 21 x 16 x 25 cms
Skilled hands carefully perforating a shanila pot. Tavehua, Oaxaca. 2014
A pot alongside a recently created shanila in Tavehua, Oaxaca. 2014
Anatolia applying the characteristic orange slip of Tavehua pottery. 2014
Manure and pine needles are used create an open fire, where items are fired. Tavehua, Oaxaca. 2014
Firing process in Tavehua, Oaxaca. 2014
Pottery crafts after the firing process in Tavehua, Oaxaca. 2014
Fotos Serie Proceso de creación de barro en Tavehua, Oaxaca, Artefacto, 2014.
Jícara —as it is commonly known in many rural parts of Mexico— is a craft made with the jícaro (Cresentia Cujete), a round fruit that is dried and then cut in half. The word jícara comes from the Nahuatl xicalli, meaning cup made out of fruit.
Beyond its function, many artisans have used jícaras as a means of artistic expression and have carved highly detailed and sophisticated motifs.
In this instance, a pichancha has been handcrafted by perforating its entire body. This craft is then used as a strainer to prepare various foods and beverages.
An unused gourd perforated and incised to make a pichancha.
Artisan: Javier Magaña
Provenance: Cunduacán, Tabasco
Dimensions: 17 x 14 x 17 cms
Woman, preparing indigenous beverage ca. 1980 (photo: Sergio Abbud, Fototeca CDI)
Woman, preparing indigenous beverage ca. 1980 (photo: Sergio Abbud, Fototeca CDI)
A metate from Nahuatl metlatl is a ground stone household kitchen tool used for processing grain and seeds. In Mesoamerican cultures, metates are used to grind maize and food preparation, such as tortillas, chocolate, sauces and more.
The hand-held thin, elongated stone used to grind the organic materials is known as metlapil in Nahuatl.
The use of this ancient craft has been threatened by modern electrical and mechanical appliances, however, these tend to break down easily and have a high ecological footprint. Moreover, the stone provides minerals and a peculiar flavour to foods and the quality of the grinding can be better controlled with a metate.
An un-used handcrafted metate and mano, made with natural, locally sourced volcanic rock.
Artisan: Aida Apanco
Provenance: San Pedro Cholula, Puebla
Dimensions: 60 x 25 x 30 cms
- Volcanic rock is extracted and roughly cut into shape by hammering
- The legs of the metate are formed by removing more material
- The edges are profiled and the shape of a metate starts to reveal
- Edges are squared and detailed
- All the surfaces are flattened
- The metate is ready to cure, before using it for the first time
Source: (giovaschannel, 2014)
Texts and images by Juan L. Scott, unless otherwise stated