SAFEGUARDING MEXICO’S BIO-CULTURE
Mexico is a country of extraordinary biological and cultural diversity. As such it has a special role as a repository of the genetic and cultural inheritance essential to a sustainable future (Carruthers D. 2001). This richness in diversity is reflected in the crafts that indigenous cultures have developed over the centuries. Traditional crafts demonstrate a profound syncretism and harmony with nature and while some of these crafts are still relatively relevant, in recent years traditional crafts have been engaged in an increasingly desperate struggle to remain relevant in a hyper-industrialised world (Hughes P., 2011). To safeguard the natural heritage that has given shape and meaning to these cultures, we must also safeguard their craft traditions, which are a pivotal part of the culture. Understanding this link, the history of crafts and how they have come to be is fundamental in any preservation effort.
By appreciating and using crafts that are made from natural materials and sustainable sources, we are helping to ensure the sustainability of indigenous cultures and ultimately ourselves.
One of the most prevalent crafts used in Mexican households are tortilla holders. These have defined Mexican culture to some extent. A variety of materials are used to create basket for this purpose.
In this case this tortilla holder is woven from tule, a soft and manageable fibre that grows in lake Lerma’s shores. Artisans from across Mexico use these materials to weave a variety of beautiful crafts.
An un-used handcrafted tortilla holder from San Pedro Tultepec (from Nahuatl Tule’s hill), State of Mexico.
Artisan: Mauricio Solano
Provenance: Tultepec, Estado de México
Dimensions: 40 x 3 x 36 cms
This tortilla holder has been woven from otate, a type of reed, one of the most prevalent of Mexican basketry crafts materials. Perhaps because reed (phragmites autralis) naturally spreads with ease and is readily available in various regions of the country. A myriad of craft objects is created with these fibres including baskets, animal figures, crate, cages and more.
Artisans from across Huazalinguillo in northern Hidalgo use colours obtained from native plants harvested in the region to differentiate their baskets, making them truly appealing.
An un-used handcrafted tortilla holder from Huazalinguillo, Hidalgo.
Artisan: Feliciano Hernández Bautista
Provenance: Huazalinguillo, Hidalgo
Dimensions: 15 x 6 x 15 cms
Plants are used to colour dye the otote in Huazalinguillo, Hidalgo. Photo: Artefacto, 2014.
Various sizes of reed are used depending on the desired finished product. Huazalinguillo, Hidalgo. Photo: Artefacto, 2014.
An unfinished basket in Huazalinguillo, Hidalgo. Photo: Artefacto, 2014.
This tortilla holder has been woven from chuspata, a type of aquatic fibre that grows on Patzcuaro lake’s shores. Chuspata is harvested and used by artisans to make a variety of decorative and utilitarian crafts.
Puacuaro is a small Purepecha village.
The Purepecha, a group of indigenous people centred in the northwestern region of Michoacán, are known for their skills in weaving and pottery.
An un-used handcrafted tortilla holder from Puácuaro, Michoacán.
Artisan: Delia Mejía
Provenance: Puácuaro, Michoacán
Dimensions: 22 x 12 x 22 cms
Chuspata stacks in Puácuaro, Michoacán. Photo: Artefacto, 2013
Dryed chuspata ready to work with in Puácuaro, Michoacán. Photo: Artefacto, 2013
A river stone is being used to flatten chuspata fibres in Puácuaro, Michoacán. Photo: Artefacto, 2013
A wooden mold is being used to shape a chuspata basket in Puácuaro, Michoacán. Photo: Artefacto, 2013.
Chuspata basket-making process
Henequen (Agave fourcroydes), known by the Maya people as ki is an extremely versatile and useful fibrous agave plant. The Maya people of the Yucatan Peninsula use the word sóoskil to describe the henequen fibres, which are used to create a variety of crafts, such as hammocks, mats, tortilla holders and sculptures.
During the XIX century henequen became known as “the green gold” due to the economic spill it brought to the region driven by international demand for this very useful fibre.
According to Mayan mythology, Zamná, a well-known priest, discovered henequen when walking in the fields. He was stung by a spike and then he noticed that the fibrous plant could be useful to his people.
An un-used henequen mat woven using the coil method.
Artisan: María Minela Can Gil
Provenance: Xocchel, Yucatán
Dimensions: 33 x 1 x 33 cms
Mayan peasants harvesting henequen in the early 20th century. Photo: F. Gómez Rul.
Henequen plantation near Ake, Yucatan, Mexico. Photo: ZuyuaT, 2015.
- Henequen is harvested sustainably in many regions of the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico.
- After the henequen plant is extracted, the leaf is positioned in a wooden instrument known locally as burro che’.
- The leaf is secured by using a wooden block.
- The henequen leaf is scrapped with a wooden stick known as bakche’.
- The bakche’ forces water out of the plan, revealing the long fibres henequen is known for.
- The dried fibres are then rolled manually to make a thread, this process is knows as jaax
The molinillo, is a kitchen utensil used as a frother; it is considered essential by many Mexicans to the preparation of chocolate and other beverages. Its main function is to dissolve the chocolate and create the foam, that traditional chocolate drink is known for.
To make chocolate, the molinillo is vigorously rolled back and forth; the rings and the holes and the twirl of the molinillo forces air into the liquid chocolate, whipping the beverage into a foam.
The dark colour of this craft does not come from a paint, rather is the result of the wood being burnt from friction.
An un-used molinillo, shaped with an electrical lathe, partially burnt and decorated with incisions.
Artisan: Juan Alonso Rodríguez
Provenance: Santa María Rayón, Mexico
Dimensions: 7 x 34 x 7 cms
A twirling molinillo being used to used to make Pozontle, a local beverage in Yalalag, Oaxaca. Photo: Artefacto, 2014.
A molinillo resting on top a a gourd after being used to make Pozontle, a local beverage in Yalalag, Oaxaca. Photo: Artefacto, 2014.
Despite molinillo’s single function is to create foam, a great variety of molinillo designs exists ranging in size, decoration, materials, details, techniques and features.
The simplest of molinillos consist only of a single wood branch, known as chicoli. Today molinillo making tradition has become a truly remarkable art form of highly detailed and sophisticated designs.
An un-used molinillo made with hand-powered bow lathe.
Artisan: Gualberto Campos
Provenance: Santa María Rayón, State of Mexico
Dimensions: 6 x 28 x 6 cms
This cup has been handcrafted in Los Reyes Metzontla by Popoloca artisans. This small village, located within the Tehuacán Cuicatlán biosphere reserve is known for its burnished pottery, a technique that is still practised in various communities across Mexico. The pottery is not glazed but rather polished with a hard object, making the surface of the finished product very shiny. This technique makes the pieces harder and more waterproof.
In addition to the burnished finish, some pieces are covered with a layer of bee’s wax that further seals the surface, making them even more resistant. As a result, these items are more versatile and durable than most Mexican earthenware.
An un-used set off burnished plate and cup. This craft was commissioned by Artefacto in 2014 and has become a popular craft in the collection ever since.
Artisan: Adela Cortés
Provenance: Los Reyes Metzontla, Puebla
Dimensions: 16 x 10 x 17 cms
Adela adding materials to sustain the fire on her adobe kiln in Los Reyes Metzontla, Puebla, Mexico. Photo: Artefacto, 2013
A clay craft is submerged in bee's wax immediately after removing it from the kiln at Los Reyes Metzontla, Puebla, Mexico. Photo: Artefacto, 2013
Adela applying bee's wax to a jug in Los Reyes Metzontla, Puebla, Mexico. Photo: Artefacto, 2013
Adela applying bee's wax to the inside of a cup in Los Reyes Metzontla, Puebla, Mexico. Photo: Artefacto, 2013
Petates are large flat mats made from palm fronds traditionally used as a bedroll. They have been used to wrap bundles, to sleep on and bury the dead. They are still relatively common, especially in indigenous communities. Its name comes from the Náhuatl word petlatl.
It can be extended on the ground for lying down or sleeping. During the day the petate normally rolls up and hangs from the wall, freeing up space in the room. In very warm places it is used to sleep outdoors. It is also used for drying seeds, grains, tortillas, and other foods in the sun, to prevent contamination from touching the ground.
An un-used handcrafted petate.
Artisan: Mauricio Solano
Provenance: Tultepec, Estado de México
Dimensions: 40 x 3 x 36 cms
Petates being used as bedrolls in Mexico City ca. 1951. Photo: López N., 1951
Petate salesman in Mexico City ca. 1910. Photo: Mediateca INAH.
A Nahuatl holding a petate and a jug ca. 1905. Photo: Mediateca INAH, 2020.
Despite their contributions, indigenous artisans in Mexico remain largely in poverty and many of their crafts are at risk. Indigenous communities hold the world’s biological, ecological, and cultural diversity so they play a fundamental role in protecting nature.
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Research and design by emerging independent curator Juan L. Scott
Special thanks to the collaboration and valued photographic contributions of Eric Mindling, Salvador Cueva and Javier Flores Cruz.
Special thanks to all the artisans that I have been able to work with and who had kindly share their knowledge and trust in our initiatives.
For questions and inquiries about the exhibition please contact us !