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Indigenous Art of Mexico

With arid regions to the north, warm and humid areas to the south, and mild or cold areas in the mountainous regions, Mexico possesses a diversity of climates, soils, and vegetation that provide an abundance of raw materials used to produce indigenous and folk art. Huichol Indians on Mountain Trek

Like the land, Mexico’s people are diverse. Indigenous people, who live mainly in central and southeast Mexico, number 10.5 million. Divided into 56 separate ethnic groups, they have their own social and cultural identities. Many speak their own languages. Together, these diverse peoples provide the creative energy that nourishes folk art in Mexico today.

The term “indigenous peoples”, “indigenous ethnic minorities”, “tribal groups”, describe social groups with a social and cultural identity distinct from that of the dominant society which renders them vulnerable to being disadvantaged in the process of development.

The indigenous peoples can be identified and possess, in differing degrees the following characteristics:

  1. attachment to ancestral territories and to their natural resources;
  2. self-identification, and identification by others, as members of a distinct cultural group;
  3. an indigenous language, often different from the national language;
  4. presence of customary social and political institutions, and;
  5. systems of production primarily oriented towards self-subsistence.

Many of today’s great masters work full-time, either at home or in workshops dedicated to producing their art. Some work part-time, making pieces exclusively for community celebrations. All capture in their pieces a spark of genius, an inspired idea, or notion. To this, they add dexterity, technical mastery, keen aesthetic sensibilities, and versatility. From the selection and processing of raw materials to the addition of finishing decorative touches, the great masters of folkart do it all. The result: singular artistry.

In the 1921 census, Mexican natives were asked if they fell into one of the following categories:

  1. "Indígena pura" (of pure indigenous heritage).
  2. "Indígena mezclada con blanca" (of mixed indigenous and white background).
  3. "Blanca" (of White or Spanish heritage).
  4. "Extranjeros sin distinción de razas" (Foreigners without racial distinction).

The five states with the largest populations of "indígena pura" were:

  1. Oaxaca - 675,119 persons
  2. Puebla - 560,971 persons
  3. Veracruz - 406,648 persons
  4. México - 372,703 persons
  5. Guerrero - 248,526 persons

Because the populations of the various states vary widely, the percentage of pure indigenous persons in a given state may provide us with a different set of results. The five states with the largest percentages of "indígena pura" people are:

  1. Oaxaca - 69.17%
  2. Puebla - 54.73%
  3. Tlaxcala - 54.70%
  4. Chiapas - 47.64%
  5. Yucatán - 43.31%

In the 1921 census, the status "Indígena Mezclada con Blanca" implied that a person was of mestizo origin. Persons classified by this identity usually did not speak Indian languages, but still felt an attachment to their indigenous roots. The five Mexican states with the largest populations of "Indígena Mezclada con Blanca" were:

  1. Jalisco - 903,830
  2. Guanajuato - 828,724
  3. Michoacán - 663,391
  4. Veracruz - 556,472
  5. Distrito Federal - 496,359

The states with the largest percentages of "Indígena Mezclada con Blanca" were:

  1. Sinaloa - 98.30%
  2. Guanajuato - 96.32%
  3. Durango - 89.10%
  4. Zacatecas - 86.10%
  5. Querétaro - 80.15%

The states with the largest populations of "Blanca" or White persons were:

  1. Distrito Federal - 206,514
  2. Chihuahua - 145,926
  3. Sonora - 115,151
  4. Veracruz - 114,150
  5. México - 88,660

In percentage terms, the "blanca" classification was most prominent in these states:

  1. Sonora - 41.85%
  2. Chihuahua - 36.33%
  3. Baja California Sur - 33.40%
  4. Tabasco - 27.56%
  5. District Federal - 22.79%

Seventy-nine years later, the 2000 census attempted to determine the number of Mexican people who considered themselves to being indigenous, without reference to language. In order to calculate the indigenous people, the census used three criteria:

  1. Persons who speak indigenous languages (aged 5 and over)
  2. Persons aged 0 through 4 who live in indigenous households
  3. Persons who consider themselves Indian but do not speak an indigenous language.

The five states with the largest numbers of persons classified as "Indígena" in the 2000 census were:

  1. Oaxaca - 1,648,426 persons
  2. Chiapas - 1,117,597
  3. Veracruz - 1,057,806
  4. Yucatán - 981,064
  5. Puebla - 957,650

The five states with the largest percentages of Indigenous people were:

  1. Yucatán - 59.2%
  2. Oaxaca - 47.9%
  3. Quintana Roo - 39.3%
  4. Chiapas - 28.5%
  5. Campeche - 26.9%

In contrast, the five states with the largest numbers of persons who spoke indigenous languages and were five years of age or more were:

  1. Oaxaca - 1,120,312 speakers of indigenous languages
  2. Chiapas - 809,592
  3. Veracruz - 633,372
  4. Puebla - 565,509
  5. Yucatán - 549,532

Of great interest to some people would be the states with the least populations of indigenous persons in the 2000 census:

  1. Aguascalientes - 3,472 persons
  2. Zacatecas - 4,039 persons
  3. Colima - 6,472 persons
  4. Coahuila - 7,454 persons
  5. Baja California Sur - 11,481 persons

In terms of percentages, the five states with the smallest percentages of indigenous persons were:

  1. Zacatecas - 0.3%
  2. Coahuila - 0.3%
  3. Aguascalientes - 0.4%
  4. Guanajuato - 0.6%
  5. Nuevo León - 0.8%

While many of the inhabitants of Aguascalientes, Zacatecas, and Guanajuato do have indigenous roots, the level of assimilation and mestizaje that took place in these areas over the last four centuries has diminished the original Indian identity.

The indigenous identity of the Mexican people is hard to quantify and classify from one state to another, from one linguistic group to another, so census statistics cannot be considered entirely reliable. However, the 1921 and 2000 censuses do give us the best view of indigenous identity, when compared to other census years.

Molinero Pot"So, what does the future hold for indigenous art? Only time will tell. But it seems likely that potters will abandon gathering their own clay from the earth, having to pulverize and process it by hand, when commercial clays are available; that artists who use the traditional stiff brushes chewed from the midrib of a yucca leaf will begin to use commercially made brushes to paint designs; that rather than take the many hours needed to gather and process wool, spin it, dye it, and then weave it on handmade looms, weavers may go to automated equipment and store-bought yarns." ("The Many Faces of Mata Ortiz")

Maestros' Group ShotThe thread that runs through the folk art of all peoples is a significant one. Exhibitions such as Feria Maestros del Arte and the collector’s who purchase from them will help to preserve not only the art objects themselves, but help to keep alive the emotion and enjoyment found in owning a beautiful piece of art, of being able to touch and hold it, experience the new dimension it adds to your home on a daily basis.

What is art . . . and are you a collector?
Huichol Beaded Jaguar HeadWebster’s dictionary defines art as “making or doing of things that have form and beauty: art includes painting, sculpture . . . products of creative work . . .” Handicraft is defined as “an occupation or art calling for skillful use of the hands . . .” Some would argue that handicrafts are not art. For the purpose of describing the work of the Feria's artisans, “art” is the only word that aptly describes their endeavors.

"A famous art collector once compared the collecting of art to big-game hunting - picking up the scent of a prey, tracking it down, bagging the prize and then happily exhibiting the trophy in one’s home. However, for most of us, purchasing a piece of art is an aesthetic pleasure. There was no yearning for possession, only the desire to have the chance to admire a work of artistic creation in our daily lives." (from an unknown publication)

Juan Orta MaskThere is no specialized knowledge required to be an art collector or to simply purchase a piece of art, nor must you spend exorbitant amounts of money for it to have value. The value is realized moment by moment as one looks at the new treasure. Does it speak to you? Do you care? A piece of art like that is one you'll never tire of.

Beautiful versus useful . . .
Majolica PotThere is a tendency in modern times to downgrade the value of the beautiful and overstress the value of the useful. Because the value of art can be sensed through emotions and requires no intellectual investigation, appreciation of art is ultimately in the eye of the beholder and its value is whatever you will pay for it. The job of the artist is to awaken that eye, to offer you something you cannot make yourself, something that moves and stirs your imagination and love for beauty.

Handicrafts - Folk Art . . .
De la Cruz CatrinaHandicrafts are rightly described as the craft of the people. While many of these art forms serve a positive need in the daily life of the people, they also act as a vehicle of self-expression. The story of art and handicrafts goes back into the mists of antiquity, when the story of man was beginning to advance into an age when the capacity of the hands to create was respected, even revered. Handicrafts thrived through the ages helped by a vigorous folk tradition and a time when individualism was cherished, and detail and precision were valued.

The artisan was an important factor in the equation of their society and culture. He earned for himself a certain status and a responsible position in society. He made things mainly for the use of the people around him and not so much for sale in a distant marketplace. He was an heir to the people's traditions and he interlaced them into his craft making it into an art.

Feria Maestros del Arte offers you a chance to meet the artists themselves and perhaps take home a piece of Mexico's heritage. If you have questions or inquiries, please call Marianne Carlson at 011522 376 765 7485 or email mariannecarlson@gmail.com

(Our thanks to Norm Tibor for the use of his photographs)


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