Mexico's Richer Side; 'Dreaming' Opens Vistas on Surreal, Indigenous Art

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 21, 2003 | Go to article overview

Mexico's Richer Side; 'Dreaming' Opens Vistas on Surreal, Indigenous Art


Byline: Joanna Shaw-Eagle, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Can poverty spawn great even good art? With its vibrant "Dreaming Mexico: Painting and Folk Art from Oaxaca," the Cultural Center of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) answers with a resounding "yes".

Economically, Oaxaca (pronounced Wa-ha-ka) is the poorest and most diverse state in Mexico. Artistically, it's one of the most creative. Exhibit curator Felix Angel has combined paintings by internationally known Oaxacan painters Rufino Tamayo, Francisco Toledo and Rodolfo Morales with delightful groups of surreal ceramics and the indigenous form of hand-painted and sculpted fantastic animals known as "alebrijes" (ah-lay-bree-heys). The products of this region's extraordinary energy and imagination, accentuated by the hot pink walls of the IDB exhibit rooms, are sure to keep visitors happy for hours.

It's fortunate that Oaxaca has these indigenous folk arts to support it economically. The alebrijes, inspired by the much larger papier-mache figures of Mexico's famous fiestas with their blaring mariachi trumpets and seemingly endless supplies of tequila are the state's chief source of income. Now most U.S. cities, especially those with large Hispanic populations, have shops that sell the little animals, which promise, as vibrant transmitters of pulsating fiestas, to liven up buyers' own homes.

Mr. Angel, an artist himself, went directly to the alebrijes carvers in Oaxaca, saw them working and selected the best pieces for the exhibit. He says there's a strict division of labor. The male carvers first go to nearby forests for pieces of their preferred copal wood that are "just right" (carvers follow the natural contours of the wood for the alebrijes). The craftsmen are inspired by the animals that roam these forests and the neighboring rocky hills.

The men then sculpt fantasy images that could easily come from fairy tales, such as the exhibit's "Dragon con Lengua de Fuego (Dragon with Fire Tongue)," created by Pablo Vasquez Matlas, and "Sirena Voladora con Dragon (Flying Mermaid with Dragon)," made by the HEMAFER Crafts Cooperative. Unlike our fairy tales descended from Europe, they are happy and nonthreatening.

After carving, women paint intricate, colorful designs on the forms, but the men sign the finished pieces as the last step. Mr. Angel says he was astonished by the way whole communities continually and collaboratively turn out the figures.

Oaxacans make outstanding ceramics. They model images of icons Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, as well as vividly colored figures of peasant women wearing their native dress. A particularly amusing woman, one of the "Dos Campesinas Tipicas (Two Typical Peasant Women)," holds a hefty chicken in her right arm, supports a tiny calf on top of her head, and holds a nursing "baby," actually a diminutive man, up to her voluminous breasts. …

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Mexico's Richer Side; 'Dreaming' Opens Vistas on Surreal, Indigenous Art
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