April is the hottest time of year in the Rio Balsas valley, midway between Mexico City and coastal Acapulco. A half-finished dirt highway coils up and down steep ochre hillsides, dotted with low trees and many-armed cactus. Between the hills, the river snakes along the baking bottomland, its blue-brown water reflecting a big sky and the blazing sun. The fields are still brown; planting begins in May when--with luck--the rains come. This is the landscape that has inspired two generations of Nahua amate painters.
These indigenous artists live and work at a strange frontier between past and future. They are Nahuatl speakers, self-taught, many of them living the traditional Nahua farmer's life. On the same type of bark paper used in Aztec codices, the amate painters tell the historias, the ongoing story, of the Nahua people. Within the stylized borders that frame the paper, their picture-stories run like a river between mountains: village life, celebrations, field upon field of corn, harvest, dreams, death; the razor edge of modern life and its politics, strife, and protest; and underlying everything, a deep love of the earth and the river and the radiant sun.
The amate movement built on age-old Nahua practices, but it became a connecting force for people of the Rio Balsas and beyond: a bridge between the Nahua and the wider world, with patrons and collectors in Mexico, the United States, Europe, and Japan seeking out the painters and their work. Though amate painters are not as well known as some other traditional Mexican artists, over the years many collectors and connoisseurs have been drawn to the state of Guerrero, lured by the images coming out of the Rio Balsas region. The interactions among the artists and their patrons--including their united response to a major threat to the community--added another layer to the Nahuas' story.
Martial Camilo Ayala, among the best known of the amate painters, lives off a narrow, bustling street near the city center of Cuernavaca. Thanks to a Mexican collector and patron, he has an apartment with an attached studio. But he retains strong ties to the village of San Agustin Oapan--where his brothers Juan and Felix, also recognized amate painters, still live--and keeps a house and farmland there.
Camilo is a compact man with eyes that seem to watch the world while looking within. In his studio, a fan cools the spacious tidy room, floored in large pink marble tiles. Shelves holding jars of paints and brushes, and paintings in various stages--most commissions for clients--hang on the peach-colored walls. Yard-wide sheets of amate paper unroll in raw-silk shades of cream, silver-gray, and purplish brown. The paper is heavy, its texture densely alive with swirls and fissures, as if the tree still lived within. Camilo special-orders it for weight and durability. "I want to have a high-quality paper for my customers," he says.
Up the long hill to Xochicalco, some of his works--from the collection of a Mexican patron--are on display. The museum sits at the top of a broad hill adjacent to the ruins of Xochicalco, with its solar observatory, stone temples, ball courts, and terraces. In its little garden, under a plum tree, sits Marcos Antonio Santos Ramirez, director of the museum and of the Xochicalco archaeological region. Amate paintings, he says, embody the vision of an ancient past.
"In olden times, tlacuilos--painting specialists--played an important role. They made the paints, painted the buildings, and produced the codices that expressed their worldview. In Mesoamerica, this worldview was rooted in agriculture, and the work of these ancient artists revolved around the cultivation of corn," Santos Ramirez says. "The painters of the Alto Balsas have taken up this tradition using amate paper--the same material that was used for the codices. So the amate painters have rescued the traditions and worldview of pre-Hispanic times. …