One of my priorities while visiting Oaxaca was to get outside the city centro and check out some of the smaller villages and experience what Oaxaca is known for – artisans who make exceptional folk art pieces. I had no expectations but just to visit and perhaps purchase something if it really touched my heart. I walked away with much more.
Jacobo & Maria Angeles in the village of San Martin Tilcajete in the central valley of Oaxaca, Mexico
Besides their amazing art…what impressed me the most is how much value they place on honoring their origins and then educating and teaching in their own community. They are keeping their culture/origins alive by making figurines from carved wood called tonas and nahuales and known worldwide as alebrijes. The tonas are animals of the Zapotec calendar and the nahuales are animals fused with a human being. I’d heard about the Zapotec, but honestly wasn’t that familiar with their background. The Zapotec civilization (a culture dating back 2,500 years) was an indigenous pre-Columbian civilization that flourished in the Valley of Oaxaca. I found the meaning of the symbols used in their artwork so fascinating. I’ll let some of their explanations provide the details of their process.
“The woodcarvers need to study the woodblocks in order to find the hidden natural nahual with their imagination and their skill by using the machete. The nahuales are waiting patiently inside the trees until the artist becomes able to discover them through their senses.”
“By the time the carver finishes the piece, we have an observation and treatment process for keeping the quality of the wood. After that, with the help of creative hands that create vibrant colors and patterns, our zapotec origins start to own the wooden piece.”
“Our raw materials have always been creativity and copal. The copal is a tree of the Burseraceae family. It is considered a sacred tree because from it we obtain not only the wood to carve our sculptures, but also a pigment that will be mixed with natural ingredients such as indigo, cochineal and minerals like limestone and zinc for making a wide range of colors.” (What I admire is that the family has been developing a conservation project of copal trees and other native species of plants for more than 10 years. )
“Our cultural heritage is manifested in the iconography that decorates our pieces. Prehispanic symbology and other designs are part of a unique style that we have developed over the years. The most sincere way in which we can honor and share our zapotec culture is with the pieces we create.”
So much meaning, so much emphasis on their culture…their origin…that’s what went beyond my expectations. And yes, two purchases were made. A tonas – the elephant in the image above accompanied by a certificate of authenticity with several pieces of information…such as it took 9 months to make this piece. Oh, and a small bottle of their artisanal tobala joven – 100% agave mezcal. Salud!