Monday, February 21, 2011

San Bartolo Coyotepec

Oaxaca has a wealth of folk art: telar de cintura (backstrap weaving), pottery, alebrijes (wood carvings), tin work, rugs, jewelry, ceramic figurines, embroidery, totomoxtle (corn husk figures), leather work, and more. The Museo Estatal de Arte Popular de Oaxaca (State Museum of Popular Art) in San Bartolo Coyotepec is filled with fine examples of each. On the main floor the museum displays pieces from its permanent collection. On the second floor the museum displays special exhibits which recently has been “Tres Colores — Indigo, Cochineal y Caracol” an exhibition of telar de cintura from throughout the state of Oaxaca curated by Remigio Mestas from his personal collection. Remigio works with only the most talented weavers and has a gallery on Macedonio Alcala in Oaxaca. The colors refer to the natural dyes of blue, red and purple indigenous to the region.

San Bartolo Coyotepec is also home to the famous barro negro pottery. You can visit talleres y tiendas (workshops and stores) where you can see the whole process and buy more than you can lug home. A traditional craft of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs, examples of barro negro pottery have been found at a number of archeological sites, fashioned mostly into utilitarian items. Originally the pottery was matte and grayish and very sturdy. In the 1950s, Doña Rosa Real discovered that she could change the color and sheen by polishing the clay with a quartz stone and firing at a slightly lower temperature. After firing, the piece emerges a shiny black instead of a dull gray. Barro negro pottery is not glazed, its color is due to the properties of the clay. Traditionally modern potters’ tools are not used, the clay is molded on plates balanced on rocks to that can be spun by hand. Large pieces, such as cantaros are fashioned from the bottom up adding clay as the piece grows. After they are shaped, drying can take up to three weeks in a well-insulated room to protect them from sudden changes in temperature. Pieces intended to be shiny black when finished are polished when the piece is almost dry. The surface of the piece is lightly moistened and then rubbed with a curved quartz stone. This compacts the surface of the clay and creates the metallic sheen and dark color during firing. This is also when decorative accents such as clay flowers or small handles are added. The pieces are then fired in underground pits or above ground kilns, using wood fires that heat the objects to between 700 and 800 °C. When they emerge, the polished pieces are a shiny black and the unpolished ones have a grey matte finish.

From barro negro many different objects are made including whistles, flutes, bells, masks, lamps, animal figures, pots with most being decorative and not for storage of food or water. One exception is the use of cantaros from San Bartolo Coyotepec to age and store mezcal at many distilleries. These large jars are not polished and retain the ancient gray matte, which allows them to be resistant to liquid. Cantaros are also used as musical instruments, struck like a bell producing a crystalline sound. A famous barro negro object is chango mezcalero or mescal monkey which holds between 700 ml and 1 liter of mescal with a cork or corncob stopper. It is not polished and either left grayish with detailed etchings or painted in bright colors.

You can reach San Bartolo Coyotepec via second class bus or colectivo. You can reach the museum website here. It’s in Spanish but there are links to an extensive photo gallery under the link Colecciones. Norma Hawthorne’s website ‘Oaxaca Cultural Navigator’ has more information including a youtube video on the “Tres Colores — Indigo, Cochineal y Caracol” exhibit. I have about 30 more photos in a picasa web album here.

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