In general, handcrafts are distinguished from art, although both are creative. In Mexico, that division is not always so rigid. In fact, there are three categories: arte (art), with what we generally call “handcrafts” divided into two important categories “artesanía” and “manualidades.” Both artesanía and manualidades are items created by hand in a non-industrial manner, but “artesanía” has a higher status for cultural, historic and/or artistic reasons.
There have been interactions between the artist and artisan communities of the country. In 1920s, several artists worked to promoted traditional Mexican handcrafts through documentation and political action. From then until the present, artesanía and artisans regularly appear in Mexican art. Artisans have also blurred the lines, using traditional techniques to create exquisite pieces and taking classes in painting and sculpture to take crafts in new directions.
It is not necessarily the material that attracts artists, but rather the shapes, forms and traditions that have been developed with the materials. This includes the humble paper mache or cartoneria.
Carolina Esparragoza is a modern sculptor who has worked in various mixed media, including electronics, such as a set up of cinescopes for a exhibit called “Memorias” (Memories) in 2015.
But she holds a special place in her heart for the low tech cartoneria. It has a long history in Mexico City and some other parts of Mexico. One of the traditions associated with cartoneria is the making of Lupitas. These were hollow paper knock offs of more expensive porcelain dolls made principally for sale at fairs and festivals, popular from the 19th century until they were ultimately replaced by even cheaper plastic dolls in the mid 20th century.
They are still made and generally sold to collectors or to those who had one in their youth, but it is a dying trade. Fascinated by the dolls, and the opportunities they presented for creativity, Esparragoza got funding for the “Miss Lupita” project. The idea was to recruit both experienced cartoneria makers and members of the public to create dolls, using traditional techniques, but with new designs and themes.
The project culminated in a kind of “beauty pageant” held at the Talavera Street Cultural Center in the historic center of Mexico City, where the dolls were presented and participants had a chance to talk about their experience making the dolls. The goal of the project was to promote the dolls as a way to teach the value of arts and creativity to the general public. In total, 134, 45cm tall dolls were created depicting dancers, lucha libre figures, mermaids, Godzillas, prostitutes, goddesses, catwomen and a number depicting famous woman such as Frida Kahlo. Each received names such as Siempre Viva, Hanami, La Memoria. One was named Andy in tribute to Andy Warhol.
This project ended in 2011, but in the Fall of 2016, Esparragoza set up a new series of workshops for the public. This time the theme was “calaveras or calacas,” animated skeletal figures which are ubiquitous for Day of the Dead (November 2), and capture the Mexican attitude towards Death. The name of this project was Rueda tu calavera (Spin your skeleton), which took traditional cartoneria skeletal figures and mounted them on platforms used to animate traditional Mexican toy figures. Adults and children took six classes with the aim of creating figures that depicts famous figures from Mexico’s cinematic history, all of which able to move using the gears and levers of the platform.
Projects such as this show not only is even the most humble of Mexico’s handcrafts traditions important to its culture, but show that an artistic sense in an integral part of “artesanía.”
All photos by Leigh Thelmadatter unless otherwise indicated.
Mural with traditional Mexican pottery by Diego Rivera at the Secretary of Public Education building in Mexico City (Credit:Kgv88)
Traditional Lupita doll