Although best known for the beaches of Acapulco, most of the state of Guerrero is a world away from nightclubs and ‘Spring Breakers’. Poor, mountainous and with inadequate infrastructure, most of the state’s rural (and indigenous) populations still rely on the land and its gifts to survive. Such conditions allow many traditions to survive as well.
Although modern production is heavily influenced by European and even Asian influences, the lacquerware of Olinalá is one of the remaining pockets of economic activity with pre-Hispanic origins and used to exist in much of what was Mesoamerica.
The history of the craft is well-documented in oral tradition, as well as records dating back to the first centuries of the colonial period. Like other handicrafts, it was developed to create wares for local use, generally utilitarian. One local variation was the creation of decorated gourds for holding liquids, carried by indigenous women on their heads. Another traditional use was the making of a large chest in which a bride brought a collection of goods meant for the new household. Some of these antique chests can still be found.
The making of very fine lacquerware, including pieces with gold leaf, can be traced to the San Francisco de Asís convent in the 17th century.
In the 1920s, the making of lacquered items here was documented by Rene d’Harmoncourt, but it nearly disappeared by mid century. By the 60s, only 20 or so master craftsmen remained.
Interventions by writers such as Carlos Espejel and Mexican government agencies in the 1970s worked to promote the work to the outside world and preserve techniques and designs. One artisan to greatly benefit from these efforts was Francisco Coronel, who worked to revive a sub-type of Olinalá lacquer called “dorado.” For years, he was the only one producing this type and just about all artisans who do this work today studied under him. His work was gifted by the Mexican government to Queen Elizabeth II during a state visit in the 70s and later to Pope John Paul II. Coronel won the National Folk Art Prize in 1978 and the National Prize in Sciences and Arts in 2007.
The craft’s comeback did not make a significant impact on the town’s economy until the late 80s and 90s. Today, Olinalá is Mexico’s largest producer of lacquered items, with the majority of the people involved in the craft in some way. Lacquer faces many of the same challenges that other traditional handicrafts do: principally competition from cheaper imitations and younger generations who look for easier ways to make a better living. The items that are lacquered vary greatly here. Gourd cups such as those made for Aztec nobility for drinking chocolate can still be found, but they are overwhelmed by European-inspired wood items fashioned into utensils, boxes, chests, screens, masks, toys (cars, helicopters, etc.), musical instruments and even entire bedroom or dining room furniture (made to order).
While there have been some concessions to the modern age in both materials and techniques, most artisans still honour the past. Individual pieces can take from weeks to months to make, but much of the reason for that is the drying times needed between stages. Wood pieces are made by carpenters who cater to lacquer artisans. The best pieces are made with a local tree called olinalué (Lignum aloes), valued for its pleasant scent. However, overharvesting has made this wood expensive, and most pieces are now pine, which may be treated with the scented oil.
Lower quality pieces may use commercial oil paints, but traditional wares are treated and coloured with lacquers made by the artisans themselves. The best of these are produced from crushed chia seeds. The colouring comes from local earth pigments. No matter how the piece is decorated, all pieces get a base lacquer coat with defines the background colour. Unlike other parts of Mexico, these background colours can vary more including white, red, dark blue and black. In traditional workshops, even brushes and other tools are made by artisans. It is a marvel the fine work that can be done with simple tools made from turkey quills, thorns and cat hair.
Olinalá lacquer subdivides three styles. The oldest and more technical is called “rayado” (lit. scratched). The other major style is called “dorado” (sometimes “aplicado”), possibly introduced by Franciscans in the 17th century. The name “dorado” (gilded) does not mean that the piece has gold leaf, but it is a nod to a time when pieces of this type could have it. The last style is called “punteado” or dotted. This combines main elements applied through the rayado technique. But rather than leave the exposed background colour plain, it is filled in by painting tiny dots in the space. This is a 20th-century innovation which became popular starting in the 1970s.
Although most pieces are still traditional in form and decoration, there is innovation in some directions. New colours such as pastels have been introduced as well as new and modern design elements such as tigers. Artisans have also experimented with painting designs onto new items for markets such as bottles, handbags and jewellery. This shows the very strong influence that modern collector’s and tourist markets have on the craft’s evolution.
Just about everyone in Olinalá is involved in some way, but most labor anonymously in their homes for relatively little money. Pieces are rarely signed and if they are, it is by the person who made the decorative design. This work is usually reserved for adult males in the family. Most artisans learn as children, apprenticeship style, but in the past few years, state and federal agencies have worked to provide training and other help to artisans in more formal settings.
As noted extensively in Part 1, getting to Olinala is not easy. One can buy directly from artisans there and get discounts from between 10% and 50%. But the real benefit is not financial but rather getting a sense of where the lacquerware comes from, the culture and people behind it and how it is made. For this reason, Olinalá does get visitors, even as far away as Europe because of its lacquer. (The town has several basic and inexpensive hotels.) But most people buy Olinala wares through retailers in Mexico and abroad. One notable place is a long-time stand at the gourmet San Juan Market in Mexico City.
My husband and I did consider returning to Mexico City by first driving to Chilpacingo, as the highway between there and home is a first class toll road, but several artisans and other residents dissuaded us, stating emphatically that the road to Chilpancingo was far worse than the one we used to arrive. Deciding that we preferred the devil we knew, we took their advice. There had been rain the night before and, believe it or not, made the road worse with new rockslides. Total travel time,