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Mexican Folk Art 101: Ancestry and Modernity


Folk art is rooted in the history and culture of every nation. The appreciation of folk art strengthens the identity of a community and enables it to take pride in its history. In many cases, the appeal of folk art is centered on the many ways it can connect people across cultures, in the sublime appreciation of the different ways in which a community has chosen to express themselves. Folk art comes alive in different ways for different individuals and for different reasons. This series will explore the many ways in which that 'magic' happens.

This series will be divided as follows:

Folk art is generally conceived as traditional art that has a decorative, or utilitarian function. This art can be used in everyday life or only on certain occasions, and is handmade. Folk art in the territory of what is Mexico today began to appear around 1500 BCE and continued to flourish for 3,000 years (SFO Museum, 2011). At this time civilizations such as the Olmec, Maya, Toltec, and Aztec had different types of folk art and distinctive mastery over their craft.

The Olmecs are famous for their colossal human head sculptures that they carved completely from large slabs of stone. These heads were accurate portraits of their rulers and required the mastery of carving artisans as well as engineers who could move the slabs of stone from one place to another without causing fundamental damage to the stone during transport.

Cabeza Olmeca. MXCity. n.d.

One of the best known Mayan works of art is the Mayan calendar, which was also a useful tool to determine which activities should be performed at which times. These activities were related both to gods and humans, such as the naming of individuals and predictions of the future. The most prominent features of these calendars are their round shape, colourful details, and intricate designs.

Mayan Calendar. Patricia Morales Martin. c. 2012.

The Toltecs, a civilization which is considered to be the predecessor of the Aztecs, created four Atlantean figures which represented warriors and were used to provide support to a pyramid in Tula, an archaeological site that is open to visitors to this date. Apart from providing architectural support, these figures were part of Toltec mythology and today form part of the local folklore. Some researchers believe they are connected to the deity of war Quetzalcoatl, a feathered serpent prominent in mythology, due to the breastplates and other implements that can be seen on the figures.

Atlantes de Tula. Mexico Unknown. n.d.

The Aztecs created a calendar carved into a stone slab named the Aztec Sun Stone, which was used to keep track of the regular days of the year as well as the ritual days of the year. These were represented as cycles in the calendar and used together. The Aztec calendar is currently part of an exhibition in the center of Mexico City and has inspired artists since its discovery.

Calendario Azteca. 2022.

Given that the techniques to make folk art were and continue to be taught from a master artisan to apprentices, when social, political, and cultural changes occurred, the art changed as well. This happened after the Spanish conquest of 1521, in which folk art began to be influenced by Spanish culture and new types and techniques were developed. Of particular interest is the attraction generated by the cochineal dye, which was created using the crushed, dried bodies of cochineal insects. This type of dye allowed for textiles to be dyed a carmine red, which in turn stimulated the production of dyed luxury textiles (Castillo, 2020).

However, the cochineal was not only used in textiles. Pigments made from cochineal had historically been used to add coloured details to stone carvings and their importance was such that the Aztecs coveted the tributes of cochineal they received. It was called nocheztli, which translates to ‘blood of the prickly pear of the cactus.’ The cochineal is an example of the value placed on colour in Mexican folk art. Additionally, this dye was used in European paintings, particularly in the works of Rubens, Velazquez, and el Greco. This dye was produced in the state of Oaxaca and later taken to Europe to be sold and used in pigments (Castillo, 2020). As such, the importance of the cochineal dye cannot be understated both in Mexico and abroad.

Cochineal. Mexico Desconocido. 2001.

During the period of the Mexican Revolution spanning from 1910 to 1920, folk art underwent another period of change. There was a growing interest by artists to find a uniquely Mexican artistic language compounded by the need to document the social and political changes happening all over Mexico. Given that the Revolution was essentially a movement to reclaim Mexico from foreign influences, it stands to reason that artists would focus on the actors of that reclaiming, the men and women on the front lines. 'Depictions of the chieftains of the Revolution by Jose Guadalupe Posada reimagined these men as skeletons' (Berrueco Garcia, 2013).

Calaveras de Caudillos de Silla Presidencial. Jose Guadalupe Posada. c.1913

After the Revolution, there came an intense need to focus on Mexican culture. Artists began to look inwards and started to combine ancient and modern techniques in order to create something unique (Dominguez Chavez, 2012). The use of colour became more prominent in paintings, sculptures, textiles, and beadwork, and an effort was made to preserve the knowledge of artisans and indigenous craftspeople.

The Fondo Nacional para el Fomento de las Artesanías (Fonart), which roughly translates to the National Fund for the Promotion for Crafts, was created in 1974 as a way to protect folk art and artisans alike (Forbes, 2014). With this renewed interest in indigenous cultures, folk art flourished and became popular even outside of Mexico. The export of folk art began to be regulated with the help of the Fonart and the income generated from these exports has helped communities in rural areas of Mexico (Forbes, 2014).

Through folk art it is possible to look back at Mexican history and find what beliefs and items were important in the past and how they have changed as time has passed. It is possible to connect with mythology and superstitious beliefs that continue to hold a special place in Mexican culture even in the twenty-first century. The importance of folk art as a whole does not reside in the items themselves or how useful they can be for everyday life , but rather on what they represent.

Jaguar Huichol. Carapan. n.d.

While it might seem hard to comprehend certain beliefs of ancient civilizations when looking at them from a modern perspective, it is possible to find some similarities between the modern and the ancient ages. Perhaps by picking up a piece of folk art, a talavera pot, or a beaded bracelet, there can be a moment of identification through time and space, a small part somewhere within the human psyche that rejoices in beauty in the same way someone who is long gone might have. A sculpture, or a small figurine of a mythological creature, or an intricately designed necklace, these items are gentle reminders that beauty and imagination have existed for thousands of years and will endure long after the item itself is gone.

Bibliographical references

Berrueco Garcia, A. ( 2013, November 15). La Revolución Mexicana a través del arte. UNAM.

Castillo, N. (2020, August 27). Sangre de Nopal: El rojo mexicano de la grana cochinilla. UNAM.

Dominguez Chavez, H. (2012, May). Las Artes Plásticas en el México Posrevolucionario: 1920 a 1940. UNAM.

SFO Museum. (2011, June- November). The Spirited Folk Arts of Mexico. SFO Museum.

Visual sources

Morales Martin, P. Calendario Maya [Painting]. Smithsonian Museo Nacional del Indigena Americano. Washington DC, United States of America.

Posada, J.G. (ca. 1890-1913). Calaveras de Caudillos de la Silla Presidencial [Print]. Carter Museum. Texas, United States.

Unknown. Atlantes de Tula [Photograph]. (n.d.) Mexico Desconocido. Mexico City, Mexico.

Unknown. Cabeza Olmeca [Sculpture]. (n.d). MXCity. Mexico City, Mexico.

Unknown. Calendario Azteca [Photograph]. (2022). La Definicion. Mexico.

Unknown. Cochinilla [Picture]. (2001). Mexico City, Mexico.

Unknown. Jaguar Huichol [Three-dimensional object]. (20th Century). Carapan. Monterrey, Mexico.


Author Photo

Analicia Garcia Priego

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