The spectacular lacquer gourds from Temalacatzingo, Guerrero, have been called the “Faberge Eggs of Mexico,” so richly and intricately decorated are they. The finest ones are produced each year for the town competition where Mayer Shacter is usually the only person who is buying work. As a result, Galeria Atotonilco has by far the largest and finest collection of these spectacular, rare gourds. You won’t find them anywhere else.
The artists make smaller, less elaborate gourds and small toys for local markets during the year, but the exquisite large and elaborate works they make only once a year. The competitions are important for the artists because of prize money supplied by local, state, and federal arts organizations. The prize money is an important source of income for these artists. But they have not cultivated a market for the prize-winning gourds, leaving Galeria Atotonilco as virtually the only source of them.
History of Lacquer Work
Temalacatzingo has been producing lacquer work for thousands of years, long before the Spanish arrived. Though some have speculated that the oriental trade from the Manila Galleons, 1565 to 1815, influenced this lacquer work, created not far from Acapulco where the Manila Galleons arrived from the Philippines laden with Chinese lacquer, in fact, lacquer work as old as 5,000 years has been found in the area. So lacquer techniques are imbedded in the DNA of these indigenous artists. They have highly specialized skills cultivated over many generations.
Originally gourds were made for storing and transporting food, as tableware, and as votive religious items, but they are now created as works of art or toys to sell as a source of income.
The artists are experts at cultivating gourds. They save seeds, and they know which seeds produce which shapes and sizes. Each family owns a piece of land outside of town where they cultivate the gourds the will decorate.
First they have to allow the gourds to dry out for several months. Then, the artists cut the top off the gourd in a pleasing pattern, using a tiny, saw tooth blade held with a cloth handle. This step is so important that a separate prize is awarded for the most clean and unusual or intricate cut. Next, they empty the dried seeds and sand the surface, both inside and out, to a smooth shine.
Now the artists apply chia oil, which they have obtained by crushing chia seeds. It is this chia oil that gives their work its distinctive sheen. Then, with a circular hand motion, they work in mineral powders, which have been finely ground in their own workshop and are usually impregnated with color that is derived from natural seeds, stones, plants, flowers, or earth. Now, they burnish that mix with a smooth pyrite stone to a uniform sheen. These stages of chia oil, mineral powders, and burnishing, they repeat over and over. The more layers, the greater the translucency, depth of color, and soft jewel-like quality that results. They apply these layers both inside and out.
Now they are ready for whatever design they want to paint onto the surface, using the lacquers and pigments they have created, applying them with fine, handmade brushes. Designs vary from flowers and birds to geometric patterns, some derived from traditional “greko” shapes that are found in the ruins of Mitla.
The Use of Traditional Materials
Some years ago, anthropologist Marta Turok spent time in Temalacatzingo persuading the artists to return to using traditional chia oil, mineral earth powders, and plants for color, ingredients that had been abandoned in favor of less expensive linseed oil and commercial dyes. Virtually all the artists now announce with pride that they have returned to the centuries-old natural materials. The result is an unctuous, translucent quality, and soft depth of color unobtainable with artificial chemicals.
Temalacatzingo is an ancient indigenous village, built on a steep hillside high in the mountains with panoramic views of the surrounding wilderness. It has gradually been upgraded so that now some of the streets are paved, but there is still no running water in the town. It is so remote that the Spanish conquistadors never found it, so the townspeople are still pure indigenous Nahua, and many still speak the Nahuatl language.
Our drive to the town each year for the annual competition is an adventure, four hours from any highway on badly neglected roads. Sometimes whole sections of the roadbed are gone, having fallen down the hillside in an earthquake and with no warning for the driver. The scenery is spectacular with deep canyons and high mountains, far in the distance or gargantuan mountainsides smack in front of you.
There are no restaurants or hotels in the village, so we stay with a family of lacquer artists, who have become good friends.
They told us that they built their home with money they have won in the annual competitions. Their home is a string of cement rooms joined by a partly dirt hallway. Some of the rooms are tiled or painted. The home has no running water and only one sink, supplied by buckets, that is used for cleaning chickens, washing clothes, brushing teeth, and everything in between. The shower stall and toilet are also operated with buckets of water from barrels they keep in the hallway. They obtain the water by capturing rainwater and keeping it in cisterns. Celia has raised her eight children this way. Most of them are young adults now, and they all work in lacquer, although her youngest is still a small boy. We enjoy lively conversations over the delicious dinners Celia and Maria, the oldest daughter, prepare for us, but they told us they usually eat tortillas and beans.
The Annual Competition
The competition or concurso is a colorful daylong event consisting of archetypal, deeply rooted and classic Mexican traditions. It begins at the top of the hill where the judges and artists gather, and masked and costumed dancers entertain with energetic twirls and confetti is abundant. Then comes the celebratory procession down the mile long hill to the plaza where the awards ceremony will take place. The costumed dancers lead, and the inevitable brass band plays a festive marching tune over and over. In the plaza at the bottom, which is actually a large basketball court covered with a huge tarp against the blazing sun, a long table seats about twenty VIPs. Long speeches ensue, and then finally the awards are announced. There are eleven categories and five prizes in each category, so fifty-five prizes. Each winner walks across the court and shakes hands with all twenty VIPs, but not before the brass band has played a gala fanfare, which it repeats for each prizewinner.
At last we all walk over the to the large basement of the Municipal Building for a ribbon-cutting ceremony and admission, at last, to the room where all the works in the competition are on display. That is when Mayer begins selecting the pieces he wants to buy, usually with no competition at all, an exciting time for him. We have to do all of our shopping and packing within about five hours, after which the artists retrieve their unsold work and the room is closed.
Olinalá Lacquer Work
About a forty-five minute drive down the mountain from Tamalacatzingo is the town of Olinalá, also a lacquer-producing town. The rivalry between the two towns is evident in many comments and conversations in both towns. Both their history and their work are very different.
Both towns were originally Nahua indigenous peoples. The Spanish conquistadors invaded Olinalá and intermingled with the Nahua people, so that the population today is largely Mestizo. Temalacatzingo is so remote that the Spanish never found it, so the people today remain pure Nahua and speak Nahuatl (in addition to Spanish), although the use of the language is dying out and there are efforts to revive it. No one knows exactly when, but at some point, people from Olinala went up the mountain to learn lacquer techniques from the Temalacatzingo people.
Today, both towns produce lacquer ware, but the “look” from each town is quite different. Olinalá is known for boxes, trunks, and trays, while Temalacatzingo is known for its gourds, masks, and toys. Most of the artists in Olinalá use linseed oil and commercial dyes, yet the finest work from the town is intricate and beautiful containing figures, flowers, animals, and sometimes stories, like the story of creation, or a traditional myth.
One technique widely used in Olinalá is rarely seen in Temalacatzingo. The artists apply a layer of lacquer in one color, let it dry, and then apply a second coat over it in a different color. They then carefully carve through the first layer in decorative motifs to expose the color below. This technique is called vaciado. They also use a technique called puntiado, in which they fill the negative space with small dots.
Olinalá lacquer is much more widely distributed throughout Mexico than the works from Temalacatzingo. The quality of the work varies greatly, with less refined work available in tourist craft markets. But the finest examples are beautiful works of art. Older Olinalá pieces showing a wonderful naive quality, created in the 30s or 40s, can occasionally be found.
Other Mexican Lacquer Work
Lacquer is produced in three other towns in Mexico, each with its distinctive history and techniques. They are Patzcuaro, Uruapan, and Chiapa de Corzo.