Mexican art takes many shapes and forms. It can be found hanging in museum walls, represented in huge murals in international cities, and on a simple apron.
We are a museum loving family. You will always find more than one museum on our itinerary as we travel and learn about the world. But recently I have been finding art in a less traditional setting. On a dinning room chair, an office lamp, a bed spread, or a kitchen table runner. How? I’ve been discovering Arte Otomi.
Local expert and Arte Otomi connoisseur Martha A., has been kind enough to talk to me about the traditions and customs of this proud and talented indigenous group.
There are many aspects of Arte Otomi which set it apart. The fact that its producers, the Tenango people, have been practicing their talents in the same manner for generations is just one of them. Martha works very closely with the Tenango de Doria community in the Sierra Mountains of Mexico. She goes deep into the green valley and hidden away locations to talk with the locals and listen to their history. What she has learned in the past few years has cemented her respect for the industrious and creative people of this community.
Let’s start with the art itself. The typical Arte Otomi drawings that we all admire are the inspired visions of just one individual. The community has one artist, inspired by local prehistoric mural drawings and mythological visions, who draws the animals and shapes that make up Arte Otomi. This individual holds a special and higher status within the community hierarchy and is respected by all. She/he is followed by the seamstresses.
Video: Arte Otomi village artist
The artist begins by drawing up the image and then the seamstresses proceed with the job of turning the initial image into a reality. Their job requires skills and techniques that have been passed down through family lines. Perhaps the most fascinating part of the sewing is the thread coloring.
All Arte Otomi is hand made and produced using the same techniques that have been employed for generations. What this means is that the Tenango people grow the cotton, then they collect and spin it into thread, and then they dye it by hand. Huge vats of color are used by the locals to produce the vibrant colors that make Arte Otomi so attractive. The vats of color are not chemicals the community buys, they are naturally mixed color dyes that the locals grow.
Flowers, leaves, bark and nature are the elements used to create the Arte Otomi vibrant and distinctive colors. Reds are made from the lipstick plant, achiote plant, and la cochinilla (a little bug). La cochinilla is also used to make purple, a royal color to the local indigenous peoples. Plants are typically used to make all necessary greens, while local flowers, like the cempasuchil, are used to make yellows. Cempasuchil, you may know, is also used in decorations during the annual Day of the Dead celebrations.
The thread is first created, dyed in the huge vats and then left out in the sun to dry. This long and tedious technique has served two purposes: one, the color does not fade with time and, two, the colors are never the same. Just like no two flowers are the exact same color, no two Arte Otomi threads are ever exactly the same. This uniqueness only adds to the value and beauty of the final product these people produce. Real Arte Otomi is easily spotted: no two pieces are ever exactly alike. If they are, it was probably a machine that is attempting to copy the original work of these indigenous people.
Video: Arte Otomi seamstresses
In an increasingly competitive and global marketplace, Martha is hopeful for the future of Arte Otomi. She is interested in preserving a deeply routed and traditional culture, and their craft. She is trying to preserve a way of life, not just a piece of art. On her trips to the Sierra Madre, she describes immeasurable beauty and natural vistas that awe. The locals live a simple and fulfilling life. And she is working to help them continue in their traditions for many generations to come.
When words like fair wages, sustainable development, socially conscious consumption, local art, and tradition above profit all come out in the same conversation, I pay attention.
Arte Otomi is, quite simply, mesmerizing. It draws you in with its dreamlike qualities and vibrant colors. To me, it is like stepping into a loud, yet calming, dream. And who isn’t searching for that kind of a connection?
If you are lucky enough, you can even take some of this art home with you. Martha has managed to turn her passion into a forward thinking enterprise. The pictures you’ve seen here were all taken by her on her various trips into the Tenago de Doria village and their creations can now be found at her online store ArteOtomi. It is just one more way that we can help the local people secure their time honored traditions and help their villages thrive.
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