Painted fish from Oaxaca, Mexico

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Painted Fish - Mexican folk art carvings from Oaxaca Mexico. copyright Jerome Shaw 2007 / www.JeormeShaw.com
This painted fish carving was photographed in a art gallery in San Angel in Mexico City.  The folk art
carving style originated in the state of Oaxaca and has become a commercial engine for the remote region.
This image has become the avatar for one of my most popular Twitter accounts, @TwavelTweeter. 

Painted Fish - Mexican folk art carvings from Oaxaca, Mexico 

How far back in history do the origins of the Oaxacan hand-painted folk art figures go?

If you thought Oaxacan carvings have their origin centuries ago with the Mayan and Aztec cultures you'd be wrong. If you thought the carvings were handed down through the generations of  the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs or one of the other sixteen indigenous cultures of Oaxaca you'd also be wrong. You'd have missed the dates by several hundred years. While carving was a part of the ancient cultures of Oaxaca they mainly carved ceremonial masks and later crosses and saints. This craft nearly died out  in the 19th century after independence from Spain.

The painted animal and figure carvings are a recent folk art craft that owes its origins more to the commercial art galleries of USA, Canada and Europe than it does to indigenous fore bearers of Oaxaca.

The colorful painted carvings like the fish above are a recent addition to the art landscape of Mexico dating back only about 60 years.  The first practitioner of these carvings was Manuel Jimenez, a peasant from San Antonio Arrazola.  He carved animals from chunks of Copal wood. The wood is perfect for carving.  Copal worked green and is soft and easy to carve and has a small core that rarely splits. When sanded smooth Copal has a porcelain-like smoothness that does not absorb paint.  Aniline paints were originally used but due to fading most artists now use acrylic paint that sit brightly on the surface of the copal carvings.

At first Manuel did the carving, sanding and painting himself. But as the popularity of his works grew he began to train other members of his family in the skills required. Thus it became a family assembly line. The men carve, the elderly and young sand and the women paint.

The tools of carving are the machetes, kitchen and pocket knives. The animal or figure that is brought forth is determined by the shape and characteristics of each piece of wood.  Carvings are generally completed within one or two days.

Eventually others in the villages of Oaxaca noticed that a good living could be made from the carvings. Families in San Martin Tilcajete and La Union Tejalapan got in on the folk business.  These communities have become folk art centers along with San Antonio Arrazola.  Generally each family developed their own distinctive style, design and color scheme. Each family kept its proprietary secrets safe by not hiring outside the immediate family members.

Pedro Linares, from Mexico City, added his contribution to the imagery of Oaxacan folk art in the 1930s.  Linares fell very ill. During his illness he saw visions of a forest where objects had the power to transform. Rocks and trees could become a fantastical animals that combined body parts of multiple animals into one strange beast, He envisioned donkeys with butterfly wings, roosters with bull horns, lions with an eagle heads.  In his vision they all shouted one word, "Alebrijes."

Once recovered from the illness he made drawings of the beasts and eventually began making papier-mâché and cardboard animals. The papier-mâché to wood carving adaptation was pioneered by Manuel Jiménez.  The technique then spread to other families and villages in Oaxaca. The Alebrijes have become some of the most popular figures in the Oaxacan folk art portfolio.

Dia de Los Muertos figures are the newest imagery added to the Oaxacan folk art product line.  Many are adaptations of the symbols and imagery of calaveras created by the printmaker José Guadalupe Posada.

Of course mass production has reared its ugly head and now there are replica "carvings" produced in factories and selling for substantially less than the authentic Oaxacan folk art carvings.  Buyer beware.

Do you own any Mexican folk art?  What is your favorite Oaxacan folk art imagery? What  do you think of the commercially mass-produced knockoffs?

Contact me at @JeromeShaw  or Facebook 

copyright Jerome Shaw 2005 / www.jeromeshaw.com

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