Pottery Blast from Past

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Mexican Town Unearths Its Talent by Resurrecting Its Tradition

A small town in northern Mexico is finding strength in the fragile. Not far from the former site of a thriving city called Paquimé 600 years ago, today’s community of Mata Ortiz has literally gone through the sands of time to put itself on the artistic map.

“The Ceramics of Paquimé and Mata Ortiz: Tracing a Family Legacy,” on display at the Mexican Cultural Institute, tells the fascinating story of how a man named Juan Quezada entered caves 40 years ago and emerged to resurrect an ancient art form. The pots he discovered in Paquimé inspired him to learn how to create the pottery as the town artisans had in their heyday, between 1200 and 1450. Quezada then taught the technique to his family, friends and townspeople, unwittingly molding the city of master potters that Mata Ortiz is today.

“I think there are several factors that make the pottery from Mata Ortiz outstanding,” said Alejandra de la Paz, the Mexican Cultural Institute’s executive director. “The first one is obviously the high quality of this pottery. It’s extremely fine; it’s all handmade; it’s beautifully hand painted. The materials with which it is made are all local materials — natural materials in terms of the minerals, the clay, the sand — and it has been a process that this community has learned in a very autonomous way, so that makes it very distinct.”

It’s also interesting that the current community picked that time period to recreate, she added. “We are not only talking here about recreating an ancient tradition but basically imprinting this tradition with their own artistic mastery,” she said. “It has proven how culture can be linked to development.”

More than 400 of Mata Ortiz’s 2,000 residents create pottery. Before Quezada began teaching the art some 40 years ago, most people had worked in cattle ranching, farming and the railroad industry. The exhibit includes eight pieces from the pre-Hispanic culture of Paquimé, dating from 900 to 1512, and 50 contemporary items by five families, including Quezada’s, and 16 other individuals from Mata Ortiz, located in Mexico’s Chihuahua state.

“The artists represent the best of the first and second generation of the most accomplished potter families,” said Mayté Luján, curator of the exhibition. “I thought it was important to highlight the significance of their work and show how these artists have both mastered the tradition and are passing the art form down through generations.”

The original pots from Paquimé feature three marked designs: geometric patterns, especially steps; depictions of the macaw bird, which had an unknown but important symbolic meaning for the Paquimé people; and a red-and-black paint color scheme on beige clay. These ancient potters also departed from traditional pot shapes to include human forms.

Today’s potters incorporate the geometric patterns, but some use their own designs. The colors are also more varied. For instance, Luján gravitates toward a ceramic pot by José Armando Quezada Talamantes that is made of rich chocolate brown clay decorated with white and tan pigments because of its enormous size, clean, perfect lines and harmonious design.

In contrast, artist Laura Bugarini Cota left no room for white space on her simply shaped but painstakingly detailed pot, also on display here.

Yet no matter how different the individual pieces are, they all share a distinctive appearance that is the result of a nontraditional production method. Rather than using a kiln, the Mata Ortiz potters arrange logs around a pot and light them on fire, creating enough heat to burn the ceramics. They then use long, thin brushes made of children’s hair to paint the intricately detailed patterns.

“The work of the master potters of Mata Ortiz speaks to their dedication to a unique and highly localized artistic tradition,” Luján said. “In many ways, the pottery does speak to the artist’s individual story, as each potter brings his/her own unique style to the tradition. But the artists do not create in a vacuum, and their pottery becomes more meaningful when exhibited alongside that of family members and other potters who both served as, and learned from, mentors and teachers within the community.”

Although the reasons behind the demise of Paquimé, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are unknown, evidence of a fire and bodies found under ruined buildings led archaeologists to believe the city came under a major attack. By the time the first Spaniards arrived in 1565, only ruins remained.

The exhibit marks the first time that ancient pieces from Paquimé or modern ceramics from Mata Ortiz have been shown in Washington, D.C. It also kicks off next year’s celebrations of the bicentennial of Mexican independence and the centennial of the Mexican Revolution, both of which will be commemorated with extensive cultural programming throughout the United States and here in Washington.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 7, 2014