Mexico is a country rich in history, culture and a wide variety of arts and crafts. This country has been known for its diversity of art created by its people for centuries. Pre-Columbian art of the Maya, Toltec, Aztec and Olmec cultures contributed to the large stone temples, and sculptures which had lavish carved designs and painted decorations. The Pre-Columbian crafts of building and decorating temples and sculptures were an essential part of their everyday life during Mesoamerican time. They also created many other arts that were used for religious purposes.
Today because of the high quality and because of the way that modern viewers have come to appreciate both ancient and modern Mexican art, many types of modern day crafts, sculptures and paintings can be found in markets rather than art galleries in Mexico. Many people travel to Mexico to see and acquire the crafts that are available. These works then become a part of the global culture.
The ancient Pre-Columbian cultures of Mesoamerica included the Olmecs, Aztecs, and the Maya. All the people and cultures of Mesoamerica were farmers, and were isolated for thousand of years from other cultivating societies in Europe, Africa and Asia. What has set these cultures apart from the rest of the cultivating societies was the uniformity of shared customs that were consistent in the confined areas were they lived. The most distinctive of these Pre-Columbian customs was the calendar that was based upon the permutation of a 260-day sacred cycle with the solar year of 365-days for a total of 52 years.
The Maya and the Aztec culture perfected these systems and calendars. These calendars were painted folding books called codices; the Aztec also made note of the calendrical cataclysm then foresaw in their future, and they recorded this on the calendar stone. In the Maya, the two calendars they created were based on observations of the heavens and their own record of the solar year. The first calendar was a solar calendar, which marked the changes in the seasons and indicated the time to harvest crops. The second calendar was a ritual calendar that noted special feasts and celebrations.
In comparison the Aztec also kept track of the seasons virtually in the same manner of the Maya. They too had a two calendar system. Similar to the Maya calendars, there were certain days of the year and 52-year cycle that the Aztec considered lucky and unlucky. During these periods the people would try to keep the gods happy by putting out fires, throwing away old clothing, and stopping any travel that was to take place. The famous Aztec calendar is not a predicting calendar but rather a sculpture that notes the cosmic motion of time. An example of this stone can be seen in Mary Miller=ðs book (fig. 168, pg. 211), The Art of Mesoamerica from Olmec to Aztec. The stone is considered to be the most common single image of Mesoamerica and is usually found on liquor labels, ashtrays, keychains in and outside of Mexico today.
Other common customs shared by Mesoamerican cultures include hieroglyphic writing, the use and knowledge of astronomy, organized markets and favored ports of trade, chocolate beans for money, organized agriculture markets, pottery, and a ball game played with a rubber ball. The people of Mesoamerica also followed other customs which were widespread amongst the New World Indians at the time of the Conquest such as ceremonial tobacco smoking, and diet based on maize, beans, squash and chile peppers.
Mesoamerican cultures date back as early as 1200 BC. The Olmec culture was the first prominent culture in Mexico. Among the Olmec an elite lived in the small urban centers, the white people that resided in the rural areas. The elite carried out religious ceremonies centered in the towns and governed over the commercial trade in luxury and artistic items that were produced by skilled craftsmen. Common people devoted themselves to farming.
Most of the history known about the Olmec culture is presented through their art. The Olmec had no written language and used their art as a form of communication. Olmec art and sculpture was created mainly to give power to the Shaman and the Shaman ruler, who functioned as the channels for sacred powers. The Olmec believed that the Shaman ruler divided the world into three cosmic levels. The first level was the celestial or heavenly, the second was terrestrial and the last was the earth=ðs surface and the watery underworld. Sacred works in the culture were infused with sacred powers and life. Usually it was believed that the artist who created these vessels through time and energy contributed a little of the sacred power to the work.
The Olmec civilization is the only one during Mesoamerican times that feature sculptures in the form of human infants. These ceramic works were usually constructed using the simplest form of clay work such as coils and slabs, finished with a highly burnished kaolin slip, and then fired in an open pit. The human baby sculptural pieces are a powerful introduction to the Olmec culture=ðs thought and perception.
In other Olmec sculpture the preference for volume is outstanding and aesthetically pleasing. The first modern sculpture that was brought to modern attention and demonstrated the great Olmec art style for Mesoamerica was the Kunz Axe. This three thousand-year-old sculpture, is part human, and part beast. An example of this sculpture can be observed in Mary Miller=ðs book AðThe Art of Mesoamerica, from Olmec to Aztecð (Fig. 3, pg. 18.). This sculpture was made from the blue-green translucent jade stone.
When this sculpture is examined closely, there is evidence of Elements and Principles of Design. First, in reference to the composition of the figure, certain images are dominant. These images that show dominance include the three-dimensional form of the sculpture and the Olmec preference for volume. The sculptural features emphasize a wide toothless mouth in the shape of a jaguar and slanted almond shaped eyes, makes the sculpture resemble that a howling infant. The facial features are drilled or carved and take up more than half of the sculpture. The body and extremities are smaller than the head. The hands are positioned directly under the head and hold a smaller representation of the figure. Other bodily parts such as the feet, toes, facial tattooing or scaring are indicated through carving or incision. If this sculpture was viewed from the side shows the bottom to be tapered to a point, like an axe blade. Yet the Kunz Axe was not an ordinary tool, but probably used for ceremonial purposes.
Secondly, the sculpture shows juxtaposition. This juxtaposition is demonstrated through the toothless jaguar styled mouth, and the relationship of the exaggerated head to the remainder of the body. These juxtapositions are not natural or realistic and satisfy the Olmec definition of volume and aesthetics.
The use of volume can be seen in the Colossal head sculptures that too were part of early Olmec art. The Colossal heads are free standing sculptures that usually represented the ruler of the region and were made of basalt stone. Many of the Colossal head features were drilled into the stone. The drilling gave emphasis to the eyes that were always deep set, and the mouth that was slightly asymmetrical in appearance.
In the Olmec culture there are two thematic categories for which their artwork is notable. For one they composed figures that include human features mixed with different animal species. They also made smaller sculptures and carvings that usually resembled the jaguar. Most Olmec art resembles human figures, but many also center around the jaguar. The jaguar appears in many pieces of Olmec art and sculpture. Olmec art is fundamentally homo-centric. It can be said that Olmec sculpture is divided between representations of supernatural beings and of the human figure.
Among the assortments of Olmec humanoid figures a common theme is the representation of a sitting man with his legs in a lotus position and whose head and extremities are not of human nature. The majority of the heads on these figures are reminiscent of animals. All the facial features are different from the sculpture of other cultures, but the Olmec mouth is distinct. The mouth is represented with thick lips, with an especially projected upper lip. The foreheads of the sculptures are sometimes narrow, and often covered with a wide band. The jaws always appear small and do not protrude outward.
The Maya were one of the most brilliant and powerful cultures that existed during the Mesoamerican time period that occupied the moist lowlands. Their culture grew in a period of 3,000 years, from around 2,000 BC to 1521 AD, but the first millennium AD was their time of greatest achievement. The Mayans had a written language, were skilled architects, adventurous traders and gifted artisans.
Like the Olmec the Maya were fine sculptors whose art was very colorful, and they shaped beautiful figurines of accurate proportions. Stone sculptures depicted human sacrifice, bloodletting ceremonies, and other purification rituals, as well as historical subjects. Pottery and ceramic making also developed into an art in the Maya civilization. All of the clay pots that they made were dried in the open air, painted with slip, and fired in pits, like the Olmec. Many of the ceremonial pieces of clay work were often painted with mythological figures.
Textile weaving and other handcrafts have weathered the test of time in the Maya culture. Traditionally the young Maya girls were taught to weave by their mother at the age of three years old. Currently that tradition varies, but the main tradition of weaving lives on and whole communities earn their living from this craft. According to an early myth it was said that the goddesses of the moon were the ones that taught women to weave, and revealed to them the sacred symbols to be used in their creations. Motifs of nature, the universe, and time were woven into garments. Examples of these motifs that can be used are a diamond to represent the universe, a toad can represent a musician of the cosmos, and a snake may represent the earth. A butterfly, duck and pineapple designs are unique to other regions of Mayas.
Other popular crafts of today that the Maya produce are hammocks. These hammocks come in all colors and sizes including the famous matrimonial version. Panama hats that are woven from the jipi palm that are found in the north, in Yucatan. Baskets, stone carvings and an array of hand-woven tunics, shirts, vests, dresses, wall hangings, toys, Christian saints, hand decorated gourds, pottery, jade and silver filigree jewelry are the many crafts that exist in Guatemala today.
In comparison the Aztec lived in the highlands in Mesoamerica. The Aztec migrated to this area from the north, approximately around the 13th century. They were a migratory culture in the beginning as they wandered around the region trying to survive. They were enslaved once by another tribe, but they gained their independence in 1325.
The Aztec maintained an existence by utilizing fishing, hunting, gardening and farming techniques. The valley and rivers that surrounded their region were rich in fish, insects, shrimp, and tadpoles. There were also crabs, oysters, fish and turtles for those who where inhabited closer to the ocean. The use of the water was a major resource for food in the Aztec culture.
Historians and others have learned a vast amount of information about the Aztec cultures through storytellers and ancient scriptures that existed. But nothing contributed more information about this culture than their art. When looking at Aztec arts, one can find a number of different materials, colors, backgrounds, and most of all a number of expressions. The vast sculptures, drawings, and decorative artifacts have continued to tell a story about this ancient civilization. The art of the Aztec also conveys their everyday life. Some drawings of the Aztec included scenes of great feasts or women who were pregnant. There were also many drawings of rituals and sacrifices on the top of pyramids. Human sacrifice lay at the heart of their belief system, and it need to be repeated generation after generation.
The main materials used in Aztec art include volcanic stone, basalt and other hard stones, feathers, paint, leather, human and animal bones, turquoise, jade, starfish, sea urchins, gold, colored shells, amethyst, agate, opal, jasper, and onyx. The traditional and common colors that the Aztec used in their art consist of blue, olive, green, crimson, pink, ocher, black, and white.
One of the greatest influences of Aztec art was the Toltec culture. From this particular culture, Aztec art received mythology, aesthetic ideas or preferences, master craftsmen, sculptors, painters, and goldsmiths. Themes that are consistent in Aztec art emphasize monstrous deities, death, jaguars, and serpents.
Aztec sculpture and ceramics have been notably frightening to outsiders who have viewed it for the first time. The subject or themes of these sculptures very often contains eagles, frogs, dogs, coyotes, jaguars, grasshoppers, and rabbits, and snakes coiled in a frightening manner. These particular subjects were, however, very prevalent in all forms of Aztec art. In order to gain precision and shine in these art works the sculptor often used basalt and other hard stones for burnishing. But, the most recognizable art works in Aztec art are the monumental statues of gods.
Aztec art reached its peak under the reign of its last rulers. Missionaries and conquerors that encountered the Aztec destroyed much of their artwork because it represented idolatry to them, and in consequence, went directly against their teachings and beliefs. Very little remains of what was once a vast collection of Aztec art. What has been recognized by the world, however, has taken its effect. Present day artists still mirror their own work after Aztec art.
Like the Aztec, Maya and Olmec art, popular Mexican arts of today are of such a variety that it is hard to focus on just one particular craft. These crafts are made with vibrant colors, exciting designs, and are from a variety of materials. These materials include wax, metals, tree bark, clay, wood, wool, and materials found in the environment.
The Huichol Indians are Indians who live in the high mountain ranges in Mexico. They continue to acknowledge native deities associated with nature. To this culture art is an extension of their religion, and therefore also an extension of life. Through art the Huchiols express everyday life existence and the myths that surround their culture.
Yarn paintings are an important part of the religious quest of the Huichols. In yarn paintings there are two main purposes for their creation. The first is to form votive offerings in the form of religious tablets to the deities. These tablets are small and round or square with a small hole in the center and are covered on both sides with a mixture of beeswax and pine resin into which threads of yarn are pressed. These tablets are called AðNierikað or small sacred magical offering. A AðNierika is called a mirror with two faces, because often both sides are covered with yarn designs. The mirror in the middle is thought to be the eye through which man and deity can see each other. The Huichols believe that if the deities see you through this mirror that it places an obligation on the gods to pay attention to you and your prays and grant them to you.
The second is the use of yarn paintings for economic growth. Many yarn paintings are sold in the markets in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Today with the availability of various spectrum of commercial dyed and synthetic yarn, more finely spun yarn paintings have evolved into sophisticated and quality works of art. Realism that is based on mythology of the Huichol culture is the basis of yarn paintings.
Another popular art of Mexico that has links to the Huichol Indians are gourd designs that are represented in beaded bowls. Beadwork originated as an art form long before the Spanish Conquest. Prior to the Spanish Conquest bone, clay, coral, jade, shell, seeds, stone turquoise, pyrite were used for beads instead of the glass or seed beads utilized today.
The colors that were used on the beaded gourds defined the deity for whom they were made. For example, the color blue signifies AðRapawiyeneð (Rapa is the tree of rain); black represents the Pacific Ocean, the place of the dead, and the great serpent of rain. The color red indicates the birthplace of the peyote, deer and eagles. Today with the smaller beads that are available, more detail can be seen not only on the intricate gourd designs but also on wooden jaguars. Utilizing most of the same sacred designs and patterns of ancient Mesoamerica, the Huichol create anklets, belts, bags, earrings, bracelets, and rings with various seed beads.
Papermaking is also an ancient craft that exist in Mexico today. During Pre-Columbian times tree bark, deerskin and agave or maguey fibers were made into forms of paper. This paper was used for painting codices, pictorial manuscripts, for historical and religious purposes.
Many of these papermaking techniques have survived today and are seen in popular Mexican arts. Paper called AðAmateð comes from the bark of fig trees. The paper that is produced is white in appearance and is peeled from the bark of the tree from the men in the village, but the women of the village actually make the paper. The tree bark is washed and boiled in a large pot for several hours. After the boiling the bark with ashes and lime for several hours the bark is rinsed and laid on a wooden board. The bark is then beaten with a stone until they fuse together as paper and dried by the sun. The demand for this art has left many of the trees in Mexico stripped.
Most of the amate paper that is made in Mexico today is used by artists who once decorated pottery and sculpture, but now paint fanciful scenes and pictures on the paper. Many of the designs painted by these artists depict the everyday life that exists in Mexico today.
Amate paper cutouts are also a popular craft that exists in Mexico today. Sometimes, this technique is used by the Shaman, and the cutouts usually depict spirit beings of the sky, the earth, the underworld, and water for curing fertility ceremonies. According to the beliefs of the culture, the Shaman will bring the spirits to life by breathing in their mouths, holding them near incense, or by putting alcohol on them. Amate cutout figures come in dark or light shades of paper and are mostly sold to tourists and collectors. Sometimes these cutouts are made into accordion type books that are used in teaching this art to help explain the mystical ceremonies. Ordinary tissue paper cutouts are also popular and can be used in rituals and books in order to provide an accent of color.
In conclusion, the arts of Mexico are enchanting. Mexican artists are well known to use vibrant colors to illustrate the myths, legends, patriotism, and heritage of their culture. As arts and crafts remain the forefront of Mexican culture through its combination of Old and New World materials, how do students respond to these customs and techniques? What will their responses be to the various humanoid figures of the Olmec, the stone calendars of the Maya and Aztec, and or the yarn paintings and crafts of the today=ðs Huichol?
Whatever student responses might reveal, the qualities of crafts indicate that Mexico is a flourishing country that has a proud craft heritage because it has continued to hold on to its ancient traditions in the arts.