By Brooke Gazer
If you have been to any Mexican craft market, it is likely that you noticed many examples of Barro Negro (Black Pottery), for which Oaxaca is famous. In spite of its overwhelming popularity, this is a relatively new medium of Mexican folk art. For over 2000 years, the village of San Bartolo Coyotepec produced very basic utilitarian pottery. These sturdy vessels, which were used to carry water, oil, or mescal, were rustic with a matte grey appearance. In the early 1950’s a petite Zapotec woman, named Rosa Real Mateo de Nieto, altered the way her people handled clay, and subsequently the economy of her village. She is now fondly known by the honorific name of Doñs Rosa.
She discovered that by burnishing the nearly dry clay forms with a smooth stone and firing them at a lower temperature, the forms developed a shiny black patina. Since the pieces remain unglazed, they are fired only once, and the lower temperature leaves them fragile, unsuitable as functional ware. With its soft, glossy patina, this folk art soon became appreciated by collectors around the world, and the villagers evolved from producers of utilitarian ware to that of fine craftsmen. As San Bartolo Coyotepec was becoming known for is unique folk art, families began to diversify. They developed different styles and techniques but the shiny black finish remained its cornerstone.
One talented family experimented with forming figures. The Pedro Martinez family encouraged their children to copy images found in books. Young Carlomagno showed promise as he crafted Aztec warriors, Mexican soldiers, and clowns. At the age of 18, he enrolled in the Rufino Tamayo Workshop in Oaxaca City, where as a sculptor, he bridged the difficult gap between folk art and fine art. His skill as a gifted young artist won him the Premio Nacional de la Juventud (National Youth Prize). This prestigious award for young people later enabled him to study in the United States. Since then, his work has been prominently displayed in numerous fine art exhibitions across North America and Europe. Returning home, he began teaching the children of his village to create clay figures so that the craft continues both within his family and among other members of this community. The village of San Bartolo produces unique, highly detailed, one-of-a-kind figures, as well as polished slip-cast figures that are turned out in multiples.
While some artisans construct clay figures, the majority of black pottery is still produced in traditional forms created on a potter’s wheel. In addition to the smooth shiny patina, artists have experimented with a variety of patterns and textures, often combining them to produce interesting contrasts.
I first learned about black pottery in the late 1970’s when I enrolled in a summer workshop featuring a famous American potter who had once studied under Doña Rosa. As we were designing our Bed and Breakfast, I was anxious to incorporate black pottery into our decor. I devised a way to use this folk art as a base for the bedside lamps in our guestrooms. They could have been purchased in Huatulco, or around the Benito Juarez market in Oaxaca City, but I needed to make a pilgrimage to where they were made. San Bartolo Coyotepec is only a ten-minute drive from Oaxaca City, making it an easy excursion.
Stopping at a market along the highway, I explained to a woman in one of the stalls what I wanted. “Yes I have many pieces like this, but they are not here. I can have them for you here tomorrow”, she tells me. “Thank you but we need to buy them today, tomorrow we are leaving early.” “Would you like to come to my house? I have them there and it is not too far.” This is exactly what I wanted to do! She closed up the store and rode with us down a few streets pointing out which property was hers.
Families commonly run small businesses that produce handicrafts in the gardens of their homes; as a former potter, I was hoping to see the artists at work. In addition to the glossy or textured surface, pieces are commonly decorated by carving holes of various sizes and shapes, creating intricate designs. Motifs may be geometric patterns, flowers, stars, moons, or any combination. When I learned to do this, we used a blunt pencil to painstakingly draw out the entire design before cutting through the leather-hard clay with a sharp tool. I was amazed watching these artists do a piece freehand in just a matter of a few minutes. I chose sixteen carved pieces of various textures. Although they all were carefully wrapped and packed into the trunk of our car, I was nervous about how this fragile cargo would travel, bumping over rough mountain roads. Thankfully they all arrived intact.
Black pottery is lovely but its fragile nature makes it challenging to transport, especially on an airplane. I warn our guests that unless it is a small piece, it will require exceptionally careful packaging. It should be part of your carry- on luggage, but place it under the seat; do not put a large piece of black pottery in the overhead compartment. A fellow traveler is likely to bang their luggage into yours, leaving you with only broken shards and fond memories. Still, if you are able, a piece of black pottery can make a dramatic accent piece and a wonderful reminder of your trip to Oaxaca.
Brooke Gazer operates an ocean view bed and breakfast in Huatulco