Historical Art of Oaxacan Woodcarving
Evolving History of Oaxacan Figures of Wood
The origins and inspirations behind the creation of Oaxacan figures of wood will depend on who you ask. For some of the artisans it was the need to fill in time while toiling in the field and others a tradition of toy making. In La Union a dedicated tradition of toy making originated from making gifts for their children at different holiday celebrations throughout the year. These early figures were usually of nativity scenes and were either dyed with aniline inks or left in their natural state.
Pre Wave 1960s-1970s
The first truly famous carver, Manuel Jimenez, combined brilliant acrylics to his figures and this is what caught the eye of Nelson Rockefeller. As many living in small villages can attest, the sudden success of their neighbor prompted others to try the same. In the village of Arrazola, they were mostly known for the time consuming carving of jadeite and obsidian Zapotec figurines for tourists visiting Monte Alban. It was an easy decision for inspiring artists to go the route of copal carving instead of stone. You can still chance upon some of these original stone carvers wandering the plaza of the ruins selling their figurines.
First Wave 1980s
Around the same time, there were a few artists carving masks like Isidoro Cruz and angelic beings from Epifanio Fuentes in the village of San Martin. Other artists were comfortable with only carving cats like the famed Martin Melchor. Ventura Fabian, who was widely celebrated at the time, created his dancing chickens and scenes depicting village life. Nearby artist Jose Olivera focused on precious porcelain finish rabbits and cats.
Meanwhile in Arrazola, some prominent artists like Miguel Santiago expanded their work with a zoological portfolio. Whimsical carvings of baboons, lions, and other exotic species gained popularity. Jose Hernandez was known for large giraffes that spanned over five feet in some instances.
Marking the end of this time were the works of Maximiliano and Maximino Morales who produced the high end pieces with incomprehensible detail. Competing with Max and Max was Gerardo Ramirez—the definitive photo surrealistic artist.
Let us not forget the artist Luis Pablo whose work landed in many of the prestigious folk art galleries in the United States. He and the others pushed the limits of folk art to become fine art. Looking over their shoulders was a younger generation inspired by the creativity and success these original artists brought to their villages and were eager to expand the mantle.
Second Wave 1990s
For us at Port Wahakaa the 1990s and onward were a time with the most artistic diversity. This cottage industry expanded family workshops, which allowed less sophisticated carvings to be supplied to the many tourist locations of Mexico. It was normal for children to come home from school and get to work in the family woodcarving business.
The dads carved the wood or they bought pre-carved “natural” animales from supplying villages like San Sebastian Tutla. The sons would sand the wood while the girls would assist their mothers with the painting.
Tribus Mixes and Constantino Blas
From a remote region of Oaxaca emerged the rainbow-colored works of the six Blas brothers of San Pedro Cajonos. Their painting styles were starkly different than the other villages and collectors gravitated to their work favoring insects and sea life like shrimp and lobsters. Matching the Blas family in innovation were Tribus Mixes and Legendary Mixes with their unicorns, mantids and mixed media dragons with leather wings.
The children and younger siblings of the second wave of well-known artists were now emerging. Zeny Fuentes, Edilberto Cortez, Damien Morales, Arsenio Morales, Maria Angeles, Antonio Mandarin, Enrique Ramirez, and Jacobo Angeles were creating sharp quality pieces for the international market. Antonio Aragon and Victor Xuana set a beautiful standard for miniature pieces of sharpest detail. Moises and Armando Jimenez continued the legacy of Manuel Jimenez with a similar patterned palette utilizing studio art paints.
Augustin Cruz & Martin Melchor
Festival pieces by Martin Melchor and Augustine Cruz carried on the toy making traditions by creating animals on bikes and animals fishing. In La Union, the Santiago family were creating festival style pieces with animals reading and religious themed figurines that were sold in seasonal celebrations and rarely elsewhere.
Third Wave 2005-Present
When Don Manuel Jimenez passed away in 2005, the highway to the southern beaches of Huatulco was expanding local access throughout the state. Furthermore, an expanded airport allowed for many more flights to the region. The more popular artists were showcasing their work in art shows and gaining recogniition. For the first time, women were being recognized for their talent and the painting expanded by incorporating other Indian motifs into their primordial patterns. Zapotec fused with Navaho as seen in pieces by Roberta Angeles, Bertha Cruz, and Maria Angeles. Women trained other women to paint in the increasingly well-like Navaho style.
Bertha Cruz & Roberta Angeles
Another traveling artist, Eleazar Morales, encapsulates a style no others can grasp as his copal carving skills can match the output of a 3D printer. While some artists gained notoriety, many artists during this time abandoned the craft and left the country. Laurencio Espinal, Calixto Santiago, and Arial Playas are just some of the great artists that left the region to pursue new opportunities.
Oaxaca City is ground zero for grassroots protests and they mix like oil and water with tourism. Folks unfortunate enough to travel down there during one of these events see the city walled up with barricades, tarps, and protesters living in the streets for weeks on end. This is a devastating blow to the artists trying to sell their works at the seasonal festivals to tourists. This is especially true when the protests go on year-after-year. The real challenge is to connect and work with these artists to help them get through the lean times forced upon them by protests.
Avelino Perez, Enrique Ramirez, Innocencio Vasquez
Still you can find the hidden gem artists who convey mythology in their works like Pedro Ramirez and Innocencio Vasquez with their nahuales recreated from folktales and possibly first-hand encounters. Social commentary carvers like Avelino Perez still create drunken pregnant devil nuns and other inventions with finesse. If you are really lucky you can chance upon a piece by Gabino Reyes or a technical marvel by the Xuana family. The wave of creativity continues.
Arial Playas & Victor Xuana