Spotlight on Jacobo Angeles - A Rich Wood Carving Tradition in Oaxaca, Mexico

Highlight on Jacobo Angeles – A Wealthy Wooden Carving Custom in Oaxaca, Mexico


Attempt looking out the Americas to seek out creators of people artwork with extra kind, symbolism and significance to the event and sustenance of their tradition, than these of indigenous ancestry in Oaxaca (wa-HAW-ka), one of many southernmost Mexican states.

Many so-called consultants in folks artwork have mistakenly written that the origins of Oaxaca’s wooden carving custom date again fifty or sixty years, to a small variety of carvers residing in one of many central valleys of Oaxaca, just a few miles from the state capital of the identical title. The error has persistently been equating the latest commercialization of the art-form with its origins, and ignoring its pre-Hispanic roots and subsequent improvement.

Jacobo Ángeles lives together with his spouse María and two kids in San Martín Tilcajete, one in all three primary native Zapotec villages, the place most residents earn a residing from carving and portray colourful figures, usually generically known as alebrijes. The others are Arrazola and La Unión Tejalapan.

At age 12 Jacobo started studying to carve from his father. Afterward he was mentored by village elders. “Over the past few decades our craft has without a doubt changed dramatically,” Jacobo explains, “with the use of more synthetic paints, a tremendous increase in the range of figures being carved, and with domestic and international demand for our carvings growing exponentially and affecting how and what we produce. But remember, my ancestors were carving animals right here in this region before the Spanish arrived in the 1500’s. And we were using only natural paint colors which we derived from fruits and vegetables, plants and tree bark, clay, and even insects. In my family we still use what we find around us to make paint for our figures, and our wood of choice continues to be the branches of the copal tree.”

San Martín Tilcajete is situated a few 40 minute drive from the town of Oaxaca, alongside a freeway resulting in the state’s Pacific resort cities, together with one of many oldest ports, Puerto Escondido. Puerto Escondido was a hub for the export of espresso and different money crops throughout colonial instances, however is now a well-liked seaside vacation spot for Mexican and worldwide vacationers alike. Many vacationers mix their solar and sand trip with a go to to Oaxaca, a UNESCO World Heritage Website, looking for distinctive items of people artwork together with dance masks, pottery and clay figures, rugs and tapestries, and antiques from the colonial interval ahead. And naturally there are the pre-Hispanic ruins, galleries, spectacular Dominican church buildings, museums, and famend Oaxacan delicacies.

“My ancestors used a 20-day calendar,” Jacobo continues, “and each day was represented by a different creature. So every Zapotec person had an animal with whom he had a connection, and each animal had certain characteristics which carried over to the individual. For example, the jaguar represents power and ultimate strength, the frog is characterized by honesty and openness, the coyote watchful observation, the turtle always a troublemaker prone to breaking the rules, the eagle technical and strategic power, and so on. My people used to carve figures of just these 20 animals. They started out as small whittlings for good luck that people would keep in a revered niche in the home, or wear around the neck as amulets. They also carved larger figures for their children to use as toys.”

After a lot probing, an nearly forgotten story emerges of the usage of decoys of wooden and different supplies. Jacobo reveals: “My people used a variety of methods to attract different kinds of game, but for hunting birds of prey, rabbits, and deer, yes they at times used decoys. A painted wooden snake would be placed on the ground in an area where ants had trampled the grasses so the snake decoy would easily be seen by eagles. To hunt rabbit, my ancestors would attach a rabbit tail to one end of a straw hat, and at the other end another tail with a face painted on it. For deer, a crude wooden deer torso with real antlers would be placed in the tall brush. So carving was historically important to our people for not only totemic and related reasons, but it was directly related to our subsistence. All the written records from the period of the conquest, and not just local legend, confirm the importance of woodcarving.”

“But look at what we now carve. While in my family we still use natural paints, and still carve our totems, we’ve transformed a simple yet important and symbolic tradition into something very different. In our villages we now carve many more than those 20 animals because of collector demand. More importantly, we’re able to make our heritage better understood and appreciated by the world. In our own workshop, our painting depicts designs and representations of our culture… friezes from the ancient ruin at Mitla, symbols representing waves, mountains and fertility, the totems, and other metaphors for our culture, past and present.”

Certainly the world has taken discover. Jacobo’s work is prominently displayed in The Smithsonian Institute, Chicago’s Nationwide Museum of Mexican Artwork, and elsewhere all through the continent and additional overseas, in museums, artwork faculties and galleries. Jacobo frequently traverses the U.S. selling Oaxacan folks artwork and his Zapotec heritage, instructing in a range of academic venues starting from junior colleges to college departments of nice artwork, and as honored speaker at artwork exhibition openings.


A go to to the Ángeles workshop, accessed by a closely pot-holed slender filth street in the direction of one finish of the village, affords a possibility to study this extraordinary skill-set, from Jacobo, Maria — a superb painter in her personal proper — and a few two dozen different members of their household who produce among the best high quality carvings discovered anyplace on the continent.

The boys do many of the carving, whereas girls do many of the portray, however the duties are positively not solely based mostly on gender traces. Carving is finished with non – mechanical hand-tools equivalent to machetes, chisels and knives. The one time a extra subtle software is used is when a sequence noticed is employed to chop off a department and stage a base for a proposed determine.

Besides when a particular order is obtained, the woodworkers within the household are given inventive license to carve no matter determine they need. A bit of tree trunk will “speak” to one in all these specialists, and be the inspiration for creating a specific animal: the form, thickness, and bends and twists within the piece come alive. After the bark is eliminated, an in depth define is drawn, defining the picture with larger readability and element. The sculpting in earnest then begins.

“From the female copal tree we are able to make figures out of one piece of wood, often very large and intricate. This wood is soft and easy to work with. The male tree is harder, and branches tend to be smaller and somewhat delicate, so we use it to make animals which we assemble in the process.”

The carving alone takes as much as a month, at instances longer. The determine is then left to dry for as much as 10 months, relying on its total measurement and thickness. Due to the properties of copal, and Oaxaca’s semi-tropical local weather, the wooden is inclined to termite infestation. Accordingly, in the course of the drying course of the piece is soaked in a gasoline / insecticide combination for a number of hours. As an added assurance, it is then positioned in an oven, simply in case eggs have evaded extermination. “All of our pieces are guaranteed to never have a termite problem,” Jacobo assures.

For the reason that figures are original whereas the wooden is inexperienced and extra simply workable, the wooden separates whereas drying. “There are a couple of members of my family whose main job is to fill the cracks before the painting begins.” For this remedial work they use wooden shims in addition to a sawdust-glue combination. However even these slivers of wooden and the sawdust have been cured. “We’re proud of our work, and never want to have any problems with any of our buyers, whether someone is spending $20 or $2,000.”

In nearly all instances within the Ángeles workshop, one particular person carves and one other paints. As soon as a determine has left the arms of the carver, all proprietary rights are launched, and one other member of the household is entrusted with the portray. Nephew Magdaleno explains: “Occasionally one of my cousins will come up to me and say ‘what do you think about these colors or this kind of design concept for this coyote,’ and I’ll give my feedback, but it doesn’t happen very often, and I’m invariably pleased with the result. For me it’s the form that’s most important, and for whoever’s painting, it’s the imagery it captures.”

One can not assist however gasp on the sculpting genius which fits into every bit: A ravenous dog scratching fleas, a bear with its paw in a honey pot, a snake constricting a wincing jaguar, a winged horse on its hinds, a girl with lengthy braided locks and the physique of an armadillo, or a deer, life-size by Mexican requirements. There’s one thing significantly arresting about every creation: the ever-so-flowing and practical motion, a fantastic stance, or a well-known pose hanging a chord with our well-liked characterization. Nevertheless the portray is something however acquainted. No shade goes untested and the intricacy of and variation in design is exceptional.

Theories abound concerning the start of the modern-day manifestation of the custom. Some say that as a result of hallucinogenic mushrooms are native to this a part of Mexico, drug induced revelations precipitated the imaginations of some to wander, finally turning into expressed of their carvings. The higher clarification is that data of colourful, massive, papier maché alebrijes or dragon-like kinds which originated within the State of Mexico, finally filtered right down to Oaxaca, and have been the inspiration for the fathers of up to date painted picket carvings. “You know, it’s not accurate to refer to what we create as alebrijes, because to the older generation of Mexicans, and to true folk art collectors, alebrijes were developed near D.F. (Distrito Federal, or Mexico City, the nation’s capital), and what we do is completely different.”

Jacobo demonstrates how his ancestors created pure paints, traditionally utilized for dying clothes, portray buildings, and ceremonially as face and physique ornament used for rites of passage, fiestas, prayer and different necessary events. In the present day their main use, not less than in Jacobo’s household, is for portray the carvings. He explains with the help of his machete and a tree trunk how he cuts away the reddish inside a part of the bark of the male copal, permits it to dry, then toasts and grinds it: “This is a primary base that we use, which allows us to create a range of colors, tones and shades. Just watch.”

Utilizing his arms as palettes, Jacobo begins by putting a small quantity of the powdered bark in a single hand, squeezes juice from a lime, making a brown, which he then locations on an unpainted picket owl. “Yes the owl is also one of our sacred creatures, the great healer, quiet and humble.” He reveals: “Now over time, and in the sun, this color will change or fade and be absorbed into the wood. So what our ancestors learned to do was take the dried sap from the copal tree and heat it up with honey. The resulting liquid is then mixed with the paint, changing the color a little; see, it becomes a deep orange… but most importantly it acts as a mordent making the color permanent, and a little shiny.” He provides powdered limestone, and the colour modifications to black. With the addition of baking soda and extra lime juice it turns into a deep yellow, and with extra chemical it miraculously turns into magenta. A brand new base is then began, with crushed pomegranate seeds. Magically the pulverized pink is reworked into inexperienced with the addition of limestone powder. Combined with the magenta, it turns into navy blue. With the addition of zinc it turns into gray, and with extra zinc, white. Blue from the añil tree, indigo, is altered with the addition of bicarbonate, zinc, lime juice or the powdered lime mineral. Corn mildew, a black gooey culinary delicacy referred to as huitlacoche, when fermented after which powdered, yields ochre. The purple of the dried after which crushed minute insect, the cochineal, which feeds off its host nopal cactus, turns into orange with the addition of the juice of any of quite a few acidic fruits.

The demonstration terminates with Jacobo asking, “what´s your favorite animal,” following which he finger paints a rabbit from the rainbow of colours on his palms, as solely Alice might have imagined.


With roughly 150 households now producing painted picket figures in these and a few different smaller villages, the questions left unanswered stay: What facilitated and drove extra carvers to undertake the papier maché model of utilizing good shade mixtures, and the way can everybody in these villages make a residing from this solitary art-form?

As with different crafts within the central valleys of Oaxaca, their manufacturing wasn’t all the time the first technique of sustenance for the populace. Historically, handicrafts have been a pastime or part-time commerce, starting with only a few objects being offered to the odd passerby, adventurer or traveler. Within the case of rugs from close by Teotitlán del Valle, there have been commerce routes that producers adopted in an effort to impact extra gross sales in different areas of the state, and in some instances past. However the main technique of household survival was working the land and small-scale ranching. And within the case of the carving villages, there by no means was a broader market, though in San Martín Tilcajete embroidered shirts, blouses and clothes have been an especially well-received craft all through the 1960’s and into the 80’s.

Dramatic change in manufacturing and advertising and marketing of picket carvings had its genesis within the 1940’s. The pan-American freeway reduce by means of the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains, reaching Oaxaca, opening up the area to the north, specifically Mexico Metropolis and the border states. Till then Oaxaca was comparatively remoted however a rail connection. By the 1950’s and early 60’s People and Canadians have been prospering from the post-war increase, bank cards had been mailed to nearly everybody, and phrase unfold of a brand new sort of trip, in a 3rd world nation, Mexico. Jet air journey facilitated the transformation. The ladies’s motion meant extra two earnings households, leading to extra disposable earnings for touring. Mexicana Airways and Oaxacan journey brokers partnered to start providing tour packages, which additional facilitated tourism to the area.

The hippie motion of the 1960’s and early 70’s introduced Oaxaca to the forefront of the choice way of life, with throngs of youth and their pop idols touring to Huautla de Jiménez, then a tiny Oaxacan village, to eat hallucinogenic mushrooms with the now notorious healer María Sabina. North American youth noticed and bought the primary technology of up to date wooden carvings.

By the 1980’s, as a consequence of a number of components, Oaxacan alebrijes had turn into well-established as folks artwork, with the market persevering with to develop. The financial implication was that farmers and ranchers have been in a position to spend extra time carving and portray, and fewer time within the countryside and in marketplaces merchandising their produce and animals. With a brand new toll-road opening from Mexico Metropolis to Oaxaca in 1995, entry to the southern state turned even faster and simpler, and protected. In good conscience, journey writers have been now not in a position to warn vacationers about driving the switchbacks, back-road banditos, or vehicles overheating on secondary roads with out service stations.

The longer term marketplace for the artistry? Whereas the odd customer to a Oaxacan coastal resort equivalent to Puerto Escondido, or the extra well-liked Huatulco, does go to the state capital and the workshops of carvers like Jacobo, most don’t. Throughout the subsequent 4 years a brand new freeway to the coast will open, reducing street journey time by not less than a 3rd. Much more solar worshipers will go to Oaxaca, and marvel on the artwork of Jacobo and María Ángeles.

Since opening their household workshop in 1996, undoubtedly Jacobo and María have singularly raised the standard bar for different villagers who aspire to reflect their success. With Oaxacan wooden carvings of superior high quality now effectively established on the world stage, and entry now not an obstacle, the problem for others in San Martín Tilcajete can be to realize the success of the Ángeles household by means of manufacturing of like high quality, till now eluding most.

A problem for all carvers within the area is to make sure a steady provide of copal to satisfy demand. A reforestation challenge spear-headed about 15 years in the past by the late grasp of up to date Mexican artwork, Rodolfo Morales, continues by means of his Basis. The Ángeles household with mates and different villagers spend the final Sunday of every July, within the midst of the wet season, planting, part of their sustainable residing effort: making certain an ongoing provide of uncooked product, reducing solely branches for making figures in order that the tree continues to develop, decreasing waste by using the slivers and sawdust in restore work and any remaining twigs and branches as firewood for cooking, and utilizing the sap and bark in paint manufacturing. “And you know,” Jacobo reminds, “for generations we’ve been using the hardened sap as incense, mainly at religious cememonies. There are even knifemakers down the road in Ocotlán, who engrave their hand-forged blades using a special ink made with the sap. Have you visited the cuchillería of Ángel Aguilar?”

For prime finish collectors, we will solely encourage the success of all efforts aimed toward sustaining the expansion and improvement of the Oaxacan woodcarving custom, because it satisfies and advances our penchant for and obsession with high quality hand-fashioned craftsmanship. For the artisans within the area, other than the apparent financial significance, it is a part of sustaining their Zapotec heritage and illustrating the richness of the tradition to the broader world.


Supply by Alvin Starkman

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