The Handicrafts & Folk Art of Mexico

Hand-painted ceramics, tiny beads in intricate designs, traditional festival masks – the folk art of Mexico is as beautiful and diverse as the country's landscape.

Thin, delicate ceramics with intricate designs. Tiny beads arranged in bold, eye-catching patterns. And yes, those are smiling skeletons dressed to the nines. In Mexico, the folk art isn’t only beautiful, it often has a sense of whimsy, and the creations are as diverse as the landscape. “Every area here has a specialty and it’s been passed down from generation to generation,” Villa Specialist Sue Matthews explains.

And, while almost all the handicrafts originate from specific regions, most are available across the country, including the few detailed below…

The tradition of mask making in Mexico dates back thousands of years, long before the Spanish arrived. Used in festivals, dances, and ceremonies, they can portray just about any creature – human, animal, even alien – though, they most commonly depict Europeans, Afro-Mexicans, animals, and demons, such as the devil. Traditionally, these masks are created using wood, though other materials include clay, leather, or papier-mâché. 

With so many different types of natural clay, pottery is a huge tradition in Mexico. And, while exquisite pottery is produced all over, the center and southern parts of the country are home to some of the better-known ceramic traditions. From Puebla comes Talavera pottery – a type of earthenware distinguished by a white base glaze with hand-painted patterns. Other pottery traditions include the majolica of Guanajuato, barro negro (black clay) pottery of Oaxaca and, more recently, Mata Ortiz pottery from Chihuahua.

Huichol Yarn and Bead Art
For centuries the Huichol people, who live primarily in Jalisco, Durango, and Nayarit, have been famous for their folk art and handicrafts. With tiny, vibrant beads placed in patterns of religious and cultural significance, the Huichols create jewelry and decorate bowls and other items. With brightly colored yarn, they create incredible paintings by pressing the material into boards coated with wax and resin.

Lupita Dolls
Also known as cartoneria dolls, Lupita dolls are made out of hard kind of papier-mâché, painted, and clothed. In the late colonial period, they were created by poorer families to mimic porcelain dolls from Spain and remained popular until plastic dolls took over the market. (Though, in more recent years, many have sought to preserve the traditional techniques of making the Lupita doll.)

La Calavera Catrina
Those dramatically dressed smiling skeletons you see everywhere? Those are Catrinas. Imagined by Jose Gualaupe Posada in the early 20th century, La Calavera Catrina (Dapper Skeleton) was originally a satirical portrait of Mexican natives who were aspiring to adopt European aristocratic traditions. Today, she has become the poster-child for the Day of the Dead. 

Another newer addition to the folk art scene are alebrijes – completely bizarre sculptures imagined by the subconscious. They were first created in 1936 by Pedro Linares, who fell ill with a high fever and had dreams clouded with unnatural animals and figures. When he recovered, his dreams were recreated in the form of sculptures…and they caught on. Today, there’s even an annual Monumental Alebrije Parade sponsored by the Museo de Arte Poupular.

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