Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Art Collecting on the Mexican Backroads

I've been writing articles on lowbrow, outsider, and folk art for Aishti Magazine. I thought I'd post one of the pieces here.

Tope. There was a word I’d never encountered in five years of Spanish classes. Maybe it’s the name of a town, I thought, just as the driver of the gypsy cab hit the road hard and bounced the four of us who were squeezed together in the back seat. So now I knew that tope meant bump. You learn some Spanish vocabulary the hard way.

If you ask me, the hard way is the best way. That’s how we wound up shopping for art sold out of farms and ranchitos in Oaxacan villages, when we could have settled for boutique-hopping around the city center.

That morning, we had trekked to Oaxaca’s Centro de Abastos, the main marketplace, and wound our way to the back, where an empty lot was filled with signs listing different villages. Groups gathered at each sign, waiting for colectivos—cabs with designated routes—to transport them to the valle de Oaxaca.

My boyfriend and I had a solitary goal: adding to our collection of alebrijes, small wooden carvings of fantastical creatures that are meticulously painted in brilliant colors and designs. Each alebrije begins its life as part of the copal tree. Artists use machetes and knives to carve the soft wood into iguanas, fire-breathing aliens, grasshoppers, bandas of devils, and other creatures, imaginary and real. Then they paint the carvings, sometimes wielding toothpicks to complete the intricate patterns.

We were headed down the tope-filled road to Arrazola, home to the workshop of Manuel JimĂ©nez Ramirez and his family, the supposed originators of the Oaxacan alebrije craft. Ramirez’s success has inspired many villagers to turn from farming to carving, transforming Arrazola into a destination for galleries and collectors.

The cabbie deposited us in the town square and three boys ran up to us, offering their services as guides through the town. As Felix, the eldest, walked us across a dirt lot inhabited by baby goats, I spotted the signs—wooden signs, painted with family names, or with the word figuras, or simply a picture of an armadillo or turtle. I reached for my boyfriend’s hand to signal him: I’m about to drop some pesos.

We never made it to the Ramirez workshop. Instead, we found an empty town square, surrounded by dark buildings with concrete floors. Brilliant painted creatures filled shelves, while iguanas with elaborately curled tails were attached to the walls. As we approached, a man stepped forward and pulled the cord suspended next to a single, naked light bulb, illuminating his makeshift gallery. We cleaned him out.

Then Felix and company led us to a long building alongside towering crops. A group of women stood behind tables that were filled with alebrijes as well as the lunch they were preparing. We filled our backpacks and placed orders for some friends.

As we staggered to a fonda for lunch, we spotted a small sign hanging outside someone’s kitchen that said animalitos. A married couple stood inside. The wife was proud to show us her original creation: a frog with an intricately tattooed penis. She also had a simply carved snail covered in Matisse-like patterns. We tried bargaining for the snail, but she wouldn’t budge.

We grabbed a second-class bus back home to Oaxaca city. We hardly noticed the topes as we unwrapped the pale pink paper clinging to our alebrijes. And we began what would become our traditional conversation after a day of buying art: “Next time, I’m getting that one that she wouldn’t bargain over.” Next time.

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