Entire books can and have been written on the world class handcrafts of Oaxaca. So, the best we can do in this article is give a brief introduction and hope that it inspires you to find out more about one of Mexico’s most important artisan centers.
Chiapas and Michoacán come in a close second, but Oaxaca has the most varied and best-preserved handcrafts tradition in Mexico, with the most working artisans. Just about any object or material worked in the rest of Mexico can be found in the state, including, but not limited to, pottery, textiles, fireworks, paper, stone, shell, basketry and all kinds of metals. It is also, not surprisingly, one of the states that has conserved much of its indigenous heritage.
Oaxaca is also home to the best-developed cultural tourism industry in Mexico. When there is not a pandemic, thousands of people each year travel to Oaxaca, but not so much for its beaches, which are beautiful, but for the Central Valleys region to experience colorful dress, colonial buildings, small towns and the best overall cuisine in the country.
Tourists want souvenirs, and handcrafts fit the bill for this market far better than kitschy t-shirts. This market has saved most of Oaxaca’s crafts, but it has also transformed them.
Oaxaca’s best-developed craft traditions are in the Central Valleys because of major Mesoamerican cultures, such as the Zapotec and Mixtec. These traditions were further reinforced by trade between central Mexico and Central America, as well as Aztec tribute demands.
After the Conquest, the Spanish substituted themselves as rulers, without destroying the underlying economic system of Mesoamerica. However, artisans adapted to Spanish tastes in established products such as pottery and textiles, and learned to work with new materials such as wool, glazes and iron.
Oaxaca’s handcrafts are highly specialized by community. Unlike Michoacán, this was not because of a new system introduced by the conquistadores, but rather one that developed organically and still evolves today.
The two most widespread crafts are still pottery and textiles. In both cases, a knowledgeable eye can determine where a particular piece comes from. A shiny black ceramic is from San Bartolo Coyotepec, and if it has a green-glaze, it is most likely from Santa María Atzompa. Most indigenous communities have their own version of the huipil, which identifies the indigenous wearer where he/she is from.
One distinguishing characteristic of pottery in the Central Valleys is the use of a kind of “proto-pottery wheel,” a plate balanced over a bowl. It takes some skill to master, but it serves a similar purpose, allowing the piece to be turned as it is worked. It is not used by all artisans, but you will not see modern pottery wheels in traditional workshops.
Pottery shows the most recent changes in designs and techniques, with the most innovative being the making of decorative figures. With the exception of religious icons, such works were completely unknown until the latter 20th century, a result of markets catering to tourists and collectors. The making of the figures is new, but the themes almost always relate to traditional, rural life.
The main fibers for textiles in Mesoamerica were cotton and ixle (from the maguey plant), woven on backstrap looms. The Spanish introduced wool and silk, along with the pedal loom. Today, Oaxaca produces all kinds of traditional and innovative textiles including rugs, linens, carrying bags, many different articles of clothing and more. Both the backstrap loom and the pedal loom are used, depending on the specialty of the community. Until the 20th century, dyes were exclusively made from plants and minerals, and in the case of a special purple, a sea snail. The use of such dyes almost disappeared, but today there are a number of artisans working to preserve and promote their use. Linda Hanna of the Feria de Maestros de Arte national crafts fair and textile expert says: “The respect and love for these ancient traditions gives the finished pieces an immeasurable value.”
Wood and leather follow in popularity. Wood objects include furniture, chests, utensils, and religious icons. Perhaps the best- known wood craft is the carving of “alebrijes” from copal wood. The use of the term alebrije is somewhat controversial. It was coined by Mexico City artisan Pedro Linares in the mid-20th- century to refer to fantastic creatures he made from papier- mâché. Oaxaca wood carver Manuel Jimenez came into contact with Linares and created his own version, very distinct in style and technique, but chose to use the name. Traditional Mexico City artisans believe that the Oaxaca figures should be called something else, but honestly, I don’t see that ever happening.
Most leatherwork is found in Ejutla de Crespo and Jalatlaco, both found outside of the Central Valleys region. They are noted for the making of machete scabbards, saddles, wallets, belts, portfolio cases and more. Sometimes these pieces are decorated by “embroidering” them with a strong twine made from ixtle.
Oaxaca’s tourism industry and vast repertoire of artisans has spawned a worldwide market of collectors, as well as tourism specifically geared towards its crafts. It receives significant support from government and private cultural agencies, particularly in tourism promotion and the recruitment of young people into these trades, who are often more interested in the higher earnings other careers provide.
The New York-based Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art specifically deals with crafts from this state and is an excellent resource for information and contact with artisans.
The state has a number of museums dedicated to its handcrafts. The most important of these is Museo Estatal de Arte Popular de Oaxaca (MEAPO) in San Bartolo Coyotepec, run by noted artist and ceramicist Carlomagno Pedro. The Alfredo Harp Foundation opened the Oaxaca Textile Museum with a permanent collection of over 1,000 pieces, including some that date from the 17th century.
There are several challenges that face Oaxacan craft traditions. The first and foremost is the near-total dependence on tourism. This has led to a kind of boom-and-bust cycle. Events such as 9/11, the 2006 Oaxaca teacher’s strike and now COVID-19 mean a free fall in tourism and artisans’ incomes. The current crisis has spurred foreigner-Mexican non-profits such as FOFA and the Feria Maestros de Arte to expand their efforts to support artisans to online options, at least until face-to-face events can resume.
Commercial success of some crafts has created environmental problems. For example, the carving of alebrijes has taken a toll on copal trees, but fortunately a number of artisans and others are taking steps for better forest management.
The last is imitations of Oaxacan craft traditions, a long-standing problem with many fakes coming from Asia. More recently, the state has had cases of foreign designers closely copying traditional garments that received much attention in the international press. These include French designer Isabel Marant’s version of the blouse from Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec and Australian Zimmermann’s version of the huipil worn by the Mazatecs.
By far, Oaxaca’s handcraft creation is concentrated in the Central Valleys, because of the state’s history and its current status as the economic and tourist center of the state. The most famous craft towns of this region include Teotitlan del Valle for its wool rugs, Santa María Atzompa, Ocotlán de Morelos and San Bartolo Coyotepec for their distinctive pottery traditions, San Antonio Arrazola and San Martín Tilcajete for the making of alebrijes, Santo Tomás Jalietza for its cotton textiles and Tlacolula for its wrought iron (and mezcal liquor). Interestingly, the city of Oaxaca is better known for the commercialization of handcrafts rather than their production.
There are some craft traditions in other parts of the state. Tehuantepec has the most varied, with noted textiles, pottery and metal traditions (in particular the making of gold coin jewelry). Just about all traditional communities have traditional dress, even if it is worn only for local festivals and the like. The best known of these is the short blouse-like huipil, skirt and headdress of the Tehuantepec region, made famous by Frida Kahlo. Pottery traditions abound outside of the Valleys, although they tend to be much simpler in design and more utilitarian, but truer to their original purpose.
There are so many notable artisans from this state that it would be impossible to list a representative sample without leaving out someone important. In 2007, Arden Rothstein (founder of FOFA) and her daughter Anya published Mexican Folk Art: From Oaxacan Artist Families (2nd ed). It is an annotated directory of major Oaxacan artisans, complete with addresses and other contact information. A number of these artisans also appear on FOFA’s website.
Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art also has a page with a good list of books related to Oaxacan crafts.