Santa Fe New Mexican


Elevates Mexican Folk Art

The International Folk Art Market has named Cándida Fernández de Calderón its honorary chair for 2022. The market celebrates her almost 30 years of elevating Mexican folk art says Judy Espinar, one of the three founders of the market. According to Espinar, Fernández is the most important individual in Mexican and Latin American folk art and is extremely important globally, having almost single-handedly changed the way her country’s folk art is perceived around the world. Fernández’s vision, passion and hard work have given life-changing aid to more than a thousand artists in Mexico — and created a significant model for worldwide cultural preservation. Fernández began her quest in 1996, as a young woman fresh out of university studies in history. A former colleague at the prestigious Universidad Iberoamericana, Roberto Hernández Ramírez, and his partners had just bought the National Bank of Mexico (Banamex), when Fernández proposed that they create a foundation to support folk artists in Mexico. A few months later, the partners made her director of the nonprofit, which they called Fomento Cultural Banamex. (Fomento Cultural translates as “cultural promotion” — or support, development or advancement.) Fernández understood that for folk art to flourish, it needed to become as valuable as any other category of art. Artists needed to be nurtured so that their crafts didn’t disappear for want of resources. The best practitioners needed to be identified and supported. Younger generations needed to see creating traditional art as a viable way to make a living. Respect for artists’ talent and hard work needed to be promoted. The foundation also realized that both the arts and the communities that were facing extinction that made them could be revived by developing workshops and training young artists. Developing skills, along with building cultural identity and pride, would help rural and Indigenous populations stabilize, as would generating jobs that provided a good living. Building a corps of talented folk artists would also counteract the mass-production of commercialized “souvenir” folk art. Fomento Cultural (now Citibanamex) used a threepronged approach to reach its goals. To aid in the difficult task of choosing master artists, it first identified the most representative examples of traditional folk art and the people who created them. Those artists would serve as models for up-and-coming artists. The foundation looked at nine categories of materials: clay, wood, stone, textiles, metals, paper, leather, vegetable fibers and various materials that didn’t fall into any of those classifications. It also considered the usefulness of an object and the techniques used to produce it. It took Fomento Cultural Citibanamex about a year to identify 181 “Great Master” artisans from every state in the republic and to award each of them grants. The second phase focused on workshop development, expanded production, sales promotion and the creation of commercial contacts. Masters were also trained to teach apprentices, and artists learned to use new techniques and mechanisms that didn’t diminish traditional ways of working. As part of the second phase, the foundation also staged exhibitions in major institutions in Mexico and around the world, along the way opening museums showcasing Mexican folk art. For instance, Fernández directed restoration of the Santo Domingo de Guzmán Convent, an early colonial building in San Cristobal de las Casas in the state of Chiapas. The convent, dating from 1546, blossomed into a dazzling textile museum, drawing people from all over the world to view the work of Mexican weavers. The project was supported by many players, including Fomento Cultural Citibanamex, the National Institute of Anthropology and History and the government of Chiapas. As a result of the project, San Cristobal de las Casas named Fernández a Above left, Alfonso Escudero Garcia Below left, Camelia Ramos Zamora benefactress of the city. In the third stage, Fomento Cultural strengthened commercial ties and prepared artisans to expand their markets and sales with samples, catalogs and better packaging. New markets included buyers that artists met at forums and international fairs, such as IFAM. Fomento Cultural also published two stunning books showing folk art from a new point of view. The first edition of Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art, published in 2003, showcased artists photographed in their studios, along with poetic descriptions of their crafts. Being featured in the book was a source of pride to the artists, who proudly displayed their pages to workshop visitors. A second edition, Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art: Fomento Cultural Banamex Collection, 20 Years, marked the anniversary of the foundation’s first big exhibition as well as the continued support of Citibanamex. Fernández says it was necessary to update the book because some of the original artists had died, some had involved their families and communities in their work and some had expanded their workshops and skills. After 20 years, their work had changed. These days, the yearly competition that determines new Great Masters takes into consideration the ages of artists as well as their creativity, labor, excellence and design. They also consider artists’ impact on their communities and their efforts to train others. Ángel Gil, a folk artist who has been part of the Citibanamex program for many years, is featured in the first Great Masters book. He is from the village of Xichú, Guanajuato. His specialty is lariats and woven bags made from ixtle, a fiber made from maguey or similar plants. He prepares the fiber himself — harvesting leaves, cutting them and then soaking them in water for a week. He then beats the leaves with a wooden mallet over a smooth stone, which frees the fibers from the pulp. Gil washes the fibers in soapy water and dries them in the sun. He can then hand-spin the fibers into string using a simple large needle called a malacate. He spins it in a cup, between his hands or on his thigh. Lariat making involves intense hand-twisting of the strong, harsh threads, but it produces a rope that will last a lifetime. The artist’s process takes us back to ancient ways of making things from only raw materials found in the environment. While Gil acknowledges that creating a traditional rope from maguey leaves is exhausting — and making a bag out of ixtle is even more laborious — he notes that while weaving plastic is easy, his rope and bags will last forever. When a recent exhibition had to close because of COVID, Fomento Cultural Citibanamex helped its artists by producing videos showcasing the Great Masters and how they work. Two of those artists — Camelia Ramos Zamora from the state of Mexico, who weaves on a backstrap loom, and César Torres Ramírez from Puebla, who makes Majolica pottery — are at the 2020 Fomento Cultural Citibanamex booth at IFAM. Both reach into the past for inspiration. Ramos, a rebocera (a maker of rebozos, a kind of shawl), says she has given “life to a culture that had died, an ancient culture that had been neglected.” Rebozos, made on backstrap looms, have been worn by all classes of Mexicans for hundreds of years. They have kept people warm and carried babies on their mothers’ backs. Silk versions have dressed up the wealthy. Ramírez’s ceramics are inspired by his grandfather, who worked in a Talavera factory. Talavera, a name often used interchangeably with Majolica, originated in Spain and Italy. Ramírez’s pieces are made with clay gathered from hills near Puebla and decorated by hand with traditional designs. The colors he paints with come from ground minerals. Ramírez produces functional ware for people who want to use beautiful dishes in their everyday lives. Fernández says that many objects in Mexico are made by hand, but there is a difference between “handmade” and “folk art.” Handmade articles might be mass-produced, with few variations between individual items, whereas folk art consists of one-of-a-kind pieces made with implements that refer back to inherited culture. Folk artists define their art by painstakingly producing unique, beautiful pieces using local materials inspired by their heritage. Folk art expresses “community identity and is an invaluable key to understanding Mexico’s complex, plural self,” Fernández says. Now, almost 30 years after Cándida Fernández proposed creating a nonprofit to support folk artists, she comes to IFAM with 28 Grand Masters. Santa Fe is the ideal place to hold a folk art market Fernández says. “It has three characteristics that make it perfect: homes that welcome a display of folk art, people who can afford to pay for the finest pieces, and it attracts an international crowd who love to come to Santa Fe.” At one time, almost all objects used in the home or worn as clothing were made by hand for use in the communities of the people who made them. Fernández remains keenly aware of modern mass-produced items encroaching on the vocations of folk artists, whom she calls part of the patrimony of Mexico. She says that people who at one time might have stayed in their villages or neighborhoods and worked in the traditional arts of their families now roar off in fast cars to jobs as computer programmers and bank tellers. She would like them to know they have other options. Patricia Greathouse is a longtime admirer and collector of Mexican folk art. She has traveled extensively in Mexico by train, bus and car.