Artisans of Mexico: On the Nature of Things
inDecember 22, 2010 - 9:50pm
Human nature has become artificial. This is the message I take away each morning as I spy the latest addition to our “home decor,” peering at it, squinty-eyed, over a morning cup of coffee. The ordered serenity of our home, where the requirements of human habitation struggle to keep nature at bay—the cold, the rain, the bugs—has been disrupted by this testament to a very different understanding of what it means to live in “nature”: a pair of green pottery “piñas” from Michoacán, fantastic expressions of fecundity that overflow with an exuberance that mimics the life-force of nature.
As an acquaintance remarked not too long ago, the division between outside space and inside space in Mexico is so diaphanous that at times it seems to dissipate altogether. Certainly, the warm climate has something to do with this, as any visitor to the Mexican Riviera knows. But I would argue that it also reflects something deeper, a self-conscious embrace of nature in its frightening completeness: capricious, occasionally tragic, and always, but always, replete with life. Nowhere is this embrace of nature more eloquently captured than in the peculiar tradition of “barro verde,” a sculpted pottery from the state of Michoacán that pays tribute to the vital forces of nature in the symbolic form of the “piña.” Far more than its English translation can convey—here the word “pineapple” is woefully inadequate—the form of this tropical fruit is exaggerated to an extreme degree so that it finally comes to represent nothing less than the generative principle of nature itself: The “piña” sprouts leaves in unheard of places, grows fantastic stems and exotic flowers, and, like a Georgia O’Keeffe painting, hints at nature’s inevitable eroticism.
“Dear Venus that beneath the gliding stars, makest to teem … the fruitful lands for all living things … for thee the daedal Earth bears scented flowers … Smile, and the hollows of the serene sky glow with diffused radiance for thee!” These words from the Roman poet Lucretius come back to me as I measure my distance from this exotic piece of Mexican “artesanía.” What is it that both attracts and disturbs about this unusual object? What is it about my own insulated existence that makes it difficult for me to understand, let alone embrace, a vision of nature as something that cannot be controlled, as something that demands its own way? Outside the rain is beating down. Inside the gentle hum of central heating seduces me into thinking that the artisans of Michoacán are just pulling my leg. I am comforted by the power of modern machines.
Working in one of the most troubled regions of their country, the craftspeople who create these unique objects show a heroic resilience. Like Lucretius, who also lived in difficult times, their vision of natural fecundity reveals, by comparison, the banality of human cruelty. They labor on behalf of an idea with much deeper roots—I am even tempted to call it primitive—a vision of the universe that is celebratory and life-affirming, even as it requires us to relinquish something of our smug sense of control.
So my morning routine is subtly challenged by an object whose true value far exceeds the capacity of the labels available describe it, labels like “home decor” and “collectible pottery.” It speaks a foreign language that I must struggle to understand, and whose final meaning I can only partially comprehend.