For generations, the production of ceramics in Tonalá, Mexico has been a family affair, with craft secrets and tools handed from father to son. To see the concept illustrated, you need only to look at one vase depicting a series of M.C. Escher-like hand studies, in which paintbrushes are passed in a circle from the chubby fist of a child to the wizened fingers of an old man.
The intricacy and workmanship of this piece encourages viewers to redefine their mental vocabulary in regard to traditional Latin American art. And with the 130 other contemporary works that make up the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center's new exhibit, The Ceramics of Tonalá: Legacy of a Thousand Years, it also draws viewers in on the intellectual plane as well, introducing a body of work whose appeal is both striking and enduring.
At the heart, the appeal of Tonalá ceramics comes down to genealogy. As with a family tree, the history of the Jalisco town's artistic heritage is one of disparate elements coming together and extending in new, ever-loftier directions. With every generation, the art form has gained in notoriety, creativity and prestige. Vessels and sculptures that were, in pre-Columbian times, employed for utilitarian or religious purposes, are now highly sought objets internationally.
In its sapling days, the ceramics industry in Mexico was fertilized by the Spanish Conquest; pieces that were once valued as spiritual objects were suddenly exported to grace castles and cathedrals in imperial Spain. It was around this time that Tonalá began to gain renown for ceramics, as demand for the pieces grew.
"The result is something that is very unique," says FAC curator of Hispanic and Native American art Tariana Navas-Nieves. "You cannot say that it's pre-Columbian or European. It's like nothing else."
That's because art is one arena in which the new European culture did not completely quash its antecedents. Even today, Tonalá ceramics sport figures from indigenous mythology in addition to crucifixes and Christian religious scenes.
"The cat figure that you're going to see is what's called the nagual," explains Navas-Nieves."It's based on a pre-Columbian shape-shifter or a shaman."
That motif, along with those of flowers, animals, human figures and a few calaveras, is lushly depicted in rich, earthy glazes applied with impossibly tiny brush strokes. Underneath, the clay may have been subjected to one of many types of finish-work, from brunido (burnished with metal to a glass-smooth patina) to betus (submerged in resin to impart a bright shine).
Looking at current examples of Tonalá ceramics is like looking at a child next to both his grandfathers: Even though the young one is unique, you can see the resemblance from both sides.
Navas-Nieves credits early 20th-century Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros for instilling Tonalá artists with national, as well as personal, pride. The transformation is symbolized by a distinctive feature of today's pieces that has never before been seen on Tonalá ceramics: the artists' signatures.
"When you have the anonymous works, it can fall into ethnographic specimens, it can fall into cultural objects," says Navas-Nieves. "And I think there's a dramatic shift when you start seeing individual artists signing their works. The collectors ... put value in it. That's a big part of why these artists are recognized, is because they're starting to be recognized as individuals."
But whether the art is produced as a form of communal cultural expression or as a way of taking individual ownership of creative tradition, the spirit of the pieces themselves expresses the same pride in Mexican culture.
"You see the works they're creating today, and you can recognize the element that goes back to the origins," says Navas-Nieves. "It's really a Mexican tradition. It's about Mexican identity. It's very much part of what makes Mexico, Mexico."