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Trees of life: symbols of abundance

By Susan Page

Some form of the “tree of life” has been found in all Mesoamerican cultures including the Aztec, Maya, Mixtec and Olmec, and continues to be a strong theme in Mexican folk art today. It is a symbol of the abundance of the universe, depicting the connection between heaven and earth, the four sacred directions, and the lineage of humankind.

Open House
Trees of Life in Mexican Folk Art
New Shipment of Decorative Glass
Sat, Jul 26, 5pm
Sun, Jul 27, 4pm
For directions to the gallery,
see our ad in this issue or visit our website:

The central idea of the tree of life is the unity and connection of everything and everyone in the universe. Mystics from all religions report that enlightenment, or the highest sacred vision, is the realization that separation is an illusion, that in fact, everything in the universe is part of “being,” the way a drop of water is a part of the ocean. Trees of life are a graphic representation of this unity. They reach from the heavens – often with angels or some depiction of God at the top – to deep into the earth, depicted by gardens with deep roots, or sometimes as hell! Trees of life that appear in Mesoamerican codices always have a reference to the four sacred directions, a way of honoring and bringing together the diversity of the world and of humankind. It is supposed that Mesoamerican sites and ceremonial centers frequently had actual trees planted at each of the four cardinal directions.

In contemporary Mexican folk art, the Tree of Life has become a kind of “canvas” for artists to present a variety of subjects, from daily life in the village, to indigenous dress and traditions, to folk art from all parts of Mexico. Many include religious themes such as the story of Adam and Eve or the Virgin of Guadalupe. Some show off the mermaid who, because she represents both land and sea, becomes a symbol of the duality of the universe.

Lacquerware from Guerrero

Also featured at the Open House will be elegant lacquerware from two villages in Guerrero. The artists in Tamalacatzingo, an ancient indigenous village high in the mountains, use natural mineral powders and chia oil to obtain a distinctive sheen and depth of color. About a 45-minute drive down the mountain from Tamalacatzingo is the town of Olinala, also a lacquer-producing town. The rivalry between the two towns is evident in many comments and conversations in both towns. Both their history and their work are very different.

Both towns were originally Nahua indigenous peoples. The Spanish conquistadors invaded Olinala and intermingled with the Nahua people, so that the population today is largely Mestizo. Tamalacatzingo is so remote that the Spanish never found it, so the people today remain pure Nahua and speak Nahuatl (in addition to Spanish.) Lacquer was being produced in Tamalacztzingo for hundreds of years before the Spanish invasion, originally as both functional pieces and offerings to the gods. At some point, people from Olinala went up the mountain to learn lacquer techniques from the Tamalacatzingo people.

Today, both towns produce lacquerware, but the “look” from each town is quite different. Olinala is known for boxes, trunks, trays and gourds, while Tamalacatzingo is known for its toys, masks, bateas (flat bowls) and distinctive “gecko” gourds. There are two types of Olinala lacquer. In one, they apply layers of color and then carve away the top layer to reveal the colors below, resulting in a design in shallow relief. In the other method, they paint lacquer designs onto the surface. Olinala artists are numerous and prolific, and their work is widely seen all over Mexico in a wide range of quality. Tamalacatzingo work, with its distinctive Greco designs, is rarely seen outside of Guerrero. Galeria Atotonilco carries the finest quality lacquer from both towns.


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