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Open House Features Lacquer Gourds from Guerrero

By Susan Page

The lacquer gourds and toys from the remote village of Tamalacatzingo, Guerrero, are arguably the most beautiful lacquer produced anywhere in the world. Galería Atotonilco is featuring them at an open house, Saturday and Sunday, November 28 and 29, 12–5pm.

Galería Atotonilco
Featuring Lacquer Gourds from Guerrero
Sat, Nov 28 and Sun, Nov 29, 12–5pm
185 2225

Galeria Atotonilco owner Mayer Shacter and I (his wife) attend an annual competition in the isolated and barely accessible mountain village of Tamalacatzingo, Guerrero, one of only five towns in all of Mexico that produce lacquer ware. Prize money is supplied by government agencies such as FONART and Conaculta and local arts organizations.

About 12 years ago anthropologist Marta Turok spent time in the village persuading artists to return to using traditional chia oil and mineral earth powders and plants for color, ingredients that had been abandoned in favor of less expensive linseed oil and commercial dyes. Virtually all the artists now announce with pride that they have returned to the centuries-old natural materials. The result is an unctuous, translucent quality and soft depth of color unobtainable with artificial chemicals. Traditional “greco” designs (also found in the ruins of Mitla, presumably based on designs found on old Greek pottery) are also in widespread use.

First, the artists cut off the top of a gourd in a pleasing pattern, using a tiny, saw-tooth blade. This step is so important that a separate prize is awarded for the most clean and unusual or intricate cut. Then, they clean out the inside of the gourd. Next, the artists apply chia oil, and with a circular hand motion, work in mineral powders, which are usually impregnated with color. Then, they burnish that mix with a smooth pyrite stone to a uniform sheen. These stages are repeated over and over. The more layers, the greater the translucency, depth of color, and soft jewel-like quality that results.  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.

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 lacquer ware, but the “look” from each town is quite different. Olinala is known for boxes and trunks, trays, and gourds, while Tamalacatzingo is known for its toys, masks, bateas (flat bowls) and distinctive “gecko” gourds. Most of the artists in Olinala use linseed oil and commercial dyes, yet the finest work from the town is intricate and beautiful, containing figures, flowers, animals, and sometimes stories, like the story of creation, or a traditional myth.

For more information, call 185 2225 or visit


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