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Open House Features Lacquer Gourds from Guerrero

Tamal many flowers bird in flight

By Susan Page

Galería Atotonilco has recently acquired more than a hundred new lacquer gourds from the remote village of Temalacatzingo, Guerrero, arguably the most beautiful lacquer produced in the world. We call them the Faberge eggs of Mexico. The gallery is featuring these spectacular works of art at an open house, Saturday and Sunday, August 27 and 28, from noon to 5pm both days. The 5,000-square-foot showroom also exhibits folk art from all over Mexico, vintage textiles, contemporary pottery, and much more. Directions to the gallery, five miles north of town in a beautiful country setting, are in our ad in this issue.

Galería Atotonilco owners, Mayer Shacter and I, usually attend the annual town competition, in the isolated and barely accessible mountain village of Temalacatzingo, Guerrero, one of only five towns in all of Mexico that produce lacquerware. There are no hotels or restaurants in this indigenous village, so we are hosted by a family, who have become dear friends. They told us that they built their home with money they have won in various competitions. The prize money is supplied by government agencies such as Fonart, Conaculta, and local arts organizations.

This year, we were unable to attend the competition. Since we are usually the only people purchasing work on this important day, when artists produce their most spectacular work, one of the enterprising artists sent Mayer photos of dozens of pieces. Mayer selected more than one hundred works of art, and two of the artists brought twenty boxes of lacquer works on a nearly 24-hour bus trip, directly to the gallery. These works are now on display and available for purchase.

About 12 years ago, anthropologist Marta Turok spent time in the village persuading the 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.

About a 45-minute drive down the mountain from Temalacatzingo 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. Temalacatzingo 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 Temalacatzingo for hundreds of years before the Spanish invasion, originally as both functional pieces and offerings to the gods. No one knows exactly when, but at some point, people from Olinala went up the mountain to learn lacquer techniques from the Temalacatzingo people. Today, both towns produce lacquerware, but the “look” from each town is quite different. Olinala is known for boxes and trunks, trays, and gourds, while Temalacatzingo 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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