Mexican folk art draws from a rich history that includes the Aztec Empire, Indigenous cultures, and the Spanish colonial period.
But, what defines Mexican folk art? Is it more than just the cultural background of the artist?
We wanted to know more, so today, we’re wandering down the winding streets and mountains of Mexico.
What Is Mexican Folk Art?
Mexican folk art involves a massive amount of regional and cultural diversity. For thousands of years, pre-Columbian societies existed in what is now Mexico. And while they do not exist as political entities in modern Mexico, their legacy does.
Spanish colonizers came in the middle of the 16th century and brought a new religion and culture. Instead of rejecting their old beliefs, people blended their old beliefs with the new faith forced upon them.
When the Spanish left, their influence remained.
Mexican folk art uses these cultural influences and wraps in a few other things. Environmental factors and access to materials affect the work artists create.
Mexico has more than one hundred types of clay, a wide variety of woods and metals, and a wealth of precious stones. Natural dyes, one of the reasons Spain was so interested in the region, infuse Mexican folk art with vibrant color.
Mexican folk art has everything from paintings to religious objects, masks, pinatas, paper mache, ceramics, carvings, jewelry, and metalwork. The remoteness of cities and lack of roads connecting them mean that ethnic identity is maintained even in contemporary Mexico.
What Are Some Common Themes in Mexican Folk Art?
The common themes in Mexican folk art are timeless. Reaching into history, you can find the influence of the Aztecs, the Spanish, Indigenous peoples, and the natural world. These influences create specific categories: nature, religion, family, food, politics, and holidays.
The natural world appears in Mexican folk art in the form of plants and animals. Birds, snakes, lizards, insects, and butterflies are all standard. From the Aztecs to Frida Kahlo, the appearance of nature reminded people of their connection to the earth.
Religion plays an outsized role in contemporary Mexico, and we’re not just talking about Catholicism. For over three hundred years, Catholicism informed nearly every aspect of Mexican society. As a result, iconography is a common theme. Indigenous spirituality also plays a role in Mexican folk art through masks, icons, idols, and objects.
Because of the remoteness of many cities and towns, family plays a vital role in Mexican culture. Paintings and carvings often depict families eating, working, and living together, which leads us to food. Food and family are inseparable in Mexican culture. Families often gather together to cook and eat; generations gather together, sharing food and stories.
Artists from the Spanish period forward often depict the oppression of common people. Especially during the revolutionary period, artists fought back against tyranny through their work. Paintings, murals, lithographs, and posters, all incorporating typical themes, pointed out the corruption of the government.
Mexican culture makes a big deal about holidays because of the strong emphasis on family and religion. Festivals and carnivals dot the calendar, and one of the unique aspects of Mexican folk art revolves around them.
Masks, carryovers from the Aztec and Spanish periods, are integral to holiday celebrations. Made for local festivals, masks represent a unique form of Mexican folk art.
Why Is Mexican Folk Art So Unique?
The diversity of Mexico means that the art created by its people is just as diverse. We’ve already discussed the variety of materials and types of art, and regional diversity adds another layer.
Puebla is known for Talavera clay, and the vases of the region are unparalleled in sophistication. Guanajuato ceramics are impossible to miss due to their inclusion of sunflowers in nearly every piece. Every clay-producing area in Mexico has its specialty, something savvy tourists discover on their own.
And regionalism carries over to other crafts as well. Textiles, masks, carvings, and jewelry uniquely point to their home regions. And just like the rich tapestry that makes up Mexican culture, Mexican folk art represents these cultures in rich color.
What Is the Difference Between Mexican Folk Art and American Folk Art?
Mexican and American folk art have a lot in common. True to form, they both represent the cultures that create them. In American folk art, objects created have to function in the lives of the maker. The items may be similar, but there isn’t a grand tradition behind the art.
In Mexico, artists create as part of a millennia-old tradition from a much older cultural memory. Further, while the population of Mexico is diverse, people share a common experience lacking in the United States.
Folk art created in Mexico has more in common stylistically than folk art created in the U.S. because of a common thread that connects its people.
Who Are Some Famous Mexican Folk Artists?
In the last century, several Mexican folk artists made an impact beyond their borders. These artists are recognized because of their contributions to Mexico and the world.
The child of a German father and Mexican mother, Frida Kahlo painted her dreams. Usually lumped in with the surrealist movement, she rejected this connection during her lifetime. Kahlo’s painting expressed her internal and external suffering.
After overcoming polio and surviving a terrible trolley accident, Frida’s painting began from her bed. And while she tried to emulate European masters for a time, her art blossomed when she embraced her Mexican heritage. She started wearing indigenous clothing, hairstyles, and folk art stylistic flourishes for the rest of her career.
Known for her self-portraits and politics, she challenged viewers with her brutally honest work.
Pedro Linares created a new form of folk art after a terrible fever in 1936. Hallucinations inspired the creatures he called alebrije, mystical, brightly colored creatures. Made from cartón, a very strong paper mache, the objects Linares created caught the eye of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.
Linares’ creatures gained popularity, and he taught his family to make them. He would carve them into wood so his family could see his vision. Artists in Oaxaca still call their carved statues alebrije after Linares’ creatures.
Jose Guadalupe Posada
Jose Guadalupe Posada contributed to the Mexican revolution with his art. A political cartoonist and lithographer, Posada transformed the calavera (skull and skeleton art) into a political statement. The political cartoons that Posada created commented on the inequalities facing the people.
Skulls replaced faces, and La Calavera Catrina, a satirical take on upper-class Mexicans, became the face of resistance. In fact, Dia de Los Muertos wouldn’t be the same without Posada’s characters.
After Diego Rivera incorporated Catrina into his murals, people started dressing like her for the celebration. You still see her walking the streets of Mexico during the festival, grinning away.
Where Can I See More Mexican Folk Art?
You can certainly view online galleries and exhibits if you can’t travel. However, many excellent museums and galleries exist where you can see Mexican folk art in person. These are just a few of the best spots to check out Mexican folk art.
Situated in Santa Barbara, California, Casa Dolores houses one of the largest collections of Mexican folk art in the United States. Once the private home of collector Linda Cathcart, the museum exhibits all forms of Mexican folk art. They have a specific focus on pottery, but you can also find masks and textiles.
The National Museum of Mexican Art
The National Museum of Mexican Art, in the heart of Chicago, exhibits some of the finest examples of folk art we’ve seen. With its vast collection of masks, paintings, objects, and textiles, you won’t be disappointed.
Incorporating a busy schedule of programming outside of the exhibits, performing arts, films, and educational opportunities abound. Taking up 48,000 square feet, the museum is the largest of its kind.
The Blue House
La Casa Azul, located in Mexico City, was once the home of Frida Kahlo. It’s now the best place to view her work. The museum has a frequently changing exhibition of her paintings, housewares, clothing, and furniture.
Initially organized by Kahlo’s husband, Diego Rivera, the museum bursts with color. Because she was so frequently bedridden, Frida’s home made up her whole world. Her signature is everywhere in this beautiful homage to Kahlo’s life and art.
Outside Folk Gallery
You can also explore folk and outsider art in our personal collection on Instagram at Outsider Folk Art. We’re celebrating folk and outsider artists and giving voice to rising black, Native, immigrant, and working mother artisans. We’ll also offer pop-up shows and collaborations with small museums, so be sure to follow us to discover the where and when.
Mexican Folk Art’s Power Is In Its Culture
Folk art is a powerful expression of Mexican culture. The artists create their pieces with a solid connection to their shared history while celebrating their differences. From nature to family to politics, Mexican folk art’s explosion of color speaks to everyone.
Do you have a favorite Mexican folk artist? Let us know about them in the comments!