Shuko Clouse is here. She opened Mano del Sur recently, a beautiful online shop that combines her Japanese aesthetic — simplicity and quality — with Mexican handcraft excellence. Shuko came to Oaxaca to restock the shop.
She takes her time. She curates each item. She meets the makers and engages with them. She holds an article in her hands and savors its creation. She kneels down to touch a wool rug whose life is created on the loom. She traces the pattern with her fingertips, asking about ancient design origin.
It is a marvel to go shopping with Shuko. She chooses carefully. Selects one or two items that are the same. She is not a volume shopper. I learn from her. Take your time. Each moment with a handmade article is a blessing for the maker and eventually, the buyer.
Don’t rush. When I was in Japan, I saw that a large room with one extraordinary vase containing one exquisite flower was enough. This is antithetical to my own collecting sensibilities. It is a struggle to keep my living environment spare, and I confess I am unsuccessful. But I aspire to this — one object, beautifully crafted, as focal point.
Meanwhile, Shuko and I travel the villages; to San Marcos Tlapazola to visit the women makers of red clay pottery; to Mitla to see the weaver of natural dyed wool and cotton; deep into a Mitla neighborhood to visit the antique dealer whose eclectic collection tempts all; to old adobe houses of Teotitlan del Valle where humble weavers work magic.
Art history is a fascinating way to learn more about Mexico and the figures who shaped the nation — political, social, cultural. Through their interpretation of characters and events, the famed muralists — Diego Rivera, David Alfara Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco — gave definition to a new nation seeking to redefine itself post-1920 Revolution. We call this Mexican Muralism.
While I’m now in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, I’m reflecting back to last weekend in Mexico City, where, in collaboration with my art historian friend Valeria, we led a group of nine participants from the USA through the historic center. Here is where a turbulent history is interpreted through art. We started on Thursday evening and ended on Sunday afternoon, packing it in, walking miles each day, absorbing a fascinating evolution.
Mexico is defined by many internal and external forces, mostly her on-going desire to reconcile the Spanish conquest with her indigenous origins. Embracing Mestizaje — blending indigenous roots with conquerors, occupiers and immigrants, is what makes Mexico unique among nations, and very different from her northern neighbors.
Rivera, who sat out the 1910-1920 Revolution, painting and making a name for himself in Europe, returned to Mexico City in 1921. Jose Vasconcelos, the first minister of education, recruited Rivera to paint the murals at the Secretariat de Educacion Publica (SEP), his first commission.
The murals of Rivera, Orozco and Siquieros are commentaries on national identity, statehood, oppression and power. The Rivera murals at SEP in particular were part of a national communication plan (aka propaganda) to embrace native culture and arts. Critics say Rivera’s murals are romantic and idealistic. His contemporaries, survivors of the Revolution, painted a more hopeless, violent vision, expressing their belief that the past must be destroyed in order to create a new order.
By Sunday, we move more deeply into the life and times of Frida Kahlo with a visit to Casa Azul, a stark contrast to the muralists.
Frida Kahlo was born in 1907, the year Rivera went to Europe as a young man. During her lifetime she was dwarfed literally and figuratively by her imposing husband. It wasn’t until after her death in 1954 at age 47, that she became the iconic figure she is today — representing women’s strength, pain, fortitude, perseverance, endurance.
We revere her because her art is self-expression. She painted emotion and the internal life. She was a participant, not an observer. She hid her deformities under extraordinary handmade Mexican clothing — popularizing the style, corseted beneath to hold her injured spine erect. Andre Breton called her surrealist. We call her survivor.
Our art history tour weaves the relationship between Diego and Frida with the times in which they lived and worked. We also examine the politics of Socialism and Communism in Mexico, how the Rivera’s gave sanctuary to Leon Trotsky, the idealism of young American artists like Pablo O’Higgins, Isamu Noguchi, and the Greenwood sisters — Marion and Grace, who were drawn to the movement. We see their deteriorating murals in an obscure market blocks from the city center.
We understand Mexico more now, how the creative stream of artistic energy here continues to express social and political inequalities, injustices, and discontent.
Here in Oaxaca, our beloved Maestro Francisco Toledo, carried the mantle of social justice art until he died in September 2019. Young graphic artists follow in the footsteps of the masters, use wood, linoleum block and metal plates to carve out images of truth to power. Mexico offers creative opportunity to any and all who choose to express themselves.
Note: If you put together a group of 5-6 people, I am happy to organize this experience over a long weekend in Mexico City.
How was I going to replicate the organic cornbread I’ve been making (and eating) in North Carolina here in Teotitlan del Valle?, I wondered. As I cruised the village market yesterday, I saw a local woman selling small bags of ground cornmeal. I asked her to verify what it was, since I wanted plain ground corn. For atole, she replied, in Spanish. Nothing more than corn. Maize molido. I thought, oh, good, local from her milpa.
I know how they grind corn here. Almost every family has a small plot of corn, squash and beans out in the campo. This is to sustain them and their animals throughout the year. Everyone eats the same corn — animals and humans alike. There are three corn plantings and harvests a year. The last harvest is coming in now, just before Muertos.
Once the corn is harvested, most of it is dried. The women peel the kernels off the husks, then take the dried corn kernels to the local molino (mill). There is a mill in every neighborhood here. They choose how they want it ground, coarse to fine. What I bought was a fine ground cornmeal. Native, organic corn. Original corn. Healthy. Just perfect.
I followed a highly rated gluten-free recipe online, but added my own flavors to the dry meal: 1/4 t. turmeric, one tablespoon of minced, candied ginger, about a teaspoon of dried oregano I had bought fresh at the local market some months ago.
We are at 6,000 feet altitude here in the Oaxaca valley. It takes longer to bake and we need to crank up the oven temperature a bit to compensate. Baking here is as much an art as it is a science, so I watch the cornbread to make sure it is rising and not browning too fast.
My friend Kalisa is a baker extraordinaire. She often stays in the casita when I’m gone, caring for the dogs. Of course, this is a Mexican stove! She did a translation of oven temps from Fahrenheit to Centigrade last year. We keep this on a faithful sticky note on the side of the cupboard near the oven. It helps immensely.
Footnote: It took over an hour to bake. The recipe called for 25 minutes at 425 degrees Fahrenheit. The texture is fine, more like a cake than a bread. Next time, I’ll see if I can find a coarse grind meal in the village. Meanwhile, I taste the turmeric and the oregano and ginger. I like the mingling of the flavors.
What can you experiment with?
P.S. A long time ago, in a land far, far away, I used to own and operate a gourmet cookware shop and cooking school. I still love to experiment.
After three months of being away, the dogs — Tia and Butch — still recognize me. The campo is green from rain. A carpet of cempasuchitl — Mexican marigold flowers — have taken over in preparation for Dia de los Muertos.
Yesterday, my first late afternoon here, I took a walk on a familiar path. Ruts and loose stones were clues that there was a reason for green. The sun was still strong, though it was closer to sunset. It felt good to settle back into life here in this way — into the essence of the landscape.
My friends, on whose land I live, invited me for a homecoming dinner of barbecue chicken and mezcal. I contributed the steamed brown rice. The dogs hovered near the doorway to their house. We caught up. My dormant Spanish resuscitated.
Today, the Teotitlan del Valle market calls. My cupboards are bare. On the advice of my new UNC Chapel Hill gastroenterologist and after more than a year of symptoms, I’ve started the low FODMAP diet (my diagnosis is small intestine bacterial overgrowth). It requires a different kind of shopping, easy to achieve here with organic foods and native corn.
At this moment, at about the same time as yesterday’s walk, it drizzles. The Temps drop ten degrees. Lemongrass leaves rustle in their clay pots. Sweet Lady Rain. The only sounds I hear are the tap-tap of rain on the baked tile roof, the hum of the refrigerator, the distant crow of a rooster.
It’s easy to sleep here. It’s easy to be here.
Tomorrow Shuko arrives and we will descend onto the villages in search of pottery and textiles, into markets and shops, to visit artisans and makers of culture and craft.
For now, I listen to what is soothing and feel the freshness through the open window.
Chip Morris was one of those iconic figures who is largely responsible for the development of textile education in Chiapas, Mexico. He is known for preserving and promoting Maya highland weaving. He was there for a lifetime, co-creating the famed weaving cooperative Sna Jolobil and establishing San Cristobal de las Casas as a textile lover’s travel destination.
I got news of his passing yesterday from my pal Sheri Brautigam while I was in transit from my Durham home to Mexico City.
Walter “Chip” Morris, 1953-2019, RIP
From Kiki Suarez, founder of Kikimundo, famed folk art gallery in the San Cristobal de las Casas historic center:
When I arrived in San Cristobal in 1977, the Maya fabric here was already in decline, and neither I nor any tourists knew much about quality and we bought mediocre embroidery; we did not know about the quality of what was possible. The weavers themselves followed the tradition but many did not know the meaning of their patterns. A young gringo Hippie arrived, settled in San Andres Larrainzar, learned Tzotzil (and probably spoke it better than Spanish), and rescued the meanings in the ancient textiles, which were already at the point of disintegrating.
This man was Walter F. Morris, who we called Chip. I learned a lot with him. Together with Luis Contreras and Pedro Meza, he formed the Sna Jolobil cooperative in the city, still known today as the sourced for the highest quality Maya fabric. He took the Maya textiles to the great museums. He wrote his book, Living Maya, with Carol Karasik, that included the extraordinary photographs taken by Jeffrey J. Foxx, and then translated into Spanish.
Then, other books followed, always with the faithful and capable Carol: about how the Maya fabric here in many remote communities in the Maya highlands continues to develop instead of disappearing, how Maya women and men are preserving their dress instead of giving over to western styles — a rare phenomenon in the world.
The tours and talks by Chip that I attended were wonderful. I remember the first years here when I saw women walking from village to village, carrying their textiles on their heads. I remember how Chip was looking for, discovering, teaching the weavers themselves the meaning of their patterns, rescuing old huipil designs. I remember an old huipil from Chamula that had designs that were taken from the murals at Bonampak. Chip helped them appreciate the value of their own art that they often sold for nothing or almost nothing.
Then, he joined the fabulous Pellizzi Collection for a small salary. The Maya textile was his life and his passion and his destiny and vocation, and perhaps everything else in life could not compete with this. If today there are so many cooperatives and young people who play with new designs of the traditional Maya textile, I think this is why Chip Morris started — to leave this legacy. Unfortunately, for many years, for personal reasons, he began to withdraw from social spaces, and today many who work in the same field do not even know about him.
That’s why I write this: Let them know! This is the heritage he leaves in San Cristobal, and with many weavers and people in many communities.
Chip transcends his personal struggles for his great effort and work to rescue and recognize the Maya fabric, another textile artist, Olga Reiche, from Guatemala, wrote to me today. And, so it is …
I did not know Chip personally. I met him a couple of times in Tenejapa during my tours with Patrick Murphy, when he was guiding tourists to the cooperative operated by Maria Meza across from the zocalo. I knew that he was ailing. Most of us did. As Kiki says, we honor the contribution he made to Maya textile knowledge. We go to Chiapas because of what he accomplished. Descansé bien.
We recommend Chip’s book, Maya Threads: A Woven History published by Thrum’s Books, for our Chiapas textile study tour participants. I hope you have a chance to read it.
Why We Left, Expat Anthology: Norma’s Personal Essay
Norma contributes personal essay, How Oaxaca Became Home
Norma Contributes Two Chapters!
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Norma Schafer and Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC has offered programs in Mexico since 2006. We have over 30 years of university program development experience. See my resume.
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