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Oaxaca Mexico: Mexican Crafts and Contemporary Artists
An Introduction to Oaxaca City: Birthplace of Many Folk and Contemporary Artists
Oaxaca City is the capital of the culturally rich state of Oaxaca, located in the southeast region of Mexico, between the states of Guerrero and Chiapas.
Oaxaca State encompasses many indigenous artisans from different regions and, as a result, Oaxaca City -its cultural core- has a thriving craft scene and an incredible range of charming, locally made, beautiful folk art.
Besides showcasing the colorful variety of regional Mexican crafts, Oaxaca has produced and produces today some of Mexico´s most exciting contemporary art. The city has a few top class museums and many galleries in which to learn and get to know their past and present artistic quality.
Artists and artisans alike are inspired by Oaxaca State´s bright and beautiful southern light, and its deeply ingrained indigenous traditions, which still have a clear influence in a big fraction of the contemporary art currently produced, characterized by vibrant colors and fantastic figures, traits that have been present throughout the art history of this and many other areas of Mexico.
Map of Oaxaca City
Geographically Locating Oaxaca, Historic Background and Orientation
Oaxaca City is located in a beautiful valley, 1,550m above sea level, surrounded by green mountain landscapes and nice fresh air.
The ancient Aztec settlement here was called Huaxyácac or “Nose of the Squash”, from which the name Oaxaca was derived. After America was discovered, the Spanish colonizers that conquered Huaxyácac laid out a new town around the existing “Zócalo” or central square, which today is a lively, traffic-free space, shaded by tall trees, and surrounded by arcades with numerous cafés and restaurants.
With its adjacent Alameda, -another lovely square, esplanade to the imposing baroque style cathedral, and where a crafts market is held-, Oaxaca´s Zócalo is the perfect place to soak up the city´s atmosphere.
Oaxaca City also has a few nearby archeological sites that are both culturally rich and historically impressive. In particular, the Zapotec capital of Monte Albán is an extraordinary place to visit, both for its archeological value and its beautiful settings and breathtaking views (see picture at the bottom of this article).
Map of Mexico
Examples of Contemporary Art Pieces Originated in Oaxaca
Museums in Oaxaca
- Museum of Oaxacan Cultures A regional museum located in the monastery building adjoining the Iglesia de Santo Domingo. It takes you through the history and cultures of Oaxaca State, from pre-Hipanic period up to the present day.
- Rufino Tamayo Museum A top class pre-Hispanic art museum donated to Oaxaca by its most well known artist Rufino Tamayo.
- Museum of Oaxacan Painters Stages changing exhibitions that showcase the work of the best artists in Oaxaca.
- Contemporary Art Museum of Oaxaca Exhibits the work of contemporary artists from Oaxaca, Mexico and around the world.
- Graphic Arts Institute of Oaxaca Almost opposite the Iglesia de Santo Domingo, in a lovely colonial house donated by contemporary artist Francisco Toledo, this institute offers changing exhibitions of graphic art as well as a superb art library.
- Photographic Center Alvarez BravoPhoto exhibition center.
Contemporary Artists of Oaxaca
A delight in color and light, as well as a dreamlike feeling, are recurring qualities of much of Mexican folk and contemporary art, including the work produced in Oaxaca.
Inspired by diverse influences, ranging from the area´s contrasting landscapes and beautiful light to indigenous mythology and contemporary globalization, Oaxaca state´s talented artists continue to produce some of the country´s most vibrant and pioneering art. Many of them now spend time, exhibit and sell their work in Mexico City and the USA, but Oaxaca City is still by far the best place to get a feel for their great creativity and imagination.
The leading Oaxacan artist who laid the basis for today´s flowering art in their homeland is the great muralist and explorer of color and light Rufino Tamayo. The next generation was led by three artists:
- Rodolfo Morales from Ocotlán, with his colorful, dreamlike art and trademark childlike angel figures, who represents a good example of deep local mythical roots.
- Rodolfo Nieto, who populated his work with vivid colorful fantasy animals and dream figures.
- Francisco Toledo, from Juchitán, still a prominent figure in Oaxaca and tireless worker for the arts, uses grotesque or imaginary beasts for its subject matter.
A series of annual workshops for young Oaxacan contemporary artists, organized by Rufino Tamayo in the 1970s, encouraged such now highly successful talents as Abelardo López, Arnulfo Mendoza, Ariel Mendoza, Alejandro Santiago and Felipe de Jesús Morales, in part by helping them find markets for their art.
Their work is highly varied, but fantasy, landscape, imaginary animals, indigenous roots and that persistent dreamlike quality run consistently through much of it.
More or less contemporary are Sergio Hernández, whose limitless imagination melds the figurative with the abstract and the fantastic with the concrete, and Marco Bustamante with his oddly haunting hyper-realist images.
Contemporary Artists in Oaxaca Today
Today, the latest generation of Oaxacan contemporary artists seeks to reject the “folkloric” imagery of its predecessors in a diversity of ways. They may look far beyond Oaxaca to international subjects and themes.
These days, any art lover can happily spend days browsing Oaxaca´s art museums and quality commercial galleries to descover the unique art produced in this particular region of Mexico.
Commercial Art Galleries in Oaxaca
- Contemporary Art Manuel García
- Art of Oaxaca
- Bodega Quetzalli (Warehouse Quetzalli)
- Epicenter Gallery
- Quetzalli Gallery
- La Curtiduría (The Tannery)
Mexican Crafts from Oaxaca
Colonial Streets and Architecture of Oaxaca
Arts and Crafts in Oaxaca
The state of Oaxaca has one of the richest, most inventive folk art scenes in Mexico. It encompasses a great variety of art forms and objects elaborated with different raw materials and artistic techniques.
Particularly creative within the Mexican folk art, and originally from Oaxaca, are the surreal and colorful wooden sculptures representing fantasy animals called “Alebrijes” (see picture right).
Oaxaca is the chief marketplace for Alebrijes and many other Mexican crafts made in the region. You will find the highest quality crafts mostly in the smart stores, but prices are lower in the markets. Two quality places to shop for crafts are:
- Mercado de Artesanías (Crafts Market) This indoor crafts market is strong on alebrijes, stamped tin ware, embroidered textiles and tablecloths, and black pottery. New products frequently appear in response to the big demand for Oaxacan crafts.
- Casa de las Artesanías de Oaxaca This store sells the work of 80 family workshops and craft organizations from around Oaxaca State. Its patio is surrounded by rooms full of rugs, ceramics, bags, tin ware, alebrijes, textiles, jewelry and other crafts.
Free Marimba Concerts at The Zocalo in Oaxaca, Mexico
Highlights of Oaxaca City
Zócalo and Alameda
As mentioned before, the central squares of “El Zócalo” and “La Alameda” are fantastic places to take in Oaxaca´s culture. Have a stroll, sit for a while in one of the cafes or restaurant, and listen to some classic Mexican music.
Free concerts in the Zócalo are given by the Oaxaca State Marimba Ensemble, the state band, or other groups every evening (except Fridays) at 6:00 or 6:30pm, and at noon or 12:30pm on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Pedestrian-only for three blocks, with most of its colonial-era stone buildings cleaned up and restored, and strung with interesting shops and galleries, Calle Alcalá makes for an obligatory stroll between the Zócalo and the Iglesia de Santo Domingo (see city map above).
While you are in the area, you can shop for Mexican crafts and contemporary art, visit the Iglesia de Santo Domingo and the museums and galleries of your choice, and have lunch or dinner at the recommended contemporary Mexican cuisine restaurant recommended below “Los Danzantes” (The Dancers).
Iglesia de Santo Domingo
Iglesia de Santo Domingo
The Iglesia de Santo Domingo (Church of Santo Domingo) is the most splendid of Oaxaca´s churches. It was built between 1570 and 1608 as part of Oaxaca´s Dominican Monastery, which today houses the “Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca” (Museum of Oaxacan Cultures).
Amid the elaborate carving on the baroque façade, the figure holding a church is Santo Domingo de Guzmán, the Spanish monk who founded the Dominican order, which observe strict vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
In Mexico, the Dominicans protected indigenous people from colonists´ excesses and are held in high esteem.
Oaxaca´s Great Ancient City of Monte Alban
One of Oaxaca´s not to be missed highlights is the ancient Zapotec city of Monte Alban. A twenty minute ride from Oaxaca City, Monte Alban is a beautiful archeological site located a top the mountains surrounding the city and dominating a three hundred and sixty degrees view over the valley. With a beautiful, clean and green environment, interesting history, and pre-Hispanic architecture, it is one of Oaxaca´s and Mexico´s precious jewels.
Archeological Site of "Monte Alban" Oaxaca
Dinning in Oaxaca
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Recommended Restaurant in Oaxaca
If you are visiting Oaxaca, be sure to have one of your meals in the delicious Mexican restaurant “Los Danzantes” (The Dancers), which offers a unique contemporary Mexican cuisine, using the same ingredients from traditional Mexican food but with new mixtures and forms.
Los Danzantes has created, as they describe themselves, “the perfect balance between tradition and vanguard”. Their modern take on Mexican fusion food and its spectacular architect-designed setting make Los Danzantes one of Oaxaca´s most special dining spots.
The restaurant is located in an old colonial patio (Calle Alcalá 403) that now sports high patterned walls of adobe brick and cool pools of water, in a highly contemporary configuration half open to the sky.
Try the excellent duck stew “Chilorio”. Desserts are very good too and the restaurant has its own brand of Mezcal and wine.