Oaxaca state in southern Mexico has a unique spirituality that is expressed in its colors and crafts. Possibly the most authentic part of Mexico, numerous indigenous people gather in the city of Oaxaca, located where three mountain ranges meet. The native cuisine, embroidered clothing, colonial architecture, pre-columbian archeological sites and artisanal crafts reflect this melding of ancient cultures.
On a recent visit, the city’s energy and culture grab you immediately. You hear languages that go back millennia, eat foods that are grown in hundreds of surrounding villages, and see everyday clothing that expresses its heritage through colorful embroidery.
Oaxaca (pronounced “Wa-ha-ka”) is a large modern city surrounded by many indigenous villages. The name of the city comes from the Nahuatl language and there are 16 recognized peoples and languages in the state and city of Oaxaca. The most well-known are Mixtec and Zapotec. Spanish and English are widely spoken as well and the colors of the historic center are vibrant, reflecting numerous influences.
We have been fortunate on a previous trip to receive a personal tour of the Oaxacan valleys by our dear friend Ricardo Gallardo of the Tambuco Percussion Ensemble whose mother grew up in Oaxaca. We had a few days with Ricardo spent tasting on the mezcal trail, visiting pottery and rug weaving villages, and eating at countryside restaurants. We experienced the Day of the Dead on this trip with citywide decorations, special foods and celebrations.
However, the local artisans work year round. Each of the local villages outside the city, scattered throughout the mountains, has their distinctive foods, clothing, language and artisan crafts. These crafts — which may be woodcarving, weaving, pottery, embroidery or metalwork — are sought after by collectors around the world and often command high prices for the most accomplished workmanship. For example, the colors of Oaxaca, vibrant and energetic, are used to create imaginative folk art statues of animals, called alebrijes, such as those by Jacobo Angeles. Luckily we purchased a coyote from Jacobo on a previous trip before his prices reflected that his work is exhibited around the globe!
Alebrijes are for sale everywhere in Oaxaca — whimsical fantasy animals painted in bright and detailed color. It is up to the artist’s creativity and imagination how the animals are sculpted and painted. Here are examples of other alebrijes.
As one wanders through the markets and stores of the city, artisans display their creations at shops and numerous museums. Ceramics, pottery, weaving, embroidery creations are endless and fascinating for the myriad designs and colors. Let’s continue our walk with some other examples of Oaxacan crafts.
As you can expect in this immensely talented city, there are numerous museums. The renowned Mexican artist Ruffino Tamayo was a Oaxacan native and founded a pre-Hispanic art museum in Oaxaca to house his superb collection. There is a photography museum dedicated to Manuel Alvarez Bravo as well as three modern art museums. I would like to share with you our visit to the Museum of Textiles, a fascinating exploration of textiles from Mexico and Central America. Located in a restored 16th century building, the changing exhibitions demonstrate the importance of textiles as a means of expression and artistry in each village in the Oaxacan area. This poster demonstrates the number of Oaxacan villages with an example of each one’s unique style.
The exhibition showcased intricate design and beautiful colors for blouses, dresses, table cloths and bed linens. Here are two of my favorites with a view of the complete garment as well as a detailed closeup.
I also enjoyed the delicacy of the embroidery in the blouses and bedding below. The designs incorporate ancient stories and symbolism, as well as emphasize animal spirits that are so important to the Oaxacan peoples’ beliefs.
I hope you will have the opportunity to visit this cultural and artistically vibrant city. Oaxaca is a never-ending melange of the ancient and new, the traditional and creative arts, in a delicious mix that is endlessly fascinating. Grab a mezcal or Mexican chocolate, put on your walking shoes, and explore one the most creative cities on our planet.