Carlomagno Pedro Martinez is a Zapotec artisan and a founder & director of of the Museo Estatal de Arte Popular de Oaxaca (MEAPO) in his hometown of San Bartolo Coyotepec, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. His speciality is working with “Barro negro” or black clay, a tradition that has been in his family for generations. His work has been exhibited in Mexico, Canada, the U.S. and Europe. In 2014, Mexico awarded Martinez its National Prize for Arts & Sciences in the popular arts and traditions category. In the 1950s, there was an important innovation in the practice.
San Bartolo is a Zapotec community founded by that civilization more than 2,500 years ago; making pottery has long been a part of the traditional culture. In the 1950s, there was an important innovation in the practice, developed by ceramic artist and potter Doña Rosa, who discovered that by polishing the nearly dry clay before firing, the grey color turned to a shiny black. Carlomagno’s work has increased the popularity of barro negro pottery.
At 31 years of age, Carlomagno began teaching art to children in San Bartolo, seeking to continue to preserve the artisanal tradition of barro negro and foster creativity and engagement in his community. BCD is delighted to be part of the transmission line of Zapotec culture–I know you’ll enjoy Carlomagno’s insights into the process of producing barro negro pottery, the influence of legend and myth in his work, the significance of the Day of the Dead in Oaxacan culture, and more!
Meg: You grew up in San Bartolo Coyotepec which has a ceramics tradition that extends back to the pre-Hispanic period, and you come from a family of potters. Can you explain the history of the ceramics tradition in both your community and your family, and how it is unique?
Carlomagno: As it is known in my community, it is named after San Bartolo Coyotepec, “Cerro del Coyote” in the Zapotec language of Zapeche. We have knowledge based on investigations of pre-Hispanic pieces that have been found in this community dating back to more than 2,500 years-old, which belong to the Zapotec ethnic group of the central valleys of Oaxaca. My family’s pottery ancestry comes from the Pedros of Coyotepec. My father, my grandfather, and my great-grandfather were dedicated to making pottery made from the black mud that is utilitarian in character. On the other hand, my mother, my seven brothers, and I are dedicated to making figures, or popular sculpture, in black mud.
Meg: Can you explain the technical process of barro negro and how it is different from other types of pottery?
Carlomagno: Broadly speaking, the process begins with the extraction of mud from a place called “La Mina” or “Guegove” on the side of a Zapotec stream. Previously it was transported on horses or donkeys; now it’s moved with trailers or carts. When you get home, you put the mud in the sun for a day and then soak it in a tub with water, letting it moisten well so you’ll then be able to knead it with your hands. If it is of a larger quantity you can place it in a duffel bag and knead it with your feet to dry the mud and get the air bubbles out. This way you do not have subsequent failures. When it is kneaded, and the finished pieces are modeled, textures are made, then the pieces are polished and allowed to dry for a period of 5 to 8 days in a closed space. Once dry the pieces are put in an oven pit furnace where they are cooked by a slow fire for 7 to 8 hours, reaching a temperature of 600 to 800 degrees Celsius. The oven is then covered with mud ad with clay pots called “tepalcates” and left overnight. When the oven is uncovered the next day, the pieces are black and cooked, this is the so-called oxygen reduction.
Meg: When did you first begin experimenting with clay?
Carlomagno: When I was a child, a small child, I remember perfectly that at four years old I started making my first whistles. This is because I have memories since I was six months old, I learned next to my father and mother, she taught me to whistle my “figurines”. I liked to create what the children of that time liked such as turtles, dancing, chickens hugging their chicks; all the imagination of a child molded-in the mud. I saw my father make interesting pieces and my brothers also made pieces of great skill, so when I entered primary school and began to take history I made figurines of Aztec warriors and revolutionaries. When I was 13 years-old I created circuses with clowns inspired by performances I saw as a teenager. When I was 14 I began to express stories in mud of peasant legends, and I still have pieces from 1978, 1979 and the 80s related to those legends. At 17, I entered the Rufino Tamayo Oaxaca plastic arts workshop and it was there that I developed the framework and guidelines for my professional work. I was a member of the first founding generation of that brilliant workshop of plastic arts. My portfolio started in 1982, and in 36 years I have had many experiences as a creator of black mud.
Meg: Do you consider your work to be that or an artist or artisan?
Carlomagno: Actually the definition of artist or craftsman is not significant to me. I am a creator in black mud, but whether the work is in oil, watercolor or stone, in Mexico there has always been a difference between popular art and Fine art, but I feel that there is no difference, since both are made with intellect and creativity. One could say that in one world, access is only for elites who can acquire a certain piece, and the other is for all audiences.
Meg: Mexico as a whole and Oaxaca specifically have incredibly rich and vibrant artistry that is reflected in so many dimensions of the culture. Can you offer any observations about what contributes to the creativity of the people?
Carlomagno: I grew up knowing that in Mexico there are 54 ethnicities and 16 are in the state of Oaxaca. Diversity is what makes our cultural mosaic so rich. What makes our state creative is the coexistence and convergence of these cultures in each town. What makes Oaxaca strong is the cultural richness.
Meg: Legends and myth are part of your inspiration. Can you explain the significance of traditions and religion in your work, and give a few examples of your pieces that reflect these influences?
Carlomagno: I cannot deny the influence of traditions and religion in my work. For example, I express the meaning of ‘The Day of the Dead’ and the millenary culture of the dead by my indigenous people, through the “tzompantli” skulls or myths like the black dog. In the matter of religion, it is important to mark the miscegenation that is reflected through images such as the Virgin of Guadalupe, an icon referring to Mexican culture, the holy trinity, and San Pedro and San Pablo, who were originally ‘pitao Cosijo’ and ‘pitao Cosobi’. Traditions and religious influences are important in my work.
Meg: Death is a theme you explore frequently. To this outsider, it seems like there is an acceptance among Mexicans of death as a part of life that is lacking in the U.S. Can you talk about your work with this theme–why it interests you, and can you describe some of the traditions like el Dia de los Muertos?
Carlomagno: From the beginning of my artistic work, even as a teenager, my admiration of the dead has appeared in my work. I was inspired by seeing in paintings such as “San Camilo” where devils and death appear. This theme is strong in throughout our culture over 3,000 years of history The Cuatlicue is an important character for Mexicans–an earth mother goddess and the patron of childbirth, and symbolizing warfare, governance and agriculture. Matlacihua of Mictlantecutli is also an important myth and legend, the female God of the underworld, whose purpose is to watch over the bones of the dead. The Day of the Dead is so important in the towns of Oaxaca, I dare say is more important than Christmas itself. On October 31st, November 1st and 2nd, there is a great family life because we all spend time together and gather around to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died, and helping support their spiritual journey.
In interviews I always quote Carlos Pellicer, in his thinking about death in Mexican culture, he says: “There are two things that distinguish the Mexican his admiration for flowers and his passion for death”.
Meg: When you were 31, you began teaching classes to children in Coyotepec. How did that get started, how has it evolved?
Carlomagno: Indeed, at the age of 21 in 1986 I graduated from the Workshop of Plastic Arts Rufino Tamayo Oaxaca. I left excited to share that taste for painting by teaching and I started with friends; a photographer and two painters, their names Marcela Taboada, Hector Jara and Virgilio Gomez sponsored by Enrique Luis Audiffred Bustamante, to do children’s workshops in the neighborhood of San Bartolo Coyotepec. We taught 32 students between four and 12 years-old, all very skilled. I think the goal was effective because through the years I’ve seen that these children are now very sensitive adults involved in the manifestation of the arts. For 30 years, I have continued to foster that enthusiasm and help young people not only in the neighborhood but also across the state of Oaxaca.
Meg: Why do you believe it is important to pass on the traditions?
Carlomagno: Of course it is very important to transmit the traditions because it is the evolution and conservation of the people’s own culture; people who do not transmit and preserve their cultural traditions tend to disappear. With respect to young people, I have seen a great interest in the communities of Oaxaca in ‘genuine art’, as I call it. I am pleased that young people who have become architects, medical engineers, lawyers, continue to preserve their traditional arts and continue to evolve along with modernity.
For example, in the town of Santa María Atzompa, a young man who has excelled greatly in the plastic arts and the so-called folk art, is Fernando Felix Peguero García, grandson of Teodora Blanco, an influential artisan from Santa María Atzompa known for her fantasy figures. With the teachings of his mother Alicia, Fernando Felix has obtained two important awards; the National Youth Award and the National Ceramics Award. As another clear example, Porfirio Gutierrez, a textile artist from the community of Teotitlán del Valle is known internationally; at age 12, he began to formally learn this practice alongside his father. Porfirio was chosen by the Smithsonian Institute to be one of only four artists in the Western hemisphere to participate in their prestigious.
Meg: You are the director of the Museo Estatal de Arte Popular de Oaxaca (MEAPO) in your hometown, and one of its founders. Can you describe the museum, its mission and some of the other artists and works exhibited there?
Carlomagno: The MEAPO, since its beginning on July 20, 1996, is a municipal museum of popular art. Its mission is to promote the dissemination and preservation of popular art. We have had the honor of displaying the work of representatives of Oaxaca, which is very rich in Indigenous manifestations of the original people. Some of the artists that we have exhibited in this cultural site are Manuel Jimenes, a woodcarver from Xoxocotlan; the Aguilar sisters of Ocotlán de Morelos; Isidoro Cruz and Coindo Melchor of San Martin Tilcajete; Angelica Vasquez Cruz from Atzompa; and Jacobo Mendoza from Teotitlan del Valle, among others.
Meg: You have exhibited in numerous galleries and museums in the U.S., Canada and Europe. Do you see yourself as a cultural ambassador of sorts for Mexico and Oaxaca?
Carlomagno: The experiences that I’ve had when I have shared my work outside the country has greatly impacted me in my trajectory of more than 30 years. I consider myself a voluntary promoter of my people, my state, and my passion. The people I meet learn about Coyotepec, Oaxaca, and Mexico, not only me. The experiences have been many and very pleasant, on one occasion in Toronto, Canada I received an unforgettable offering in a gallery and seeing the public view my installation and admire it was amazing. I was very surprised at the admiration and respect I received.
Meg: In 2014, Mexico awarded you its National Prize for Arts and Sciences in the popular arts and traditions category. Can you describe how that made you feel?
Carlomagno: The National Prize of Sciences and Arts granted by the Mexican state made me feel that those 30 years of experience have been worthwhile and made me feel very satisfied with my work. I felt as if my mission in this life has been accomplished and so my commitment continues to contributing art that flows from my ming to society.