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I arrived in Oaxaca, Mexico, in late October to meet my boyfriend’s family and to get to know the area where they live. It didn’t take long for me to realize what a treasure trove of traditional artisan goods this city held!
I decided to take one full day to take a closer look at some of the many handmade local arts. Narrowing them down was not an easy task.
Oaxaca truly is a city that overflows with talented artisans that create a myriad of pieces that have a multitude of uses.
Pottery Shopping in Oaxaca
Barro negro (black clay) pottery can be seen all over the city and originates from the small town of San Bartolo Coyotepec, located about 5 miles from Oaxaca.
Superstition among the artists dictates that only men can go to the source to collect the special clay that is said to be found only in this part of the world.
If a woman is near the site, it is believed that the clay will lose its quality and be full of stones.
The pieces are made with traditional methods and firing techniques; no modern tools or processes are utilized. One piece can take up to one month to finish.
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Shopping in Oaxaca for woven goods
In the surrounding pueblos, wool, often naturally dyed, is used to make a variety of artisan goods, including bags and purses, ponchos, wall hangings and rugs.
The dyes are made from a variety of sources, including marigold flowers (yellow), the cochineal insect found on cacti (red), the indigo plant (blue) and various mosses (green). The colors and patterns, as seen on these rugs, are stunning.
The thing you won’t find anywhere else
Hojalata, or tin work, is probably my personal favourite. There is something about this art form (that dates back to the 16th century) that provokes a kind of nostalgia.
Known by artisans as the ‘poor man’s silver,’ hojalata art is limited only by the maker’s imagination. It is a very inexpensive and authentic souvenir to bring back home.
Whimsy and color from wood
The alebrijes of Oaxaca are exquisitely colorful carved wooden animals that look like they jumped out of someone’s hallucination. In fact, nothing could be closer to the truth.
The original alebrijes were created in 1936 by Pedro Linares in Mexico City. He began making these creations out of paper mache after he fell ill with fever and literally dreamt them up!
He showed an example of these to his relatives in the state of Oaxaca and they adapted them, combining their long tradition of animal wood carving and Linares’ new idea of making fantastical looking animals.
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Humor and color
Dia de los Muertos, celebrated November 1 and 2, is a unique holiday that to me seemed to be a cross between Mardi Gras, Halloween and a funeral. The skeletons, or calacas, seen here are the mascots of Day of the Dead and are sold all year round.
These figurines are made with a lot of humor and color, and in as many scenarios as you can imagine. Their purpose, apart from being quirky and fun, is to be a reminder to live life to the fullest.
Shopping for clothes in Oaxaca
Oh, the clothes! Oaxaca is well known in Mexico for its embroidered blouses and dresses made by the indigenous peoples in the surrounding areas. There are patterns and styles galore. I still ooh and ahh when I come across the baby clothes.
With numerous markets, galleries and street artisans selling their wares around every corner, Oaxaca is a shopper’s and art lover’s paradise. Taking back the standard T-shirt as a souvenir or gift should not be an option!
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All photos © Tara Lowry and used with permission