Death is as natural as life itself and is present archetypically in all cultures around the world. However, societies maintain many variations of relationships with death. In western societies, for instance, the approach to death is almost remiss. People from these societies prefer not to talk about it, and when the time comes, it is received with pain. Mexico, however, has a unique and intimate relationship with death.
The International Day of the Dead exhibition re-imagines the transformative nature of the skull beyond the duality of life and death. It presents an international array of artists sharing their interpretations of death according to their specific cultural backgrounds and artistic styles, using clay skulls as their canvases.
Skulls (aka Calaveras)
The clay skulls used for this project are handcrafted in a small region called “Los Reyes Metzontla,” in the state of Puebla Mexico (near Mexico City). The ancestors of this region belong to the “Popoloca culture.” This group has been creating pottery using the soil from their motherland since ancestral times.
The human skull can be considered as an international symbol of death, although feelings regarding death are different in each culture. The head, the skull, the human part by excellence where mortality resides, is a perfect canvas to express the fascination, the uncertainty or the fear that we experience with death.
Popoloca is a Nahuatl word which means “stutter.” This term was used by the Mexicans for the people who could not speak their language. The so called “Popolocas” also referred themselves as the “N’giwas” (those who speak our tongue).
Popolocas were pioneers in the manufacturing of ceramics since 2300 BC. The area where this culture flourished in ancient times was subject to constant traffic due to their proximity to the great Tenochtitlan, what is known today as Mexico City. Eventually this helped to give the Popoloca culture its shape and character.
They were also the creators of the biggest ceramics trade during the Classic period. Their pottery was transported to bigger cities where it was commercialized.
Clay pottery process ~ Obtaining the raw material
The clay used for pottery is collected in the hills that surround the town of Los Reyes Metzontla. The artisans are required to walk several kilometers to find the deposits where they collect the raw dirt. The load is then carried by donkeys. They take the chunks of dry clay, in the form of rocks, to the artisans’ houses.
The “cooking” of the clay pieces takes place in open furnaces that are located in the back yard of the artisans’ houses. Mullets are used to grind the chunks, then this is strained to obtain clay dust.
The clay then dries under the sun for two or three days. After this, water is added and the mixture is stirred thoroughly. Then the soil is allowed to settle for around twenty days until it has firmed up.
During the clay firing process, artisans place parts of broken pottery pieces at the bottom of the oven. So the pottery (skulls) do not get smudged, generally they place bigger pieces in first and the smallest last in order to distribute the heat throughout the oven evenly.
During the process of creating the skulls, molds were not used. Each piece is the result of the practice and dedication of the artisans from the group called “Creaciones Bellas,” one of many female artisan groups of Los Reyes Metzontla.
by Ari De La Mora~ curator The International Day Of The Dead
Photos by Pamela Villafañe