The folk art techniques of Oaxaca are well known for being passed down through generations of artisan families. In the case of William “Bill” Scanlan of San Antonio, the tradition of collecting Oaxacan art went generationally in reverse.
A frequent traveler, Scanlan visited his son William Scanlan III who had moved to Oaxaca in 2005 and became familiar with the folk art of the region. Gleaning knowledge from his son, the elder Scanlan purchased his first artwork and soon caught the collecting bug, eventually amassing more than 70 objects, 43 of which are currently on view in the special exhibitions gallery of the Witte Museum.
¡Orale! The Magical Art of Oaxaca represents Scanlan’s 16-year odyssey of collecting the folk, or popular, art of the Mexican region long known for its Zapotec and Mixtec artisans.
Perhaps the most precious object in the exhibition is a mezcal jug made by Rosa Real Mateo de Nieto, better known as Doña Rosa. Doña Rosa is considered the founder of modern Oaxacan popular art, having revived and updated ancient black clay pottery-making techniques in the 1950s.
The evolution of the art form is visible in the progression from Doña Rosa’s undated jug to the jug form next to it, an elaborately carved black clay pot made by present-day artisan Ana Karen López González. Doña Rosa’s mezcal jug was an object of utility and still carried the scent of mezcal when it was given to him by a Oaxacan weaver, Scanlan said. Both potters use similar techniques, but the pot of López González is incised through with elaborate patterning, not meant to hold liquid, but to hold the eye of a tourist or collector.
Next to the two jugs are standing figures by Magdalena Pedro Martínez, a younger artist who has adapted the black clay tradition to sculptural figures representing indigenous costumery of the region in exquisitely crafted detail.
Brilliant color abounds throughout the rest of the exhibition in busts, figural works representing the Virgen de Guadalupe, weavings, and fanciful animal sculptures that extend the Mexican tradition of alebrijes, carved wooden creatures representing spirit animals.
Some sculptures tell stories, as with Legend of a Town by Giovani Melchor Ramos of the San Martín Tilcajete community. The dramatic form of an eagle reaching to strike a snake atop a cactus will be familiar to any student of Mexican history, as the legend of the founding of the great Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, later to become Mexico City.
Ramos doubles the legend by placing miniature figures atop the eagle’s outstretched wings, in a re-enactment of the ancient tale complete with miniature eagle, snake, and cactus.
Other sculptures tell more contemporary tales. A stark weaving by Anaís Ruíz depicts the Huitzilopochtli hummingbird god of war, but embedded within the bird form is a human figure with an interwoven lock of human hair belonging to the artist’s mother, who died of COVID-19.
A red clay cage sculpture titled Quarantine Confinement by Sara Ernestina García Mendoza subtly captures the condition of isolation brought on the coronavirus pandemic, with human figures locked inside the cage and birds perched outside.
Nearby, Strength of Women by Antonia Nayeli Vásquez Velasco pays homage to feminine persistence amid fear and uncertainty, depicting a woman potter amid a growing pile of jug forms. As the label reads, “during the pandemic Vásquez was grateful for the opportunity to create but worried about supporting her family as tourism collapsed during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Scanlan said some Oaxacan artisans were able to adjust to online sales to mitigate the loss of tourism income, while organizations such as Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art have helped others to make the transition to digital sales.
Hope, a small but elaborately detailed sculpture by Fran García Vásquez, captures the full impact of the pandemic. Two masked health care workers cradle the world above a cowering skeleton, as a tree of life grows from the artisan’s bosom even as economic collapse surrounds her.
Taken as a whole, ¡Orale! demonstrates that Oaxacan artists have remained attuned to their communities and the wider world, able to craft vivid stories that appeal across generations and transcend borders.
While Scanlan encourages everyone to learn and appreciate the culture of Oaxaca, along with its pre-colonial ruins and centuries-deep food traditions, he said the art is what truly sets the region apart.
“It opens up a whole new world to us,” he said.
¡Orale! The Magical Art of Oaxaca opens to the public Aug. 28 and runs through Dec. 5, free with regular museum admission. Check the Witte Museum website for public programming during the show, including a visit by artist Efrain Fuentes in late September for a panel discussion.