"Nowhere was the cord between man and spirit
more tightly bound than in the making of amatl,
the sacred paper of the pre-Hispanic peoples.”
— Rita Pomade,
Imagine a current industry, central to the well-being of all people. Paper for instance.
Imagine your life without paper, even in this day of electronics. Imagine a foreign power coming in and banning the production of paper, all paper ... no Bibles, no textbooks, no magazines or newspapers, no photographs, art prints, posters about coming events, or even business cards.
That’s what began in the 1500s when Spanish conquistadors and priests decided that amatl … bark paper … was the work of the devil. We know they destroyed almost all of the codices, folded paper books, but they also destroyed the paper-making process and the foundation of the Maya and Nahua information systems. Thousands of years of knowledge and wisdom disappeared and only bits and pieces have now been put back together.
It’s hard to imagine, but here’s a story Rita Pomade tells in her article referenced above that offers a sense of the scope of the loss:
Records show that in 1507, when Moctezuma had to prepare for the New Fire Ceremony, a ritual of renewed life that took place every 52 years, he ordered a million sheets of amatl to be delivered to Tenochtitlan to insure that the ceremony would be successful and to avoid the wrath of the gods.By the time Cortes arrived on the shores of Mesoamerica, there were at least forty-two papermaking centers, and they were producing almost half a million sheets of paper per year for use in tribute alone.
Only in the remote villages of the Otomi people was traditional bark paper and painting maintained as part of their important traditional ceremonies and rituals. Rita Pomade continues:
The Otomis still prepared the paper from the bark of the ficus and the bark of the mulberry tree - brown paper from the ficus and white paper from the mulberry - just as they had done in pre-Columbian times. … In spite of the dangers involved, these people had continued their rituals dedicated to fertility, successful crops, and curing disease.
By the 1970s, amate artists were finally starting to gain the attention they deserved, and the art form spread outside of Puebla and into neighboring states, where artisans of this region, who had once only decorated their pottery, started putting their colorful paintings on this unique paper, painting scenes of festivals and village life, using mostly animal hair and plant fiber brushes to apply natural colors and dyes.
Feria Maestros del Arte, Mexico's premier folk art event, will feature six different paper artisans, including two masters of amate:
Rubelio Sánchez Santos. - from one of the Otomi villages that helped keep this art form alive,
Rubelio now takes it to a new level. He twists and molds the paper into fantastic patterns as strips of the paper are braided, twisted and inserted into the design seamlessly.
His amate comes from the bark of the Jonote tree that is soaked in a hot water bath with natural dyes such as flowers, ash, etc. Later the pulp strips are placed on a board in a grid form and hammered with a flat stone until the paper holds its form. He has developed several very interesting methods to decorate the paper with natural found objects such as seeds, and also embroiders the paper by hand and elaborately records designs representing the different Otomí gods.
Juan Damaso Gaspar & Eutimia Mendoza Fabian, has been painting on amate for over 30 years. He lives in Xalitla, a town in the Balsas River basin in the state of Guerrero that is renowned for producing amate paintings.
These two artists will help you understand how this art form which was banned 500 years ago has now become one of the most beloved of the Mexican folk arts.