A survey of Mexican art has to begin with the country’s ancient cultures. The Olmecs, the oldest Mesoamerican civilization on record (1500 B.C to 400 B.C.), are known for their stylized jade and stone carvings, fine pottery and wooden statues. Common Olmec art motifs are human faces with a jaguar mouth, almond-shaped eyes and cleft heads, all of which are representations of “were-jaguars” (as in “werewolf”), an Olmec diety.
The Olmec are also known for their appropriately named colossal heads that are made from basalt and are thought to depict Olmec rulers. Seventeen of these helmeted heads have been found so far, and each one weights between 25 and 55 tons. These colossal heads are found in the lowlands of south central Mexico and are regarded as some of the art world’s greatest masterpieces.
The Zapotec civilization thrived in the Valley of Oaxaca, in the state of Oaxaca, from around 500 B.C. to 900 A.D., but 500,000 Zapotecs still live in this area today. Their traditional art included carved stones, textiles, murals ceramic urns, stuccoed sculptures and engraved bones. Today, Mexico art produced by the Zapotec comes in the form of beautiful black pottery and woven textiles that incorporate pre-Columbian designs and patterns.
The Mayans flourished in Mesoamerica from roughly 250 B.C. to 900 A.D., and the art in which they excelled was architecture, as evidenced by the magnificent city, temple and pyramid ruins that are scattered by the hundreds throughout Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. As for decorative art, the Mayans created wood carvings, clay models, terra cotta figurines, metal ornaments and paintings on paper and plaster. Throughout most of Mayan art, the subjects depicted are people in power, kings and queens, who commissioned the artists to immortalize them and enshrine their place in the history books.
The Aztecs arrived soon after the Mayans, and their art was primarily a religious expression, a way of celebrating and paying tribute to their gods. The depiction of animals and birds, particularly deer, ducks, jaguars, monkeys and snakes, is prevalent throughout Aztec art. Pictographs, small pictures that represent objects or sounds, are a well-known Aztec art form, and mosaics, stone statues, featherwork, pottery, masks, painted walls and carved pillars were all created by the Aztecs. Most art was commissioned by the upper classes, and some of it was used in trade.
Mesoamerican indigenous art thrived until the Spanish Conquest in the early 16th century. As Spain began to colonize modern-day Mexico, the native art began to change, and much of Mexican art, including painting and architecture, was soon paralleling the styles found in Europe, creating a new genre called Mexican Baroque. This period of Mexico art, which lasted until the end of the 19th century, produced some spectacularly grand architecture, the most stunning example being the Sagrario Metropolitano (Metropolitan Cathedral) in Mexico City. Situated near the ancient Aztec Templo Mayor, this imposing structure is the largest and oldest cathedral in the Americas. Other Mexican Baroque architecture can be found in the silver mining towns and Colonial cities scattered across Mexico.
As the 2oth century began to take hold, Mexico art started to move away from the European influences that had dominated it for nearly 400 years and instead took on an original, authentic style that could be clearly called Mexican art The catalyst for this change was primarily the Mexican Revolution, the war that produced the Mexican Constitution in 1917. During this period of upheaval, Mexican artists such as muralists David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Riviera created striking images of the common man in struggles against the ruling elites. These socially and politically-themed works earned international recognition and praise, giving Mexico art a new place on the world’s art stage. Other Mexican artists, including photographer Manual Alvarez Bravo and folklore painter Rufino Tamayo, emerged as well, developing new directions in Mexican art.
And although the Spanish conquered and dominated the indigenous peoples of Mexico, some Indian art forms managed to survive and are still produced today. The Zapotec continue to create beautiful textile weavings and sought-after black clay pottery, distinct for its crystal-like ping and black silvery appearance. Alebrijes, colorful, fantastical monsters made from cardboard and originated by 20th century artist Don Pedro, are created today but have pre-Columbian roots.
Perhaps the most famous current Mexican artists are found in the village of Mata Ortiz in the state of Chihuahua. Here, nearly 300 people, mostly women, produce handmade, coiled pots and ceramics that are internationally recognized for their beauty and authentic production methods. Housed in museums and private collections around the world, these beautiful works of art incorporate ancestral symbols that are found on pots excavated from the nearby town of Paquimé, a Mesoamerican community that flourished in the 11th through 14th centuries.
Mexico art continues to thrive today and will do so for centuries to come. From the art of its indigenous cultures to the modern day alebrijes, Mexico has earned its rightful place in the international art scene, and only time will tell what the next great Mexican art genre will be.