The black beauty on the mantel

Sun Journal

Art: Stunning black pottery is being made by the descendants of a mysterious civilization that thrived in southern Mexico hundreds of years ago.

May 06, 1999|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A pot stands on the mantel about which something ought to be said, something positive. But how do you praise a clay pot, if you are moved to praise by its design, its symmetry or color?

Could you contrive an ode? The poet John Keats did that to celebrate the ancient Grecian urn that famously fired his imagination. But odes refer to a more declamatory time. The exalted style would not be appropriate to the pot in question.

Not that this is a simple pot. Though recently made, its antecedents reside in the pre-Christian era. It has no links to ancient Greece, as Keats' pot did. But this is not to suggest it lacks elegance and grace. Rather, it comes out of a different tradition, a culture entirely inexplicable, or at least unexplained -- that of the Zapotec people of Oaxaca state, in southern Mexico.

Euro-centric Westerners tend to patronize many of the ancient indigenous civilizations, probably because they've never seen one in full flower.

Only the aftermaths are familiar, the ruins and fragments. But those ruins and fragments can be more than briefly impressive.

A few years back in Kabah, Mexico, a Mayan guide stood on one of the terraces of the remains of a building so grand, even in its dilapidation, that words (at least his words) were inadequate to describe its magnificence.

The Mayan building, with its columns of white limestone, appeared to float lightly as a leaf on the spongy forest of the Yucatan that rolls off to the horizon, flat as a still, green sea. How did they do that with an edifice of such heft?

Civilizations die: They disappear and only bits remain. Sometimes the remnants are the people themselves: Their culture has vanished, their language, technology, their arts. Only the fallen stones remain for them to wander through and wonder at. For generations the Mayan civilization presented a blank wall to those eager to understand it. Then a way was found to crack the language and find a way behind the wall. What was there, scholars now know, was not simple.

The pot on the mantel is beautiful. That is a personal reaction, but it suggests that beauty is personal and universal at the same time. Why? Because of the enthusiasm it is able to generate in a mind rooted in the here and now, despite the fact that it is rooted in a culture far removed from the understanding of the "Westerner" who owns it.

What could be stranger to the ken of a modern man than the ancient civilization of the Zapotecs, born maybe 3,000 years ago and manifest in a heroic, empty city built on a mountaintop in southern Mexico called Monte Alban?

The Zapotec people, meditative makers of rugs and pots, continue to thrive in the region, conduct their commerce, speak a modern version of their language, not entirely aware of what it is they are heirs to.

But many of them are determined to find out. Unlike the Mayan civilization, the Zapotecs' story is still out of reach, unknown, and it is not at all certain it ever will be known. Huge questions go unanswered: Why did they build the city atop Monte Alban? Why did they abandon it? How did they make their pots?

Black pottery is popular these days among foreigners who visit Mexico. There are collectors. Much of it is sent abroad. It appears in European art galleries.

Because it is popular, much black pottery is produced in Mexico. But not all of it is legitimate. That is, not all of it is naturally black or made from the particular clay that enables the potter to achieve that emblematic deep-space blackness. Some black pots are painted, or blackened with shoe polish.

The real thing comes from Oaxaca, and it reflects the desire by modern Zapotec artisans not only to make a living, but to learn and recover the skills of their forebears, the ancient people from Monte Alban, who are still behind the wall, so to speak.

As far as black pottery goes, the big breakthrough into the past was made by Rosa Real de Nieto, who lived in the village of San Bartolo Coyotepec, near the city of Oaxaca. She died in 1980. If there is such a thing as a temple of greatness for potters, Dona Rosa surely has a place in it.

Virtually everybody in San Bartolo Coyotepec makes pottery. They fashion it from the gray clay they take from a deposit about seven miles away on the road to Monte Alban. They have made pottery for as long as anybody can remember, but it usually came out of the kiln gray or the terra cotta color of most pottery.

Dona Rosa worked with her husband, Juventino, making and selling fancy clay containers for mescal, the strong drink distilled from the maguey plant and favored in southern Mexico. She was famous for the beauty of these containers.

In 1952, as she was preparing some pieces for an exhibition in a Mexico City museum, she inadvertently discovered how to turn the gray clay absolutely black. The process involves restricting the oxygen supply to the pots in the kiln during the firing. This causes a carbon residue from incompletely burned fuel to permeate the porous surface of the pots.

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