General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 16 Dec 2017/5 Alligator
Text Size:

Link to page about the Maya Calendar
Today's Maya date is: 13.0.5.1.1 - 1822 days into the new cycle!
Link to page of interest to teachers
Click to find out how we can help you!
Search the Site (type in white box):

Article suitable for Top Juniors and above

Mexicolore contributor Sean Sprague

Bark painting in Mexico

This is a delightful and informative article first written for Mexicolore back in the early 1980s by friend and photojournalist Sean Sprague, following a research trip to Mexico. The images have been scanned from a set of small exhibition prints (the originals were on 35mm colour slide)*. Sean’s text is accompanied by relevant sections (for older students) from Victor Wolfgang von Hagen’s classic 1944 book The Aztec and Maya Papermakers...

Pic 1: ‘You can hear a constant tapping....’
Pic 1: ‘You can hear a constant tapping....’ (Click on image to enlarge)

You can hear a constant tapping - from two miles away. It’s a sound you won’t hear anywhere else in Mexico - only in tiny San Pablito, an isolated village perched on the slopes of a deep valley. It is here that bark paper, called amate is made. The tapping is part of an ancient method of paper-making which has carried on in San Pablito since pre-Columbian times.
The art of papermaking “from the inner bark of trees” still survives in secrecy and isolation in the Otomí villages of the states of Puebla and Hidalgo... the manufacture of paper centers about the little grass-thatched village of San Pueblito, Puebla.

Pic 2: ‘San Pablito is the sole producer...’
Pic 2: ‘San Pablito is the sole producer...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Paintings done on bark paper are sold in craft shops all over Mexico, and are known throughout the world, but San Pablito is the sole producer. Today the community survives from the sale of its crafts.
San Pablito is in the state of Puebla, in central Mexico. It is linked to the nearby small town of Pahuatlán across the valley by bus. the four mile ride takes almost an hour, which gives some idea of the rough and mountainous roads in rural Mexico.
In these valleys the most conspicuous tree is the wild fig, growing along the banks of streams... The moisture-loving Ficus and its allies are the plants used by the Otomís. At night or during those parts of the day when there is little else to do the Otomís become papermakers.

Pic 3: ‘As well as passengers, the bus carries a special cargo...’
Pic 3: ‘As well as passengers, the bus carries a special cargo...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

As well as passengers, the bus carries a special cargo: bundles of leathery bark - the raw material for the making of amate paper. The bark is taken from a variety of fig tree. It used to be gathered from the region surrounding the village, but with the enormous demand for amate paper, the forests have become bare. Now it must be brought in from the distant states of Veracruz and Tabasco.
The Otomís of today pull off five-foot long strips from the paper-plants. The outer bark is then removed by peeling, the freshly peeled bark allowed to soak in running water, so that the abundant latex may coagulate and be scraped off.

Pic 4: ‘The bark is simmered in a large cauldron...’
Pic 4: ‘The bark is simmered in a large cauldron...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

The basic technique probably hasn’t changed for several hundred years. The bark is simmered for about six hours in a large cauldron which sits on a wood fire. This softens the fibres and gives them the consistency of stringy pulp.
Then - and here the women take over - the fibers are dried and then boiled in a large kettle filled with ‘nixtamal’, the lime-water residue in which kernels of maize have been soaked. After hours of boiling, the softened bast-fibers are taken from the lime-water, washed again in cold water and placed in a large gourd.

Pic 5: The pulp is then washed in a stream...
Pic 5: The pulp is then washed in a stream... (Click on image to enlarge)

They are removed from the cauldron, then carried to a stream for washing.
To fashion paper, only two instruments are necessary: a flat, smooth, wooden surface like a bread-board, and a striated stone called a ‘muinto’ (from Otomí ‘muini’, to hit). It is to be noted that this beating-stone is identical with the so-called ‘planches’, the archaeological artifacts which are found throughout Mexico. In fact the Otomís prefer to use an ancient stone if they can find one.

Pic 6: ‘The paper is made on a long board...’
Pic 6: ‘The paper is made on a long board...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

The paper is made on a long board, about 35cms. wide and 2 metres long. Strands of pulp, about 1 cm. thick, are laid in a grid pattern on the plank in rows about 5 cms. apart.
Pieces of boiled fiber are now taken, cut to conform to the shape of the board and pounded with a ‘muinto’ until the strips are felted together to form a continuous surface. Then, the paper, still sticking to the board, is sun-dried. When finished, it presents a smooth surface on the side which faced the board, and a roughened surface over which the ‘muinto’ was rubbed.

Pic 7: ‘Strands are laid in a grid pattern...’
Pic 7: ‘Strands are laid in a grid pattern...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

In this state the paper, four by nine inches, is known to the Otomís as ‘tze-cuá’. It is put together as quarterfolds, bound six to a package, and offered for sale in their little market on Día de Plaza. The Otomís seem no longer to know for what purpose paper once served. For them it is magical, its use only for witchcraft and the ritual-soaked ceremonies of the annual feast ‘La Costumbre’ (the custom). This revolves around the belief that the spirit of Montezuma which gives health and fertile fields to his people will some day return.

Pic 8: ‘... hence the endless tapping’
Pic 8: ‘... hence the endless tapping’ (Click on image to enlarge)

These are pounded by hand with a flat, palm-sized stone to break down the fibre until the rows meet up and form an even surface - hence the endless tapping.
That his spirit may partake of the feast, a table is taken to an isolated spot, and on it are placed ‘muñecos’ (paper dolls) and other ceremonial symbols cut from the ‘amatl’-paper made by the Otomís.

Pic 9: ‘The edges are gently turned back...’
Pic 9: ‘The edges are gently turned back...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

The edges are gently turned back (pic 9, centre) and doubled for strength.
Not only is the paper technique the same as that of the ancient Aztecs, but the plants, too, confirm the words of Hernández, that Mexican paper is “made from a tree, a large tree with leaves like a fig and with white flowers and fruits arranged in clusters... which is called the ‘amaquahuitl’”.

Pic 10: ‘Three pieces of paper are made on either side of the board’
Pic 10: ‘Three pieces of paper are made on either side of the board’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Three pieces of paper are made on either side of the board. Each piece takes about five minutes.
So the Otomís, though they have forgotten the varied uses to which their ancestors put the ‘amatl’-paper, still employ the most advanced techniques developed by pre-Columbian Aztec craftsmen, of the village of Amacoztitlan, who also disintegrated the ‘amatl’ fibers in boiling lime-water and felted the paper to form sheets. Of these they were tribute 160,000 sheets annually to Montezuma II.

Pic 11:’The board is put in the sun to dry’
Pic 11:’The board is put in the sun to dry’ (Click on image to enlarge)

The board is put in the sun to dry and about 45 minutes later the finished product is peeled off.
In ancient times, the ‘amatl’-tree furnished clothing for high and low. Even when the Aztecs were at the height of their power and fine textiles were in common use, the greatest nobles, when ushered into the presence of their chief, were forced to appear in bark-cloth, as a gesture of humility.

Pic 12: ‘The paper is normally coloured dark brown...’
Pic 12: ‘The paper is normally coloured dark brown...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

The paper is normally coloured dark brown: an off-white kind is also produced by bleaching the fibres.
Among the Otomís the tree most in use has the local name ‘Xalamatl limon’ (Otomi, ‘muxi-coni’) and this has been identified as ‘Ficus Padifolia’. The ‘Xalamatl’ (Otomi, ‘popa-tza’), which yields a russet-colored paper, has been identified as ‘Ficus Goldmanii’...

Pic 13: ‘In the past the painting was done in Xalitla, 200 miles away...’
Pic 13: ‘In the past the painting was done in Xalitla, 200 miles away...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

In the past, San Pablito’s reputation had been solely for the making of amate paper, whereas the painting itself was done in Xalitla, 200 miles away in the state of Guerrero.
Six species of ‘Ficus’ are known in [the region of] Oaxaca. Of these, four, from an examination of their fibers, are believed to have furnished the papermakers with bark for their paper. Since their tribute to the Aztecs was in paper rolls, it is assumed that ‘Ficus Padifolia’ (the fig whose aerial roots drop to the earth), and the ‘’Bonplandiana’, known to the Aztec as ‘iztacamatl’ (‘amate blanco’), furnished much of the ‘amatl-’paper whose long white rolls were offered up to the insatiable demands of their overlords.

Pic 14: ‘Rafael Lechuga now teaches his skills to local people...’
Pic 14: ‘Rafael Lechuga now teaches his skills to local people...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

But recently, a talented artist named Rafael Lechuga introduced painting in San Pablito and now teaches his skills to local people. Using brilliant colours, they have adopted his various styles.
In the reign of Montezuma II, the long arm of conquest reached down into the lands of the Mixtecs and Zapotecs, and in the year III Acatl (1495 AD) the village of Amatitlan in Oaxaca was subjected to a short, sharp conquest, and was forced to yield long rolls of ‘amatl’-paper. The Zapotecs had had books as had the Toltecs; that the papermaking technique was extremely ancient is evidenced by the presence of bark beaters in all archaeological deposits...

Pic 15: Rafael Lechuga with some of his bark paintings...
Pic 15: Rafael Lechuga with some of his bark paintings... (Click on image to enlarge)

These include naive scenes of human or animal life, vivid sun designs, and images taken from ancient Aztec manuscripts.

All photos by Sean Sprague/Mexicolore.
The Aztec and Maya Papermakers by Victor Wolfgang von Hagen is available as a Dover Publications, New York, reprint, 1999.

Pic 16: The original exhibition, Camden Festival, 1985
Pic 16: The original exhibition, Camden Festival, 1985 (Click on image to enlarge)

• Picture 16 shows the full photo exhibition on Bark Painting in Mexico on display at the Camden Festival, London in 1985.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 03rd 2016

emoticon Q. How do local dogs in San Pablito raise the alarm if they catch someone trying to nip off with a valuable cargo of amate?
A. They call out ‘Bark, paintings’!

Feedback button