In Mexico, locally made handcrafts and Chinese-made alternatives can seem almost indistinguishable, so shoppers often make the cheaper choice. To compete, Mexican handcrafters are experimenting with new mediums – and transforming traditional art forms in the process.

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO – Working a piece of wire in her hands, Adriana García Martínez forms a torso, arms and legs. Minutes later, she sets aside the metal silhouette and begins to spread a thick mixture of water and wheat flour onto the papers lying on her paint-stained table.

Using a method known as cartonería, which local craft workers use to make toys, masks, piñatas and decorative items, the 39-year-old crafter works on her latest sculpture at her workspace in the Mexico City metropolitan area. She calls the sculpture “Alma de alambre,” or “Soul of Wire.”

Paper and homemade pastes are common to cartonería, but García says she uses other craft items to make her work stand out.

“There is no existing, strict technique,” she says. “You can use clay models, play dough or gypsum.”

Mexico’s arts sector is becoming increasingly competitive, due in part to the growing number of crafts and decorative items imported from China. These imports are similar to Mexican-made crafts but are of lesser quality, experts say. Some local artists are developing techniques and initiatives to distinguish their work and raise awareness about traditional handcrafts.

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Óscar Becerra, a local crafter, and Rubén Castillo, another crafter, weld wires to create a large shark-shaped structure, at a work shop in Mexico City, Mexico’s capital.

Mar García, GPJ Mexico

Diplomatic relations between China and Mexico go back more than 45 years. Economic ties have evolved since then, with the expansion of trade volume and Mexican firms investing in China, among other developments. Mexico is the fifth-largest destination for Chinese investment in Latin America, according to a 2017 paper published by the Brookings Institution. But the growing relationship has also brought challenges.

For years, handcrafts and folk art have been a source of livelihood for many Mexicans, says Roberto Shimizu, founder of Museo del Juguete Antiguo México, a museum with the world’s largest toy collection. But industrial production caused a decline in handcrafting during the 20th century, Shimizu says. Mass-produced Chinese imports have also contributed to the decline.

In 2012, 35 percent of the products in Mexico’s toy industry were produced locally, while a majority of the remaining 65 percent were from China. Though made of low-cost materials, including plastic and resin, and sold at lower prices, toys and decorative items made in China look like those made by local artisans, says Walther Boelsterly Urrutia, director of Museo de Arte Popular, a museum in Mexico City. Visitors often can’t tell the difference between Chinese replicas and locally made products, so they go for the cheaper of the two, Boelsterly says. Local dolls can cost up to 170 Mexican pesos ($9.40), while Chinese dolls and other collectibles cost about 10 pesos (55 cents).

“Sometimes people don’t know the work and tradition that exists behind these pieces of cartonería and craft work, and so they think it’s expensive,” says 39-year-old Óscar Becerra, who has been creating crafts since he was 22.

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Chinese and Mexican crafts are often sold side by side in markets. A machine-made cardboard coffin from China (right), costs less than a handcrafted Mexican coffin made of cardboard and other materials (left).

Mar García, GPJ Mexico

To cope with competition and to preserve the culture and history of Mexican crafts and toys, artists have developed exhibitions and touring classes. Museo de Arte Popular hosts an annual parade in the capital, during which artists from across the country have the chance to show off their work. The parade, which is in its 12th year, traditionally features alebrijes, giant papier-mâché figures that combine different animal features.

“You go to the origins of the profession, you try to promote them, but at the same time trying to transform and innovate,” Boelsterly says of his work supporting local artists. “It’s important to continue to transform on one end and, on the other, to win supporters on an international level.”

Shimizu, who organized the first cartonería exhibition at the museum, says balancing traditional and modern techniques helps artists to compete. Teaching people about the culture behind the art can also help, he adds.

“If more current themes aren’t used, if the manual quality doesn’t improve, and if they aren’t studied and experimented, I don’t see how this can survive,” he says.

The exhibition began in December and ended in January. It was open to the general public for 75 pesos ($4) and to students and the elderly for 50 pesos ($2.75). Students were among the most frequent visitors, Shimizu says.

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Óscar Becerra spreads a mixture of wheat flour and water on pieces of paper. Becerra says moistening the papers makes them malleable and helps them easily stick to the wire frames used in his crafts.

Mar García, GPJ Mexico

Cartonería is reaching an international audience, too. Sergio Yony Reyes is known for incorporating unique techniques, including glow lighting, into his crafts. The 46-year-old, who exports some his work, says he recently hosted workshops and exhibitions outside of Mexico.

“We made a piñata of cartonería, and I was invited to give a workshop of cartonería in the Denver Art Museum in the United States,” he says. “The foreigners have a different vision of our products; they appreciate the popular art more.”

While cheap imports have created competition, local artists now have an incentive to expand their businesses, Boelsterly says.

Innovation is growing among cartonería crafters, García adds.

“We haven’t rescued the tradition, because it hasn’t died. It’s still alive,” she says. “It’s still there, and there are a lot of us.” 

Elia Gran, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.

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