Cultural traditions are maintained in many corners of Mexico. One of them is San Bartolo Coyotepec, located in the state of Oaxaca. Black clay is made in this magical place. The black clay of Oaxaca is one of the most emblematic crafts in the country.
Barro is a traditional Mexican clay used to make pottery and other products. In Oaxaca, they make it from scratch using local ingredients.
His pottery style is one of the most rigorous. It requires a minimum of 20 days to make, as well as a lot of skill and perfect technique.
Please continue reading to know the complete history of its manufacture and emergence. This wonderful craftsmanship is a representation of our legacy.
The handicrafts of Oaxaca
Handmade items, functional or decorative, are the work of an artist. They can create clothing, toys, tools, and furniture, among many other objects.
Craftsmanship is an ancient tradition in Oaxaca. This activity shows the artistic richness and imagination of its people.
As before there were no factories or shops nearby, the artisans made the products they needed for their daily activities. However, with the industrialization of society, these products became decorative and representative objects of their communities.
Due to their handmade nature and meaning, consumers have found a new appreciation for these handcrafted products.
Artisans are producers and owners of their products. They live on what they create. These craft techniques are passed down through generations, within families and communities. For their creation, many artisans rely on local resources.
Native artisans often master a specific craft. His expertise is based on theory and empirical evidence.
Mexico has endless artisanal techniques, such as the wooden whisks for chocolate drinks called “molinillos”, or making mortars for the well-known “molcajetes” for salsa and guacamole.
Let’s see what they do with the black clay in Oaxaca.
History of Black Pottery in Oaxaca
It is said that the first pieces of this material were made in the Monte Albán period (500 BC). The black clay in Oaxaca arises from that time. The objects were created with earth, but they were not used for tasks such as carrying water.
To improve its hardness, the craftsmen burned the clay over low heat in underground ovens and with oak logs.
Likewise, vestiges of this material for domestic use were found in the Zapotec and Mixtec cultures. This is how black clay emerges in Oaxaca.
Where is black clay found?
Did you know that black clay does not exist? In reality, the clay is matte grayish in color, and during the elaboration process, it is transformed. Awesome!
The use of gas in clay firing results in dark brown clay. Wood can be used instead of gas to turn pottery black.
Potters discovered that they had to rub the pottery with quartz crystals before firing it in a wood-fired oven. Thus the vessels became a dark and shiny black color.
Why black clay is black?
The earthen mud has a natural color, it has no color or shade due to its properties.
After the natural extraction of the mud in the ground, it is subjected to cleaning procedures to eliminate all impurities. A full month of soaking may be required for this procedure.
This is followed by settling of the mud and removal of the remaining soil. With the process of craftsmanship, it acquires its color.
The basic recipe for dyeing clay is 30 grams of dye for every 500 grams of clay.
After cleaning the mud, the impurities are absorbed in tubs of water; the uncontaminated mud is then mixed manually, in a difficult and exhausting process.
It is necessary to knead and squeeze the black mud to achieve the ideal consistency.
Those soils are rich in mud and are shaped into regions. Only the black clay in Oaxaca is natural.
Does the black clay in Oaxaca come from nature?
Despite being natural, black clay can also be manufactured. However, only in Oaxaca can you find the right material to make authentic and true black clay pottery.
Through the charcoal, the smoke infuses mud to create the pottery’s dark black finish. Black pottery is constructed with a flat surface and a hard-headed slip for design applications.
The particles and structure of the clay must be very fine to produce the color. It depends on its production in Oaxaca to be a natural or synthetic handicraft.
White Clay vs Black Clay: What’s the Difference?
There is nothing finer or softer than white clay, also called kaolin. As a powder, it has a fluffy texture and is usually light in color.
This clay is not transported downstream for processing, it is considered primary clay as it is mined where it is found.
White clay is extracted from rocks with little iron. Secondary clays form downstream after scraping other clays.
For its part, black clay contains a large amount of manganese and other minerals. It is rare to find black mud because it contains large amounts of natural mixtures of carbon and other materials: magnesium, iron and other metals.
The clay extracted naturally has no color, its properties have given it its black color.
The black clay from Oaxaca requires an entire month to soak and settle before it can be cleaned. The black clay pieces are completed after almost twenty days of cleaning.
As for white clay, it is easily available all over the world and is available in large quantities.
The diversity of black clay in Oaxaca
In addition to pots, whistles, wind instruments, lamps, bells, masks, and figures of creatures, black clay is used to make many other items, most of which are elaborately designed.
Unlike black clay, white clay has a fine, smooth texture. Kaolin or Chinese stone are rocks rich in kaolinite.
White clay plays a crucial role in the production of porcelain. Black mud is widely used to make paint, paper, rubber, and a variety of other products.
The workability of black clay is also higher since it can be quickly wetted. Water changes may affect its workability to a minor extent.
Black Clay in Modernity
As of the 20th century, black clay ceases to be merely functional and becomes something more artistic. Artisans begin to experiment with cuts, shapes, and polishing and burnishing techniques to give shine.
The black clay is transformed and becomes what you can see today in the streets of San Bartolo Coyotepec in Oaxaca. Here is a video of how black clay is made in Oaxaca:
Some black clay potters recognized in Mexico
Doña Rosa: She discovered how to polish black clay pieces with quartz, a technique that is still valid.
Carlomagno Pedro Martínez: he was trained as an apprentice in the crafts workshop of Rufino Tamayo and got his first recognition as an artisan in 1985.
How is black pottery produced in Oaxaca?
The manufacture of the pieces takes a detailed process. It requires a series of meticulous steps that must be followed perfectly, accompanied by extraordinary skills and expert techniques.
It all starts with the clay. A hill near San Bartolo Coyotepec in Oaxaca provides the clay that begins the pottery tradition of the municipality.
Then follows the collection of the material. This task is reserved for men since the locals believe that if a woman is in charge of extracting black clay, the mine will stop producing the raw material. Will it be true?
The first step is to pass the clay through a sieve and water and let it rest. This in order to remove all impurities from the earth.
Second, the craftsman must knead the clay until smooth. Once smooth, it is shaped and left to dry in the sunlight for 4 days.
From here the process goes two ways: If there are no stains left on the items and no additional work such as cutting and finishing is required, the job is done. On the contrary, the stages continue if cuts are needed or stains appear.
The craftsman makes the cuts with care and detail. Afterward, he hand-polishes the handicrafts with quartz crystals for a brilliant finish and leaves them to dry in the sun for two more days.
Finally, it is placed in the wood-fired “two mouths” oven for one more day, where it acquires its distinctive color naturally, without dyes.
The oven prevents the passage of air and the properties of the black clay itself. The temperature is between 700 and 800°C and each piece takes around twenty days to be ready.
Cure for food use
Are these crafts clean enough to be used as plates, pots, and mugs? For this function, a series of extra techniques are performed to seal pores:
1.- Pass banana peels on the entire surface and let dry.
2.- Rest in cold water for twelve hours and pass a piece of garlic over the surface.
Once this is done, it is covered with water, heated, and allowed to reduce.
After that, let it cool down, and voila! the piece is ready to be used as a food container.
Uses of Oaxacan Black Pottery
The black clay instruments in Oaxaca have become the favorite objects of many. The most common objects are pots, bells, flutes, masks, animal figures, etc.
You can find these throughout the entire municipality or at events such as the Coyotepec Black Clay Fair.
Their prices start at 50 pesos and can go up to 20,000 depending on the elaboration, technique, and artisan. The best thing is that there are many people who make them, so you can see the differences in finishes, details, and shapes and choose the one you like best.
Did you know that traditional comales prepare tlayudas in canvases of black clay of more than 50 centimeters?
Kaolin, the white clay, was discovered in China, while Barro Negro pottery was discovered in Oaxaca.
With proper mixing and cleaning procedures by hand, black clay can be extracted from the regions of Oaxaca.
Artificial black clay can be made in a variety of ways, such as using masonry stains. Black mud suppliers can provide you with the necessary information. If you want a black exterior on your pottery, then the slip is made from clay and then stained with up to 15% dye.
In the case of shading all the clay, it is cheaper and better.
An exceptional gift
Black clay in Oaxaca is the primary source of economy in San Bartolo Coyotepec. In addition to the fact that it is a place that you must visit, without a doubt you must acquire some pieces either as a gift or as a souvenir.
The artisans not only represent their craft tradition but also demonstrate the relationship between nature and culture. An object with a history that supports the economy and has a lot of sentiment; anyone will love it.
And you, what black clay object would you like to have in your home?
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