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black pottery

El Barro Negro: The Black Pearl of Oaxaca

Since pre-Columbian times, clay has been a material highly prized by Mexicans for the use of pieces for utilitarian, decorative or rituals, raw material worked with such mastery and with a great diversity of techniques and finishes.

In the central valleys of Oaxaca the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs worked the so-called black pottery, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that it was driven by a woman named Doña Rosa Real de Nieto, an artisan from the town of San Bartolo Coyotepec. She created beautiful handcrafted pieces that have made Oaxaca famous worldwide and for many years, she dedicated herself to this art.

The mud is extracted from a place near the town, and contrary to what people might think, it is not black. The characteristic color is obtained by means of a technique of cooking the clay, which is carried out in a two-mouth oven (a wood-fired oven that is underground) that at a certain moment is closed with the objective of reducing oxygen and generating the “reduction of air” that generates a physical reaction contrary to oxidation. This is a burning process used since pre-Hispanic times.

It is believed that if the clay is collected by women, the mine will stop producing the raw material, which is a job done only by men.

The procedure of creating a piece of black pottery begins with the collection of the clay, which is sifted and “put to rest” for later kneading and modeling, which forms the figure you want to create through the magic of the hand; The piece is left to dry in the sun for four days. In case the piece requires additional work, this is done on the fourth day so that the piece is not so fresh or so dry that it makes the work difficult.

After that time, scrape close the pores of the mud and let it dry again to make it shine, which is done by polishing the piece with quartz stones by hand; sometimes they alternated in the shade and then in the sun to dry completely and a second polish is given, leaving another four days before putting it in the oven. After the pieces are fired, washed, and dried, they are ready to be sold.

Among the pieces that are produced in black pottery are skulls, cajetes, pitchers, pots, rattles, pitchers for the traditional mezcal, figures of animals and various ornamental figures. The Charlemagne pieces, who without changing from the traditional techniques, change the forms to reflect elements of traditional festivities or a recurring theme of death.

San Bartolo Coyotepec has always been known as a cradle of potters, making immemorial pieces of clay that were required in everyday life, such as the famous pitchers to transport and store water, and even supplied to other towns with pitchers for mezcal.

Honoring its craft and tradition, this town currently has a handicraft market located in the central garden of the town and the State Museum of Popular Art Oaxaca (MEAPO) where the artisans of San Bartolo Coyotepec, as well as the Valleys, participate. It is also recommended to visit the temple whose perimeter fence is decorated with traditional Oaxacan pitchers in black pottery.


About the author

This article was written by Ian Hayden Parker, Oaxaca Life staff writer, the leading source for English news in Oaxaca, Mexico.

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