Sunday, February 7, 2010

Colima Part 4: Museum of Popular Arts, a collection of Mexico's finest folk art

Masked figure is a caricature of a Spaniard. We found the masked figure above in Colima's Maria Teresa Pomar University Popular Arts Museum, a few blocks north of the Jardin Libertad in El Centro. Carole picked this museum as one of her priority visits because it is reputed to contain some of the finest examples of Mexico's folk art. The figure above wears a costume typical of those used in many fiesta parades. The pink face, blonde wig, and beard show the figure to be a caricature of a Spaniard. For information about hours, location and a walking map to this and a variety of other museums in Colima, click here.

Dances and celebrations

Detail from mural in Popular Arts Museum. The photo above shows a detail of the large mural found beside the staircase in the museum. Costumed indigenous dances--especially with masks--have been popular for thousands of years in Mexico. Despite their obviously pagan origins, many of these dances have been incorporated into fiestas celebrating Catholic religious holidays. The figure in the top middle, with the bull on his head, is carrying a mobile fireworks display, represented by the multicolored disks along the side. I have seen just such a flaming bull during a fiesta in Ajijic. The person carrying the popping, sparking bull headdress ran through the fiesta crowd causing a stampede and much laughter.

Wizard figure. I wasn't able to determine the meaning of this figure, other than his striking resemblance to a wizard. Perhaps he represents one of the Magi, or Three Kings. Perhaps it was just the creator's imagination run wild. While there is much symbolic meaning to the masks and costumes, there is also a great deal of fun. Although both sexes dress up in costumes and masks, the dancers are predominantly male.

Animals are heavily represented in the masks and costumes. Above, one figure wears a crocodile around his waist, while a robed figure with a cow mask looks on. The natural world played a major role in indigenous religious practices, and this continued after the domination of Spanish Catholicism began in the 16th Century. We saw a similar crocodile in the mask museum of Zacatecas, but it was not until I saw the display above that I understood how it was worn.

Mask from Guanajuato does double duty. The masks of each region and culture differ considerably in their details and the materials they use. However, it is not uncommon to find a large mask with a gaping mouth, within which is another face, as you can see above.

Only thing missing is the apple. Above, a devil mask is framed by a serpent. It is fairly common for masks to contain several animals, sometimes representing a nose or ears or other feature of the face.

Clothing and textiles

Huichol Indians have preserved much of their culture. The Huichols, from the mountainous area bordered by Jalisco and Nayarit States, still dress in the manner shown above. At first I thought it was a gimmick for the tourists who buy their wonderfully complex beadwork and embroidery. I have since seen recent photographs of Huichols working in their fields and performing day-to-day tasks around their mountain villages dressed in this clothing. Huichols are quite averse to being photographed, so I was glad to have this inanimate figure with which to work. Leaning against the Huichol's knee is a hide quiver for a hunting arrows. Around the figure are various other examples of Huichol artistry.

Huichol art is highly symbolic. One of their art forms is a flat surface closely stitched with vividly colored forms and figures, some abstract, some of animal or human figures. A textile work like this takes an unbelievable amount of time and expertise. I once asked a Huichol artisan how long it took to create a work like this. His reply: "Until it is finished."

Beautifully embroidery borders this huipil. A huipil is an embroidered indigenous blouse or dress. Many Mexican indigenous cultures make huipiles, but they appear to have originated among the Maya and the Zapotecs of central and southern Mexico. They are simple garments, gorgeously decorated by stitching. The embroidery on the traditional garments identified the wearer's village, marital status, and personal beliefs.

Another form of huipil. Instead of simply embroidering the neck or shoulder area, this huipil displays vivid designs all over the garment. The previous garment was more of a blouse, while this one is a tunic.

Unusual high-backed sandals. There was an extensive display of leather footwear in the Popular Arts Museum, but I was particularly taken by these sandals with the high backs, a form I had never seen before.

Lacquer ware.

Laquer work in Mexico goes back to prehispanic times. Most Mexican lacquer work comes from the states of Guerrero, Chiapas, or Michoacan. The tray above was created by the master lacquer artist Francisco Coronel. Beginning in the 16th Century, the Spanish imported some lacquer work from China.

Lacquer chest uses wood with lacquer, silver leaf, and paint. The incredibly fine detail of this work certainly justifies its placement in a museum of popular arts.

Animals in popular art

Cheerful cow balances on bamboo legs. This cow, with its cheery grin, appears to have been made from paper mache. The hump on the cow's back and the horns indicate that the animal represented is probably a brahman. The brahman originated in India, where it developed resistance to disease and insects, and tolerance to high heat. The Museum of Popular Arts contains a large variety of works relating to animals.

Jaguars are prominent in prehispanic mythology. Jaguar once ranged throughout western and southern Mexico, and as far south as Paraguay and Argentina, and as far north as Arizona in the US. It is now extinct in much of Mexico and all of the US. The only big cats larger than the jaguar are the lion and tiger. The jaguar is closely associated with water and enjoys swimming. Unlike other large cats which kill by gripping the throat and strangling their prey, the jaguar bites the skull of the victim with such power that its fangs penetrate to the brain. Probably because of its power and ability to take down the largest prey, it appears in all the major Mesoamerican mythologies. The jaguar was believed to have the ability to cross between the actual and spiritual worlds and was associated with vegetation and fertility.

Toys and other amusements

Dolls with an unusual history. These articulated wooden dolls rested in a glass cabinet with a wide array of other dolls. Our friend Maya told us that these particular dolls had a practical use. In brothels, when a woman was busy with a customer, she would place a doll such as this on a small chair outside her room, indicating that she was presently unavailable.

Hand-made wicker airplane. All parts of this plane, except possibly the thread holding it together, were made of natural materials, woven together skillfully

Another sort of doll. This was one of several giant dolls in the museum. The chairs in the background give some sense of the scale of the doll, which is probably about 12 feet tall. Dolls like this are carried in parades at fiestas, and the arms are raised and moved about with long sticks operated by people walking beside the person toting the doll on his or her shoulders.

Complex mannequin show. There were several small puppet theaters on display, but I found this one the most interesting and complex. Not only the bull and matador are capable of movement, but also the mounted picador and the two matadors behind the barrier. I would have loved to see this show in action. Puppet shows are still popular in Mexico, and kids in Ajijic flock to the ones they produce here.

I hope you enjoyed the Maria Teresa Pomar University Popular Arts Museum. This is a "don't miss" museum if you come to Colima. There are thousands of items in the museum, and I only photographed a few of the total. Of those few, I discarded many photos because of poor lighting or reflections from glass cases. I still came up with more than 50 images that I had to boil down to the 19 in this display. As always, I appreciate your reactions, which you can either leave in the comments section below or send to me by direct email. If you ask a question in the comments section PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond. Feel free to share the link to this blog with whomever you'd like.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Hallo Jim & Carole! We were in Colima / Comala in February 2008, and hired a taxi for the day. What a treat that was - not only did we see the usual tourist areas but also things way out of the way and not on the usual agenda. It was wonderful. Anyway, one of the things we had there was in Comala (99% sure) that Hector bought from a corner vendor. It was a pinkish drink with peanuts sprinkled on top. I have searched for a recipe or even a name for this drink ever since! Any chance you can help a girl out?! You can find me at bevpickard at gmail dot com. Thanks in advance!

  2. Hi Jim -

    In preparing for my own boots-on-the-ground visit to Ajijic in a couple of weeks, I came across your great blog. You and your camera must never be apart!

    Any chance we could grab a cup of coffee on Wednesday Mar 10 or Thursday Mar 11 to chat about la vida Mexicana?

    Dan from Boston (dobrien1 at

  3. Hola,hola, camoron con cola!

    I climbed those pyramids, Xmas season 1975. Looks as though they haven't changed much.

    Brenda Gould, wife of your friend Wes Brain, Ashland, Oregon

  4. Jim and Carol...where do you find these fabulous trips?
    We'd love to follow in your footsteps and do this trip, whom do we contact?
    Thanks, Anon.

  5. Dear Anonymous- We plan our own trips from what we find out about an area on the internet. Usually there is a ton of info. There are also numerous travel agencies in the Lake Chapala area which arrange tours. Our favorite is Charter Tours in Ajijic. You can find them by Googling (did you know that the Mexicans now have a word in Spanish--Googlear--which means "to Google"). By the way, if you leave future comments, please leave your email so that I can contact you directly. I have no idea whether you'll actually see this.

  6. Question. I drove thru Colima and still kick myself for not picking up one of the dog sculptures. I can't find a local artist on the Internet; understandably so being a small city. Do you have a local sculpture connection that will not cost me a fortune to buy & ship? Also, does the mask maker have a contact email. Thank you for your help and time. Lesley

  7. My weaver, Francisco, our gardener, Fernando, my son and me from Aztec Weaving Studios in West Ajijic are leaving for a two day vacation to Colima and pulled up your blog on internet. Your site is absolutly wonderful and has inspired us to visit the Museum of Popular Arts. We would miss seeing this if it hadn't been for you. Muchas Gracias, Janice


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim