Cartonería shower Mexican fiestas and celebrations in a rainbow of dragons, masks and dolls.
The pâpier maché folk art form uses simple materials like paper, paste and cardboard, evolving from religious purposes to create a menagerie of piñatas, skeletons, toys and fantastical animals called alebrijes. These colorful creatures have become integral to Mexican holidays and festivals, including the Day of the Dead, Holy Week and Christmas.
Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art is showing “La Cartonería Mexicana” through Nov. 3, 2024.
The exhibition focuses on more than 100 items from the museum’s permanent collection, many of them from the private collection of the modernist designer Alexander Girard, a pivotal figure in the museum’s founding.
Priests likely introduced cartonería or pâpier maché sculptures in Mexico during the colonial period to make items for church. The craft developed in the 20th century with artists in Mexico City, namely Pedro Linares and Carmen Caballo Sevilla, who reinvented the traditional forms and created new versions.
The word alebrije means “imaginary” or “fantasy,” describing a style of animal carvings with riotous paint schemes.
“Pâpier maché is often made with inexpensive paper like newspaper,” said Nora Dolan, program consultant. “The traditional paste is made of flour and water.”
Artists then use strips of the paper coated in paste to layer it over a mold or structure.
Just about everyone knows what a piñata is, but few understand that it is part of an entire branch of traditional handcrafts.
Piñatas are a sub-category of cartonería.
“Pâpier maché has been going on for a long time,” Dolan continued. “It came from China to Europe to Mexico.”
Artists created pâpier maché masks for Carnival and swords, dolls, rattles and toy animals for Corpus Christi parades. Corpus Christi is a Roman Catholic observance celebrating the presence of the blood and body of Christ in the Eucharist.
“It’s another very solemn holiday and then the kids get toys after church,” Dolan explained.
Pâpier maché toys pre-date plastic, she added.
“Dolls were very, very popular,” Dolan said. “The parents would purchase these from folk artists.”
Artists sold their work in street markets; men would walk the streets dangling toys from long poles to entice buyers.
By the 1960s, the figures had become collectible.
Artists stuffed Judas effigies with candies, bread and cigarettes to attract the crowds into the business sponsoring the figure. Made from split-cane frames tied with waxed string and papered over before being whitewashed and painted, they included skeletons, harlequins and folk heroes. Artists depicted Judas as a devil, identified him with a corrupt politician and even the coronavirus during Holy Week. Crowds then burned the figures in flames or in fireworks, Dolan said. The political figures sometimes reached 10 feet high.
“They expanded beyond the traditional Judas figure,” she explained. “It’s not dissimilar to Zozobra in Santa Fe. They attach fireworks to it.”
Most of the work was made in the two most popular areas for their creation – Mexico City and the city of Celaya in the state of Guanajuato. The Indigenous masks came from the state of Nayarit. The exhibition works span a 40-year period between 1960 and 2000, both moving and magical.