Week 49: 19th – 25th August
Learning more about the history of paper and its predecessors has led me to consider more about the ritualistic uses of these materials, in particular the uses and production of Amatl, a form of paper which has been manufactured in Mexico since pre-Hispanic times.
The word Amatl derives from the Aztec language of Nahuatl, but is now more commonly known by the Spanish, Amate. This form of paper, made from the pulp of fig and mulberry bark was, and continues to be, manufactured by the Otomi Indians of San Pablito, Mexico. Despite Spanish colonisation and the introduction of the Christian religion, the Otomi continued to produce amatl paper for ritual purposes.
Due to their reliance on agriculture, many of the Otomi’s religious beliefs and practices centre around spirits of the earth, rain and sun. Although these spirits had a literal relation to the growth of crops, they also functioned as metaphors to mediate ideas around kinship, culture, nature and fertility.
Images of these spirits are created by folding amatl paper in half and cutting out an intricate design which, when opened, creates a symmetrical figure. These figures are used by shamans within rituals in order to maintain the values and health of the community. Positive spirits, such as ‘Dios de Mazorca’ (The Spirit of Maize) is part of the series of fertility figures which ensure good crops, whereas intermediary figures, such as ‘Pajarito de Dos Cabezas’ (Little Bird with Two Heads), act as spirit messengers who watch over the Otomi and keep them safe.
However, as well as the positive spirits, the Otomi also believe in a number of negative spirits, who serve to act as a warning to members of the community who go against established societal values. For example, figures such as ‘Trompa de Toro que no Respeta’ (Bull Snout that does not respect) represents the figure of a man who died for not respecting his parents, and the violence that this can cause within the kinship system, while ‘El Presidente del Infierno’ (The President of Hell) is one of a number of anti-culture figures, which are spirits that go against the values and beliefs of the Otomi.
Although paper cutting has strong religious and ritual connections in Mexican tradition, it has also developed into a decorative and celebratory past time, through the introduction of Papel picado. Translated as ‘perforated paper’, papel picado is a form of cut paper decoration which is produced by stacking layers of tissue paper and chiseling a design using a transparent template which is laid on top of the paper stack.
After the Spanish invasion of the Americas, they introduced their culture, language, religion, tools, and designs. Trade routes between Spanish colonies and China therefore introduced new goods into the Mexican economy, many of which were wrapped in ‘papel de China (tissue paper). The paper was often decorated with stencilled designs for ceramics or embroideries which became integrated into the papel picado designs. designs was used for various types of crafts including papel picado banners. The process of creating papel picado banners continues today and is used to make decorations for festivals such as Day of the Dead, Our Lady of Guadalupe and Christmas.
Although papel picado banners are now available in more sturdier plastic, the traditional process of making paper banners begins by drawing a design, which is then placed over multiple layers of tissue paper. The artist then uses a mallet and chisels to remove sections of the paper stack, so that the image still hangs together after cutting. By removing the negative spaces of the image, the design is revealed, and when finished, the paper is separated to reveal individual identical sheets. This process can take around 30 hours.
The Paper Art of Mexico: http://lal.tulane.edu/programs/exhibits/paperart
Otomi Cutout Figurines: http://anthromuseum.missouri.edu/minigalleries/otomi/intro.shtml
The Endurance of Mexican Amate Paper: http://www.itc.nl/library/papers_2003/phd_theses/lopez_binnquist.pdf
Mexico’s traditional papel picado: Classic art for a Mexican fiesta: http://www.mexconnect.com/articles/1567-mexico-s-traditional-papel-picado-classic-art-for-a-mexican-fiesta