Set of four Ocumicho masks, later period probably early 60s. Selling as a set, frightening countenances, truly scary – but stupendous! These pieces from Michoacan, Mexico, are part of a collection once deemed as too risqué for LACMA during The Hollywood Blacklist era. Mark on underside is the craftsperson’s name: Rutilia Martinez Alvarez. Later period, 1950s-early 60s.
Mexican Folk Art Devils from Ocumicho
Mexican clay figures of little devils, or diablitos, are some of the most interesting pottery creations from the town of Ocumicho, in Michoacan. The village of Ocumicho is home to the Purépecha people, whose womenfolk have made clay toys and whistles (pitos or silbatos) for generations. In the 1950s a missionary introduced molds for coin banks in the shape of dolls, pigs, and other animals, and these, too, became popular items to sell in nearby markets. Men of the village engaged in subsistence agriculture and forestry-related activities. The women’s folk art, however, is the third most important source of income, and is therefore a critical factor in the survival of the Purépecha of Ocumicho.
How the Diablitos Came to Be
There are a variety of stories about how the village artisans began to make little devils, but the most credible is from an article by Claudia B. Isaac, called Witchcraft, Cooperatives, and Gendered Competition in a P’urepecha Community. (Alternate spellings for this group of people include P’urepecha, Purépecha, and P’urhépecha.)
Marcelino Vicente and “Women’s Work”
Although clay work was engaged in only by women up until the 1960s, an unusual young man, Marcelino Vicente, began creating strange little figures of devils, monsters, and unholy scenes. Called diablitos, or “little devils,” the creatures surprised everyone by selling well in the markets. Based upon the success of these figurines, other local clay workers began to make similar items.
Some diablitos are quite simple; others consist of more complex scenes with many figures situated in groups. The devils may be found in religious settings, including at depictions of the Last Supper, and are often sexual in nature.
Marcelino’s Short Life in Ocumicho
Marcelino was a native of Ocumicho, but was orphaned at a young age, and as an adult lived alone and appeared to disdain traditional male roles. He began making clay figures at the age of 18; by 35 (in 1968) he was dead in a cantina brawl. He loved to sing and dance, but was barely tolerated by the villagers because of his unusual activities. Possibly he was gay; no one interviewed by Ms. Isaac cared to make a statement on that subject.
Marcelino gained acceptance as an artisan and a full member of the community only after his grotesque figures had become popular. He then formed a workshop of 14 friends and relations, with himself as the master teacher, or maestro. Unusual for the time, the group included both men and women. The overt sexuality of the figures they produced was even more unusual. Although the tourist markets offer angelic and religious scenes in the same style, “authentic” Marcelino figures tend to be obscene.
Pottery in Ocumicho
Both Ocumichos, as the figures are often called, and the toys and whistles also produced by artisans in the village, are low-fired ceramics baked in wood-fired kilns. Since low-fired clay produces fragile pieces, they must be handled with great care. The diablitos, toys, and pitos (whistles) are often painted with enamel paints and may be finished with a varnish. Older figurines were often painted in subdued colors, like the examples shown at the bottom of this article, but newer creations may be brightly painted and have more modern settings.
Over the years, various government agencies have developed outlets for the sale of the folk art of Ocumicho, but items can be bought from private shops locally as well as in stores in various cities in México. Some are exported to specialty shops in other countries, including the United States.
Isaac, Claudia B. “Witchcraft, cooperatives, and gendered competition in a P’urepecha community,” Frontiers. FindArticles.com. 28 Jan, 2010.