Mexican Art | Tradition & Culture
Updated: Aug 29, 2019
Welcome to my ultimate guide for Mexican Art, here you will find facts and information on everything from Mexican art history, Mexican folk art right through to modern-day practices and works.
This article is quite lengthy, and I recommend you bookmark this page if you are interested in reading all of the information available, or if you are only looking for something specific, scroll through and find the right heading for you!
There is a lot of art, culture & history in Mexico for one to admire! Over thousands of years, the people here have found unique and artistic ways of expressing themselves.
Because of self-expression and religious influences, you can find some of the most amazingly well-preserved artefacts that still to this day influence the Mexican people, culture, and traditions.
Mexico today is a such huge/diverse country, and it pretty much always has been throughout the centuries! It's home to people from more than 50 different kinds of ethnic groups.
With the country being so vastly different from one region to another, it makes Mexico an extraordinary place to visit, and it is easily one of the most colourful and unique countries in the worlds today!
History of Mexican Art
Over thousands of years, the inhabitants of Mexico lived in communities that were separated by rough terrains like mountains, forests, canyons, rivers and lakes, and because of so many different huge civilisations like the Olmec, Maya, Teotihuacan, Toltec, and Aztec all being separated for many years, they all developed their own distinct languages and cultures within the country.
With all of these ancient civilisations developing different traditions and cultures, you can expect to find huge differences and variance in the way people chose to make and develop art over the years.
Every piece of history, art and culture found here in Mexico is uniquely different and special from one and other, you can really notice the differences between the ancient techniques of the different indigenous tribes.
Art from the Olmec Empire
We can start with the Olmec people as they were the earliest known major civilisation to have existed in Mesoamerica. These indigenous people are believed to have lived and settled in somewhere around south-central Mexico, what is now believed to be the states of Veracruz and Tabasco.
The Olmecs are widely believed by historians to be the original indigenous tribe to have start making hieroglyphics and creating calendars.
After years of creating hieroglyphics and calendars, the Olmec people started to become more advanced and intelligent, because of this, they began to incorporate what they have learned into their architectural designs.
Most of the architectural details and hieroglyphs were intelligently placed throughout the ancient buildings and shrines in an effort to better understand time, all of the etchings and details were positioned according to shadows and sunlight.
Some of the most famous and widely known pieces of art that still exist from the Olmec empire are the giant heads that can be found in the cities of Veracruz and Tabasco.
Art from the Mayan Empire
The Maya civilisation has one of the most notable and famous cultures that is still recognised around the world today. Historians and archaeologists have uncovered thousands of astonishing artefacts, a lot of which is amazingly well preserved.
Before the Maya, there was the Olmecs and the Toltecs, from what we understand, it is widely believed that the Maya people took inspiration from these two civilisations. It is clearly visible that a lot of the ancient artworks were either inspired by the art of other cultures and also that of religious beliefs.
Although the Maya civilisation was vast and spread across much of southern Mexico and North America, each city/state was governed and ruled independently from one and other.
When the Maya civilisation was at its peak, the rulers/kings of each city wanted to make sure that they would be remembered, thus the reason we can now find a lot of the Maya art to be about the kings and rulers of this ancient period.
The most notable Mayan pieces of artwork are arguably the stone carvings in which they produced. They carved out and built hundreds if not thousands of giant structures, most of which were tall pyramids, palaces and stone sculptures.
The most common piece of Mayan art that can be found is called a steale (stela for singular), a stela is a large tall stone slab that has intricate carvings and writings, a stela was most commonly created to honour the ruling king.
The Maya people were also believed to have created many other arts and crafts in different forms like paintings, ceramics, carvings and scriptures, but unfortunately, most of those art forms have been consumed by time, there are very little amounts of pieces like this that still exist today.
Art from the Aztec Empire
Just like it was with the Maya civilisation, art was also an essential part of Aztec life. Much of the Aztec art does not exist today as the most common and essential forms of art were poetry, music, writing and carvings.
The majority of Aztec art was created to honour and praise their gods, while the crafts they made were heavily influenced by religion, it is also believed that the Aztecs took inspiration from civilisations like Teotihuacan, Tula, Mixtec and the Olmec.
Feathers were believed to be sacred in Aztec culture, they were most commonly associated with Coyotlinahual, the god of featherworkers.
Feathers were always apart of the Aztec art, culture, clothes and traditions, a lot of the traditional clothing and crafts like masks and headdresses were often decorated in colourful feathers.
It was the noble people from the Aztec civilisation who often wore jewellery and different feather-works like hats and masks to differentiate themselves from the common folk.
Poetry was called "flower and song" by the Aztecs, and it was considered to be one of the most essential ways of self-expression, it was also believed to be the highest form of art in ancient Aztec culture.
The Aztec people wrote thousands of poems, with the majority of poems representing their beliefs, gods and mythology. Although there is a considerable amount of poetry that still exists from the Aztec empire, it could have been a lot more!
For hundreds of years, poetry and mythologies were always passed down verbally as the Aztecs didn't begin to write down their poetry until after the Spanish colonisation.
Poetry was passed down from generation to generation, thus the reason we still have some today, but every 52 years the Aztec people celebrated a ritual what is known as the new fire ceremony, it was during this ritual that the Aztec people burned most of their possessions, including art forms such as poetry.
Art of the Toltec Empire
The Toltecs are famously known for their ruthless warrior-like culture and traditions, the Toltec people believed their gods (Quetzalcoatl, Tezcatlipoca, and Tlaloc) demanded of them much conquest and sacrifice.
A lot of the ancient art left behind by the Toltec people is deeply religious, with most of the art commonly being associated with gods, warriors, and priests.
The Toltec people were known to be great craftsmen, tons of ancient artefacts show that the people were exceptionally skilled in stone sculpting, metalworks, weaving and pottery.
Although the Toltec people were known to be exceptionally skilled in multiple crafts, there is only one craft which really stands out, and that is stone sculpting!
A lot of the stone sculptures created by the Toltec people were kept amazingly well preserved over the centuries, some of the fantastic architecture and statues can still be seen to this day throughout Tula.
Many of the stone sculptures and carvings depict scenes of warfare, some carvings show vicious animals likes jaguars, wolves and snakes while the majority of the carvings show images of sacrifice and battle.
The best-known surviving piece of Toltec art could easily be considered to be the four Atalantes, which sits upon the top of Pyramid B at Tula. These tall sculptures are believed to represent high-ranking Toltec warriors.
Like I previously said, the Toltecs were great a craftspeople with expertise in multiple forms of craftsmanship, it's mostly only stone sculptures and carvings that have stood the tests of time, but there have been a lot of remnants found of ceramics and pottery, mostly just partial pieces though, for pottery to stay intact for thousands of years would be nothing short of a miracle.
The Colonial Era
Mexican art began to enter a new era right around the 15th century, after the colonisation by the Spanish. The colonial period in Mexico lasted 300 years from 1521 to 1821.
With the colonisation by the Spanish, the different indigenous people of Mexico became introduced to new beliefs and religion, Christianity.
The Spanish conquistadors first built churches/cathedrals and began teaching the ways of the western world, it wasn't long before the Mexican people started to find more and more Spanish colonial architecture popping up everywhere around the country.
Most of the Spanish colonial architecture included intricate stoneworks/carvings with European and religious designs, you can now commonly find the Virgin Mary, angels, and the holy cross on depicted on many buildings throughout the country.
While the native people started to accept and adopt the new ways they were being taught, they did not entirely forget their own traditions, culture and heritage!
A lot of the Mexican art forms like featherworks, weaving, pottery, paintings and stone carvings were still being created, only now there was the influence of European design and style.
Examples of European influence can be found on paintings that were done by native people throughout these 300 years, a lot of the pictures were in created in European style, but the borders and frames of such works had native motifs such as leaves, corn, cacao, and pineapples.
New Spanish Baroque
The 'Baroque' refers to a highly intricate and ornate style of architecture, painting, sculpture, music, dance, and other art forms that originated in Europe, beginning in the early 17th century and lasting until the mid-18th century.
The baroque period arrived in Mexico and began around the middle of the 17th century, It was during this period that Mexican artists started to experiment with expressive, diverse, and often realistic methods, making Mexican art more desirable and highly popular for a short period of time.
One of the more significant and familiar pieces of artworks that were being made at the time were polychrome sculptures, producing such works of art not only showed the technical ability of the artists but it was also a way of self-expression for the creator.
During this period, the rich and noble people would often pay a lot of money to have an artist of high stature paint a self-portrait in this stylistic form.
Other highly popular works were Casta paintings, these paintings depicted people of mixed races, most commonly the 'Mestizo' a mix of Spaniards and native Mexicans.
In the years between 1810 and 1821, the Mexican people fought for and won their war of independence, which saw the Spanish rule over Mexico come to an end.
It was over the next hundred years that Mexican artists would commonly create and produce different artworks that would prominently feature heroes from the war of independence.
Because of many artists creating different works of art surrounding the war, this became an indirect effect of Mexico pulling away from colonial culture and traditions.
The muralist movement did not start until the 1920s, and one could easily argue that the path that led Mexico to get there first place began once Spanish rule came to an end.
The real game-changer began during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917), which ultimately had a significant impact on Mexican life and culture, it was during these years that the muralist movement actually came about.
The post-Mexican Revolution government were the main driving factor behind the muralist movement as they used murals for political and propaganda reasons, they often would commission paintings with political messages with the hopes of reunifying the country through the power of self-expression and art.
It was during this period that artists completely broke with European traditions, the leading artists to have been involved at the time were Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros.
Many of the paintings from these artists depicted vivid scenes of Mexican life as they believed that Mexican art should reflect Mexican culture and life.
Mexican Folk Art
Throughout Mexico, you can find tons of different folk arts and crafts which are called "artesanía".
There are such vast selections of different kinds of artesanía in Mexico, this is mainly due to the fact of the Mexican people being so diverse and also having so many unique and raw materials to work with.
People who do not have any formal art training, makeup up the majority of Mexican artists who create folk art. Folk art and crafts are usually handmade, ornate and decorative.
Many of the common resources used by people to create folk art and crafts are different types of clay, wood, stones, metals and plants, some if not all of these materials can be combined together to create colourful, decorative and unique pieces of art.
This style of art and crafts is most commonly associated with the Day of the Dead, which is celebrated on October 31st through November 2nd. A lot of the arts and crafts consist of colourful sugar skulls, ornate statues of La Calavera Catrina and intricate papercrafts.
Many of the different arts and crafts produced by hand also include ceramics, wall hangings, paintings, vases, textiles and much more.
Here is my list of the most popular and famous folk arts and crafts that can be found from around the country.
Silver Jewelry and Ornaments from Taxco
Taxco is well-known in all of Mexico and also much of North/South America as the silver city. In Taxco, you can find an abundance of different silver products, like jewellery, ornaments, silverware and other unique handcrafted objects.
You can find silver products pretty much anywhere in town, but the best place for you to visit that provides higher quantities of quality products is Mercado Tianguis de la Plata.
While It Is relatively easy for one to find Taxco silver pretty much anywhere in Mexico, the best products are more commonly found in Taxco for lower prices.
Leather from Naolinco
There are quite a few different towns and cities in Mexico that are famous for producing leather products, two places that come to mind are León and San Cristobal, and while you can find great products in both of those cities, Naolinco still edges out both of them for producing higher quality leather goods.
Cowboy culture is alive and well here in Mexico, some of the more popular handmade leather products to be found here are boots, saddlebags, hats, jackets and wallets.
Woollen Rugs from Oaxaca
Oaxaca is famous for producing several different folk arts, but for me, the most interesting and detailed work has to be the woollen rugs that are produced in the city.
The beautiful woollen rugs are mainly found in Teotitlán and Santa Ana, with the majority of the pieces being decorated in Zapotec and Mixtec designs.
Alebrijes from Oaxaca
Alebrijes are beautifully handcrafted works of Mexican folk, the pieces of art are usually vibrant and brightly coloured sculptures the represent and depict mythical creatures from Mexican folklore.
All works are carefully handcrafted and painted with intricate ornate designs, each and every piece is truly one of a kind.
Pottery from Oaxaca and Puebla
Mexican pottery could easily be considered the most prolific and versatile of all Mexican folk arts, It has a long and deep history in Mexican roots that goes back as far as the Olmecs.
While you can undoubtedly find traditionally decorated pottery and ceramics anywhere in the country, there are only a handful of places that are famous for producing such works, places like Oaxaca, Puebla and Jalisco first come to mind.
Mexican folk art can differ from city to city and state to state, even with similar types of art, an excellent example of this is the difference of pottery works between Oaxaca and Puebla, in Oaxaca you can commonly find dark pottery works, whereas in Puebla you would often find works of art like Talavera tiles, which are usually deep or light brown in colour.
Huichol beading from Nayarit
The Huichol or as the like to call themselves the 'Wixáritari' are an indigenous people of Mexico that live in the Sierra Madre Occidental range, and they are the Mexican folk behind the beautiful works of art known as Huichol beading.
As like with most of the Mexican folk art on this list, you can pretty much find any of these works of art throughout the county, however, they are mostly only produced by the Huichol people in the cities of Nayarit, Jalisco, Zacatecas, and Durango.
They can bead everything and anything! Some of the more common pieces that you will find are earrings, necklaces, rings, bracelets and other fashionable jewellery, they also create larger and smaller works of art like sculptures, statues, figurines and even beaded sugar skulls.
Hand-blown glass from Puebla
Glasswork first found its way into Mexican culture somewhere around the mid 16th century, Puebla is believed to be the first city in Mexico to develop such works of art.
You can now find glass art all over the country, but some of the more notable places worth mentioning are Puebla, Tonalá, Tlaquepaque and Jalisco.
If you are looking to purchase such items, carefully check what you are buying, if the pieces are hand blown, very rarely will you find two items which are the same, all works of art should be unique and handcrafted.
Hammocks from Yucatán
This is easily one of my favourite pieces of folk art throughout the country, for me, it is all about practicality! I love those long days where I can just lay down in my hammock and enjoy the hot weather, while also throwing back a few beers.
Hammocks are more commonly found around the Yucatán Peninsula, I would guess that almost every home in this region has a handmade hammock, in fact, most of the homes throughout the country are built with hooks pre-installed into the walls for this reason.
Tree of Life from Metepec
Trees of Life is what Metepec is best known for, and they are arguably one of the more popular expressive Mexican folk arts.
This kind of folk art started out much different to what we can commonly see and find today, Trees of Life used to depict biblical scenes such as the Garden of Eden, The Nativity, and Noah’s Ark but nowadays it is more common to find other stories and scenes such as the Day of the Dead, Independence Day and other Mexican histories.
Paper and Textile crafts from anywhere in Mexico
Papel Picado ("pecked paper") is a decorative craft that is made by cutting intricate and ornate designs into coloured tissue paper.
Common designs include birds, florals, and skeletons. You can find this type of art almost everywhere as Mexicans display paper crafts during all kinds of religious and non-religious holidays/festivals throughout the year.
Mexican textiles are some of the most famous pieces of Mexican folk art today, these creative works really show just how culturally diverse the country actually is.
Most of the materials, weaving techniques, embroidery designs/styles and colours used in Mexican textiles come from a mix of Mesoamerican and Spanish culture. The most common pieces of textile art that can be found in Mexico are the heavily embroidered huipil blouse or the guayabera shirts.