Evidence of human habitation of Oaxaca region dates back to about 11,000 years BC. Evidence exists that agriculture has been practiced here since 2,000 BC. The Zapotecs and Mixtecs emerged and controlled the region until the Aztecs arrived just before the Spanish conquest began. When the Spaniards arrived in Oaxaca area, there were an estimated 1.5 million indigenous people in the region, within 130 years the population had fallen to 150,000 people as the population was ravaged by diseases and forced labor.
Since pre-Hispanic eras, Oaxaca has been a major trading hub between northern and southern america. When the Spaniards arrived, they brought new raw materials and new techniques that native artists adapted to create trade goods. The rise of industrially produced products lowered the demand for most handcrafts by the early 20th century. however, the introduction of highways in the middle part of the century brought tourism to the region and with it a new market for traditional handcrafts. Today, the state boasts the largest number of working artisans in Mexico, producing a wide range of products that continue to grow and evolve to meet changing tastes in the market.
Oaxacan handcrafts are also highly specialized by community. Notable wares include the barro negro pottery of San Bartolo Coyotepec, the green glazed and other pottery of Santa María Atzompa, the wool textiles of Teotitlán del Valle and colorful animal figures carved from wood made in San Martín Tilcajete amoung others.
The Aguilars are a family of folk artists who live in Ocotlan, a town about 20 miles south of Oaxaca City city. There are four sisters; Josefina, Guillermina, Irene and Concepcion. Their pieces reflect the colorful rural life in Oaxaca and depict market women, Frida Kahlo replicas, religious symbols and nativity scenes, as well as cantinas and "women of the night."
In San Martin Tilcajete (a village about 14 miles south of Oaxaca city) Jacobo &
Maria Angeles specialize in woodcarving. The fanciful wooden animals they create are sometimes called "alebrijes" They are usually carved from the wood of the copal tree from which they also extract the sap to use as incense. The copal is a particularly twisty tree and the carvers use the natural shape of the wood to inspire them when forming their pieces. The carvings are painted with tiny, intricate patterns.
In the nearby town of San Agustin de las Juntas Manuel Cruz Prudencio has his workshop. With help from his wife and family as well as local artists, he creates beautiful fantastical creations.
The village of Santa Maria Atzompa is located about three miles from Oaxaca
city, near Monte Alban archaeological site. This village has been producing pottery since ancient times, and today you can find a wide variety of pieces, from practical jugs and dishes to beautiful figurines and large decorative items.
Many of the crafts of Oaxaca are still made using techniques that date back to ancient times. In San Bartolo Coyotepec, home of the Black Clay (Barro
Negro), you can see a demonstration of how black pottery is made. Instead of using an electric wheel, the potter shapes his piece while he spins it by hand as it rests on top of two stacked concave plates - one is right side up, the other upside down.
Oaxaca's famous black pottery gets its color in the firing process, not from any glaze or paint applied to the pieces, said to have originated this firing technique in the 1950s - prior to that time the pottery was mostly grey. Black pottery is used mainly for decorative purposes as it will not hold water. Pots that will be used to hold water are fired longer and turn grey.
In Oaxaca City, the Arts Scene is strong, contemporary art,
lithography, watercolor and oils created by a new generation of artists is available on what seems like every block of the central district. New artists vie with more established artists, pushing each other to be the next visual voice.