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Creature of tradition

By Daily Bruin Staff

March 3, 1996 9:00 pm

Creature of tradition

UCLA’s Fowler Museum of Cultural History showcases the diversity
and culture of a Mexican ceramic artform that brings its human
alter egos to life

By Cheryl Klein

Daily Bruin Contributor

What has two heads, human eyes and the body of a dog?

Why, a nagual, of course!

Naguales are legendary creatures that were said to roam the
gorges of ancient Mexico at night. But for the next few months, the
mythical animals will be at UCLA’s Fowler Museum of Cultural
History in an exhibit titled "Nagual in the Garden: Fantastic
Animals in Mexican Ceramics."

Besides bicephalid dogs, the exhibit features everything from
smiling horned toads to flying deer.

"The nagual takes different forms," explains guest curator
Lenore Hoag Mulryan. "They’re really as varied as the people who
paint them and the patrons who buy them."

Hoag Mulryan tells of one ceramist named Teodora Blanco who
sculpted a woman surrounded by flowers and magic animals, while she
was in the last stages of kidney disease.

"(Blanco) saw the nagual as an element of rebirth and something
quite beautiful and harmonious in her life," says Hoag Mulryan. "It
gave her a feeling of security, I think, that something was living
after her."

Naguales live today in the culture of modern Mexico, but can be
traced back to 200 B.C. In ancient society, says Rachel Raynor, a
graduate student in folklore and mythology, "The items had ritual
or ceremonial uses. Now they’re used mostly for display." In the
past, such ceramics were frequently made as funerary objects or
with the idea of showing wealth.

Many naguales are shown with human heads, bodies or facial
features to represent the nagual that is supposed to reside within
everybody. "They thought of it as a double or as an alter ego,"
says Hoag Mulryan.

Viewers will notice images of dogs throughout the exhibit, but
explanations for their prevalence are hardly romantic. In her soft
spoken, but to-the-point manner, Hoag Mulryan says, "They ate dogs.
They castrated and fattened them, and sold them at markets."

The ceramics on display trace Mexico’s history. The Spanish
conquest in 1530 marked an incorporation of Christianity into the
traditional artwork. The Mexicans took a surprising view of St.
James, their conqueror, who appears in many of the pieces.

"The people took the saint as a symbol of valor and heroism and
bravery instead of resenting that he had defeated them."

By the 19th century, Mexicans had escaped European domination.
They began to use indigenous motifs and a freer form of

One of Hoag Mulryan’s favorite pieces is from this era and
depicts an Aztec eagle with outstretched wings.

"He looks like a barnyard rooster, but he’s just wonderfully
lively," she remarks, going on to comment on the methods used to
make the piece. "This is a traditional lead-tin glaze. But the way
it carries, it’s part of the dance to me."

The process by which the pieces were made was and is an
important part of the craft. Potters used stones handed down
through family generations to burnish the surface of the clay.
"It’s almost like rubbing Aladdin’s lamp because they just seem to
come to life," Hoag Mulryan says.

Though Tonala, a potting village outside Guadalajara, maintains
many of the traditional ways, its citizens have not escaped modern

"The older potters tend to believe in the nagual more than the
younger potters because, after all, the older potters don’t have an
education and the younger ones have at least a sixth-grade
education," says Hoag Mulryan.

Today, some artists use acrylic paints to coat the pottery in
brilliant reds, oranges, blues and yellows. One such artist is
Candelario Medrano, whose works are in the toy tradition.

"The toy tradition is very utilitarian," Hoag Mulryan explains.
"It teaches the little kids the stories." Indicating a horned
creature with red banded arms and a fish tail, she says, "It
teaches about the mermaid who … lures men to the rocks and then
down they go."

Besides Medrano, the exhibit showcases many artists. One of the
most crucial and influential is Jorge Wilmot. Wilmot not only
designs pottery, but also works with other artists to revive
traditions of the past.

Hoag Mulryan moves between Wilmot’s vases and plates, describing
his contributions.

"He looked for that beautiful brush stroke and for that archaic
energy," she says.

But the curator’s own enthusiasm is also essential to the
exhibit, in Raynor’s opinion. "It’s nice to see Lenore’s passion.
Her take really enlivens the artwork."

Raynor adds that another benefit of the exhibit is seeing
certain pieces up close, such as a large vessel on loan from a
museum in Mexico. "You can see the size and beauty of the objects
in person. The display really makes them shine."

ART: "Nagual in the Garden: Fantastic Animals in Mexican
Ceramics" at the Fowler Museum of Cultural History. Tickets are $5
General Admission, $1 UCLA students. For more info call (310)
825-4361.Photos Courtesy of UCLA Fowler Museum

Counterclockwise from top: "Frog Nagual," designed by Jorge
Wilmot, sculpted by Antonio Ramirez, painted by Porfirio Reyes;
"Vase with Nagual in Garden," designed by Jorge Wilmot, painted by
Salvador Vasquez; "Bicephalic Dog," Tonala, Jalisco, Mexico, A.D.
200-500; "Contemporary Naguales," made by Ortega family.

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