On the first night of my first visit to Mexico City, in 2020, a fellow guest at a dinner party asked if I would take in any other parts of the country during my stay. When I confessed I wouldn’t—I had less than a week to see the capital—the guest reflected, ruefully, that: 'if you haven’t seen Oaxaca, you haven’t really seen Mexico.'
For those who, like me, are yet to visit Oaxaca (or Oaxaca de Juárez, to give it its full name), there’s a chance to sample a taste of the city’s cultural flavor at this year’s Frieze New York, in the form of the Maestro Dobel Artpothecary installation at the fair. Titled 'Oaxaca: A Lens on Tradition & Innovation', this presentation features works produced by two Oaxaca-based creatives: architect Marissa Naval and design studio founder Javier Reyes, celebrating the city’s tradition of crafts and making, and its thriving community of makers and designers. Past iterations at Frieze of the Maestro Dobel Artpothecary, billed as 'a creative platform that spotlights and celebrates Mexican art and hospitality', have presented icons of Mexican modernist furniture designs, in collaboration with Clásicos Mexicanos, and works by Latinx contemporary artists such as Eduardo Sarabia.
'I was visiting family in Oaxaca for the first time in 2017, and saw that this was a Mecca for craftsmanship techniques,' explains Javier Reyes, founder of studio rrres, which has operated from the city since early 2018, producing woven objects, textile hangings, rugs and ceramics. Born in the Dominican Republic, Reyes was at that time based in Barcelona, but was so inspired by his encounter with the craft practices in Oaxaca he spent a year traveling back and forth from there, to 'research the city’s history and explore museums to learn about its craft and culture', before relocating full time to the city, where studio rrres now occupies an ochre-colored traditional building in the city’s Barrio de Jalatlaco. 'It’s structured almost like a showroom,' Reyes continues. 'Everything is made custom-ordered to ensure that all of my work is ethically sourced and produced. I host workshops for local Oaxacan artisans, where everything is made completely from scratch using our traditional methods.'
The active presence of distinct indigenous traditions is essential to the identity of both the city of Oaxaca and the state of which it is the capital. Due in parts to its rocky geography, the territory was historically isolated from the centers of colonial government, meaning the cultural traditions and identity of the region’s indigenous peoples such as the Zapotec and Mixtec remained relatively intact.
Today, about a third of the state’s population speak indigenous languages—half of all Mexico’s indigenous language speakers. The sense of a proudly Zapotec identity is apparent not only in the crafts of the region but in the work of its visual artists—including some of Mexico’s most esteemed, like Rufino Tamayo and Francisco ‘El Maestro’ Toledo. Reyes observes that 'Pre-Hispanic practices and strong, resilient culture, dating back generations, are still very alive in Oaxaca. Filled with diversity, the landscapes and people have an inspiring history which has shown to be incredibly influential to their artistry.' Despite this, he does notsee the work of studio rrres as backwardlooking in any sense. For the Artpothecary installation at Frieze New York, Reyes presents a new collection of weavings and textiles in wool, cotton and palm, as well as ceramics, based on the geometry of modernist architecture. 'We wanted to bring something authentic and different,' he says, 'a modern view and not just what one would typically think of regarding Oaxacan architecture.'
Architect Marissa Naval also brings an unexpected angle to Oaxacan tradition. Born and raised in Mexico, she studied architecture in Monterrey and then at Columbia in New York, working for some years at the practice of the late Chinese-American I.M. Pei. But it was a summer apprenticeship in Kyoto, Japan in which she began to forge a new path. 'I had theprivilege of serving as an apprentice to a highly skilled master carpenter,' she explains, 'and discovered an authentic artistry that connected both Japan and Oaxaca—a creativity that went beyond the surface.' In the ancient traditions of Japanese woodcarving, in which formally complex structures can be assembled solely through hand tools, eschewing fastenings like metal nails or glue, Naval saw a parallel with the understated intricacy of Oaxacan crafts. 'The artists are anonymous,' she continues, 'but have the ability to draw inspiration from a tree, the sky or a rock—radiating a sense of mysticism in their works.'
It’s intriguing to think about the cultural connections between Japan and Mexico: from the way that the painted folding screen known in Japan as byōbu arrived via colonial trade in the 17th century and became the Mexican biombo; to how, in the early 20th century, the Japanese-American Isamu Noguchi produced an extraordinary sculpted mural in a now somewhat dusty corner of the Abelardo L.Rodríguez Market. What are some of the continuities between the two cultures, I ask Naval. 'We both love food, nature! And... some drinking!' she responds. 'It’s actually pretty spectacular,' she continues,'how the Beckmann family, who are the owners of Maestro Dobel Tequila, helped introduce tequila to Japan and now there’s a growing interest and popularity in tequila and other Mexican spirits in the country.' For Frieze New York, Naval attempts to convey this sense of harmonious dialog between distinct local traditions through a bar structure and furniture, inspired by the form of the traditional Zapotec house, constructed according to Japanese carving techniques from Mexican cedar wood. As with Reyes, working with specialist local artisans is central to Naval’s practice. 'The people that I work with are very important,' Naval says, 'as we are all very much passionate about our work, each one with the subject that corresponds to us, being honest and respectful with the materials, and our past.'
This approach to heritage and tradition is clearly one which appeals to Maestro Dobel, who not only pride themselves on being an eleventh-generation tequila, but credit this accumulated knowledge with their ability to innovate: producing the first 'cristalino' tequila in 2008. As with Reyes and Naval’s work, being enmeshed in tradition is not an obstacle but a path to new creation. As Reyes notes: 'We’ve cultivated traditions oft he past into our pieces, while integrating an innovative perspective towards the future.' ¡Salud! to that.
Visit the Maestro Dobel Artpothecary, featuring works by Javier Reyes and Marissa Naval, at the DOBEL Tequila stand on Level 6 of The Shed throughout Frieze New York.
This article first appeared in Frieze Week, May 2023 under the headline ‘History In The Making: A Maestro Double showcase reveals that heritage is alive and well in the craft scene of Oaxaca’
Main image: studio rrres by Javier Reyes. Oaxaca, Mexico. Courtesy: Javier Reyes