Oaxacan Gourd and Carving Art

The Valley of Oaxaca is located in the Sierra Madre Mountains within the State of Oaxaca, Mexico  where for centuries gourds have been used as natural containers.  Some of the oldest gourds in the Western Hemisphere have been found in Guilá Naquitz, a small cave, within the eastern range of mountains in the Valley of Oaxaca.  

The site was occupied at least six times between 8000 and 6500 BC, by hunters and gatherers, probably during the fall (October to December) of the year.   AMS radiocarbon dates on bottle gourd rinds found in the Guila Naquitz cave are 10,000-9000 BP (7973-6808 cal BC).

 A wide range of plant food was recovered within the Oaxaca cave deposits, including acorn, pinyon, cactus fruits, hackberries, and most importantly, the wild forms of bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria), three species of squash (Cucurbita argyrosperma, C. moschata, C. pepo), and beans.  Researchers have taken this to be evidence of early cultivation of bottle gourd, squash and beans.   Here is a Mural by Arturo Bustos Garcia, in the Museo del Palacio, Oaxaca Mexico that depicts the early, historic use of gourds to hold seeds while planting maze.  

Gourds or “huajes” as they are called in Mexico are native to the region.   Also found in the area is the Oaxaca Tree Gourd.  These gourds are the fruits of the "calabash tree" -- Crescentia cujete.   The name "Oaxaca" stems from the Náhuatl word Huaxyacac, meaning "at the top of the gourds".  

The villages of Oaxaca are known for their pottery, carvings, weaving and tin creations.  The Mixtec and Zapotec indigenous populations have lived in the Oaxaca Valley before pre-Columbian times and before the Aztec Empire.   Their decedents continue their popular folk art traditions of carving, weaving, and painting. 

Oaxacan folk art gourds are decoratively carved and often brightly painted.  In parts of Oaxaca, gourds are decoratively incised by Mixtec people.  Craftspeople carve gourd bowls from the rind of the fruit of the calabash tree (Crescentia cujete), which grows in the coastal areas of Guerrero and Oaxaca.  

Gourds are left to dry and then cut in half and placed in water until the interior rots. The hard rind is then cleaned out and smoothed before being carved, polished, and sometimes painted or lacquered.  

Alebrijes are carved wooden figures created by Oaxacan artisans.
Most artisans use “copalillo” wood to carve their figures. A few others use the "tzomplantle" and cedar.  All use their imagination to create a colorful renderings of animal figures.

Not all of us are able to travel to the Pacific Coast of Mexico or visit the Sierra Madre Mountains, but there are North American locations where the history and art of the Zapotec and Mixtec design can be admired. 

El Caracol Zapoteca, Oaxacan wood art gallery, located in The Woodlands, TX provides outlet for the fine carving of the Zapoteca as well as cultural article on their website:


Texas gourd artist, Mike Peyton combines Oaxacan influences in his gourd art depicting animal shapes and modernistic themes using snake gourds to create striking colorful art.   Beginning with pieces of scrap wood and cutting them into snakes and painting, staining and embellishing them, Mike thought that snake gourds  would make an interesting medium to work on.  

Things progressed from there and he began  constructing all sorts of creatures.   All of the designs are hand drawn and "inked" by Mike; then embellishments are added and finally a clear coat is applied.  You can see examples of his award winning art at:  http://www.freewebs.com/peytonartwork/

Mesoamerica is another source of information about the people of Oaxaca.  Their organization is funded by The Irvine Foundation which is dedicated to expanding opportunity for the people of California to participate in a vibrant, successful and inclusive society.  This site includes lesson plans and educational exhibits about the inhabitants and art of the Oaxacan area. 



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