BY Laura Aviva | November 2, 2009
Necessity is still the mother of invention, as shown in the story of tenango embroideries created by Mexico's Otomí (Ñah-ñu) Indians.
At a time of great economic hardship, the Otomí drew upon their artistic history to create a sustainable enterprise. With saturated colors, graphic floral and animal patterns, and bold use of positive and negative space, contemporary tenangos present a striking example of modern ingenuity merged with ancient tradition.
The Otomí, from the municipality of Tenango de Doria, an area of the Eastern Sierra Madre in the Mexican state of Hidalgo, have for centuries embellished the ancestral costume worn by local women. The colorful, intricate designs of their dress were characterized by elaborate embroidery and brocade patterns. Only 50 years ago—following the severe drought of the1960s which devastated the agricultural economy in the area—did the Otomí bring their creations to market. However, it was soon apparent that the intensive labor required by detailed traditional methods were not economically viable.
In response, the Otomí adapted to the reality of the situation and re-envisioned their embroidery process. By creating a more elemental style of needlework and design, they were able to apply the craft to a greater range of textiles.
Many motifs common to tenangos are believed to be inspired by the ancient wall paintings found in nearby caves. (Tenango literally means “stone neighborhood.”) There are also similarities between tenango embroidered patterns—such as the depiction of plants, animals and natural forces—and the designs found in the cut-bark paper craft known as amate, practiced by Otomí shamans for thousands of years. Over time, the primitively rendered figures, colors and shapes of tenangos have evolved; today, the colors are more varied and the subject matter more diverse, as tenangos continue to narrate the history and everyday life of the artisans who create them.
Tenangos evoke a spirit of magical realism, merging the real and the mythical. And while the modern incarnation of the craft may have taken its genesis from an economic crisis, it has developed into an art form in its own right, which also unites the communities of Tenango de Doria. It is a link to their storied past and a gateway to the future, providing a sense of cultural identity and a means of trading on the international stage. Like the collective memory of the Otomí, tenangos, in fiber and filament, preserve and perpetuate the history of the region and the traditions of the Otomí people.
To purchase an Otomi embroidery bedspread from author of this article, Laura Aviva, visit www.laviva-home.com/textile/mexican-bedspread.html. In addition to the colors shown here, grey, cafe, beige, and white-on-white are offered.