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Barro Negro of Oaxaca

By Hermione Spriggs

Barro Negro or “black pottery” is a type of ceramic ware specific to Oaxaca, a coastal state in Southern Mexico known for the vitality of artisanal and cultural traditions that exist on a continuum with pre-Columbian practices. Now a contemporary craft of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs of the region’s Central Valleys, Barro Negro extends back to the Monte Albán period of 500 BC. However it was not until the 1950s that a woman named Doña Rosa Real pioneered the aesthetic that is celebrated today for its dark mirror-like surface and crystalline shine.


Along with subtle alterations in the treatment of clay and firing techniques, contemporary Barro Negro is finer and more fragile than its matte black precursor—a shift in emphasis from function to appearance which makes sense in the context of the newly abundant plastic utensils made available in mid-century Mexico. Plastic not only displaced the need for ceramic containers and bowls: the friction between plastic and clay became a literal stage in the transformation Barro Negro’s matte grey surface into glassy black, as plastic tools were adopted to polish the surface of vessels in Doña Rosa’s style. ‘Old’ Barro Negro of the utilitarian grey variety is rarely produced now with the exception of canteros used for storing mezcal, another of Oaxaca’s unique and game-changing exports.


Like with the ingestion of fermented agave, the integrity of Barro Negro runs more than surface-deep as the double-function of mezcal canteros demonstrate. These bulbous jugs can be struck like a bell to produce a “crystalline” musical sound, echoing the gleam of the polished ceramic. Oaxaca’s black mud evidently lends itself to synesthetic pleasures, a fact embodied by contemporary design studio founded by David Pompa. Splicing Austrian minimalism with the metallic black of artisanal Barro Negro, Studio davidpompa goes further to reconnect with the functional history of the ceramic, whilst presenting a Mexican palate that (in contrast to the louder, harsher notes of technicolor folk art) features smoky darkness and heavy skies with a glint of celestial electricity.


“Black Pottery’ exists in similar ways all around the world, but in Oaxaca it’s different”, David Pompa explains. “They take the wet clay, they shape it by hand or by mold, and then the special thing compared to the other ‘black’ potteries around the world is that they polish the surface with a little bit of natural oil and a little bit of hard plastic or a metal stick and so they compress the surface which gives you kind of a glossy leather surface. Then they put it in a hole in the ground; next to that hole there’s another hole where they make the fire, and then through a tunnel all the smoke goes through. So the smoke gets into the clay, a few millimeters into the surface, and that’s how the ceramic gets the black color. And the special thing about the Oaxaca pottery is the polished surface which has different textures depending on the temperature or the position inside the oven or the hole in the ground.”


Pre-Columbian Mixtec archaeology also features figurative vessels in black clay, with human bodies and animal chimeras hollowed out to host incense, ashes or other offerings to the gods. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Mixtec (Mixteco in Spanish) translates to mean “cloud people”. David Pompa’s lamps and vases pair aesthetic reserve with the undulating curves of the human body and for all their subtlety, these pieces are personable, with one – the “Margarita pendant lamp” – even named after David’s Mexican grandmother as an effigy of good-faith when she fell ill (Margarita later made a swift and full recovery). Whilst born of smoke and sky, Barro Negro remains a grounded art of earth and fire; of energizing liquids and darkness as light.

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