Open Fires by Liliana Ovalle


3 October 2015

It is a refrain that the world in danger of losing its traditional crafts. In a context of industrialisation and globalisation, the local and the handmade are inevitably squeezed.

Against this trend is set a counter-trend: a desire for authenticity and craft; an urge for small-batch production in favour of serial production, as catered to by a generation of young designers with the skill, knowledge, inclination and enthusiasm to utilise traditional hand-craft techniques. The question is how to avoid this counter-trend descending into fetishism: a love and appreciation for crafted objects that is steeped in nostalgia and idealisation.

London-based Mexican designer Liliana Ovalle presented a project during last week’s London Design Festival that serves as an elegant response to this notion. Open Fires, a ceramics collection developed with Mexican crafts body Colectivo 1050º and ceramic artisans Mujeres del Barro Rojo (Women of the Red Clay), is a work of craft that takes traditional clay processes native to the state of Oaxaca in Mexico and enlivens them through the application of experimental practice. “I thought we had the potential to play around with some of the craft techniques used in Oaxaca,” says Ovalle. "We were up for a challenge."

Ovalle chose to work with the red clay pots traditionally produced by Mujeres del Barro Rojo. Rather than being shaped on a wheel, the ceramics are produced by coiling: loops of clay are stacked on top of one another to form the desired shape, with the form smoothed down by use of a corncob. “It takes a lot of skill because the tools are so basic,” acknowledges Ovalle. Once shaped, the ceramics are fired in an open fire made from a layer of branches and donkey dung.

The innovation of Open Fires was to subject the pots to a second, topical firing. Sections of the ceramics, vases, plates and cylinders, were buried in sand to protect them from the heat, while other areas were burned by applications of lit dung and agave leaves, the red ceramic blackening to leave traces of the fire it was subjected to. The result are geometric patterns that sharply divide between sections of brick red and coal black.

“In Oaxaca a type of black ceramic is very common and I wanted to work around that,” says Ovalle. “That’s typically produced in underground kilns, whereas here we’ve used a very different technique based on an open fire. This second stage of firing was an experiment. In the open fire they use dung as a fuel and sometimes it leaves black traces; I thought it could be interesting to work with these black traces as an indication that something has happened to the material.”

While Ovalle designed the process, the ceramics themselves were produced by Mujeres del Barro Rojo, a collaboration between ceramicists Angelina Mateo, Amalia Cruz, Alberta Mateo, Dorotea Mateo, Elia Mateo, Macrina Mateo and María Gutiérrez, all of whom are members of the same family.

“The women are aged between 25 to 70 years old and are sisters, sisters-in-laws and aunts, all living in the same house,” says Ovalle. “The social structure in Oaxaca is very different to elsewhere. The towns are very rural and the people speak their own language, Zapotec, which is the language that has existed from before the Spanish came. There aren’t many men in the towns, because many go to work in the US, but the family structure is very strong. Generations live together and that's how they learn the craft.”

Working with Mujeres del Barro Rojo, Ovalle gradually refined the techniques she developed. They discovered that shredding the donkey dung before lighting it created a more even black effect, while she also refined the use of sand to achieve sharp lines in the ceramics’ colouring. “The women don’t work with centimetres or technical drawings, so their questions were more about how many litres of water we wanted the pieces to hold, for instance,” says Ovalle. “It was a completely different approach to what I was used to, but much of the communication was done over WhatsApp. So we couldn't use centimetres, but were communicating by WhatsApp. It’s an interesting setup and one that made it clear to me how many realities coexist.”

Such complexities are what makes Open Fires notable. The project engages with Oaxaca’s crafts tradition, without descending into nostalgia or fetishisation. Instead, it treats the region's ceramics tradition as something living, a way of working that should be protected, but not preserved in aspic. If traditional crafts are to be maintained, they must be developed and experimented with. Conservation does not equal treating the thing to be conserved as sacrosanct.

“Mujeres del Barro Rojo’s work is not normally about precision, so this is a different way of approaching form for them with very sharply marked lines,” says Ovalle. “But they find that interesting and now want to play with the technique themselves. They love what they do, but they’re worried about who’s going to learn the crafts. In this family there are seven women, but only one little girl who is 11 years old. So this little girl has a huge responsibility that is very concerning: to be the receptacle for all this knowledge, knowing that her family have all these hopes for her to become a potter. They need to find new ways to keep this going, because ceramics are tied to their entire culture."