A New Direction for Traditional Arts
by G. G. Herandez
When I first met Juan Francisco Basulto I got the impression I was in the presence of a shaman, a man touched by some unseen magnetism. Basulto lives in the foothills of Tonala, Jalisco, a place that mystics say is "chakra" a lightening rod for life's kinetic energy. Born in this magical place on July 16, 1961, Basulto Gonzalez studied painting professionally at the Escuela Nacional de Pintura La Esmeralda in Mexico City and is part of the seventh generation of a family of artisans who work in burnished pottery.
Basulto says that he "accidentally" discovered the mystic world while travelling through San Andres Coamiata, in northern Jalisco's indigenous Huichol area. It was there that he met his mentor, Antonio Bautista, who introduced him to an enchanted world where nahuals and other cosmic creatures of Mexico's ancient world reside.
In order to paint a nahual, one must be close to the world in which it lives, reasons the artist. How can one paint this creature if he is far removed from it? Basulto felt that Tonala was lacking spiritual mentors. He went in search of "Mexico's ancient school," as he calls it, in Huichol country, to find new inspiration for his art.
Finding oneself on the path to spirituality is not a question of luck but rather of circumstances. "It is an individual path that appears when one is ready," he says with difficulty in trying to put the concept into words. "It was in San Andres Coamiata that I first realized Antonio Bautista was my teacher in the Huichol community. I met him three times under very distinct circumstances, with different people and in different parts of the region."
Under the guidance of Bautista, Juan Francisco Basulto's path lead him to study spirituality through Huichol art. He began painting using small dots ("pointillism" or puntillismo in Spanish), similar in style to the chaquira or bead work done widely in this indigenous region. The result gives his burnished pottery a sense of embroidery work, employing the splendid array of colors found in Huichol art.
Basulto's art actually has other-world connotations, but he has not completely abandoned the traditional folk art of his homeland. His Tonala family has carried on the custom of burnished pottery for generations in fact, Basulto's great grandfather participated in the famous 1893 Chicago World's Fair with some of his work.
"I paint like a contemporary Mexican," he says. "It is a compromise. To paint like the tonalteca of ancient mesoamerica is a challenge. But, under a discipline of respect I have come to learn about our original ancestors and customs," he says softly. The Tonalteca artist believes that it is the obligation of Mexico's new generation of artisans to move the county's traditional arts forward. "There are many things we can paint besides the traditional motifs. Women steaming tamales in the hills under a mesquite tree, for example have you ever seen that on a burnished pot? The possibilities are endless. It is up to us, the younger artists, to move our traditions to a new and exciting level, rather than just repeating the same designs of our parents and grandparents," he comments energetically. His face appears much younger than that of a man in his forties.
Basulto's pottery has such a luster to it that he is often asked whether it is lacquered with industrial varnish. The artist assures visitors that the rich glow is from a burnishing technique that he learned from his family. He adds that his father, Francisco, has been his most important teacher in regards to burnished pottery. "He doesn't rush anything and doesn't take short-cuts, the work is like a ritual."