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Ramapo College To Exhibit Mexican Amates

(PDF) (DOC) (JPG)August 30, 2001

(Mahwah) – Mexican Amates from the Cowen Collection, an exhibit of paintings on bark and board by Marcial Camilo Ayala and other major painters from the Mexican state of Guerrero, will open at Ramapo College of New Jersey Wednesday, September 12 in the Pascal Gallery of the Berrie Center. An opening reception is scheduled from 5 to 7 p.m.

“Amates are among the freshest, most vital, and most original forms of Outsider Art today, and unlike many art forms, most of the best amate painters are working currently at their peak,” says Dr. Tyler Cowen, professor of economics at George Mason University and a collector of Mexican amates. Cowen, who is writing a book about the creation and marketing of works by artists in the Ayala family, will give a talk on his collection Saturday, October 13 at 6:30 p.m. in the gallery. Artist Marcial Ayala, who was recently commissioned by the Smithsonian to create an artwork for the grand opening of the National Museum of the American Indian, will attend.

Overall the show surveys many of the major amate painters, and all of the four major amate-producing villages. Most of the works were collected by Cowen during trips to the pueblos.

The first piece in the show is ceramic, of the kind that preceded amate painting. We then see how amate painting, and its themes, developed from ceramics. The first half of the show presents the major painters from Ameyaltepec, Xalitla and Maxela. The second half of the show presents the painters from San Agustin Oapan, and their amate works, specifically those who have works on board in the Ramapo College collection. The show then closes with some of their recent works on board.

Amate is a pre-Hispanic word for “bark paper,” taken from the Nahuatl language of Mexico. Four small villages in the Mexican state of Guerrero, high in the mountains above Taxco, specialize in painting on this paper, usually with acrylic. The four major amate-painting villages are Ameyaltepec, San Agustin Oapan, Xalitla and Maxela. Taken collectively, the four major amate-painting villages have no more than eight thousand people. Yet they have created an exciting and diverse new art form in the span of only a few decades.

Most amate painters live very traditional lives. They work in the fields most of the year, growing corn and other crops for their own subsistence. They paint amates in their spare time for extra income. Cars, telephones and television are rare, and many of the painters do not even speak much Spanish, preferring instead their native language of Nahuatl. The physical setting resembles the canyons of the American Southwest. Anthropologists sometimes refer to their unique culture as “Alto Balsas Nahua,” referring to the nearby Rio Balsas that plays such an important role in pueblo life. Amates commonly portray fiestas, village scenes, the harvest, religion, the river, dreams and millenarian fantasies.

Amate painting dates from the early 1960s. The villagers had previously painted pottery for sale, but a folk art entrepreneur in Mexico City, named Max Kerlow, alerted them to the existence of amate paper. They found the paper easier to transport and sell, and quickly switched to the new medium. Just about every family in the village has painted amates at some point or another.

Amate paper comes from the pueblo of San Pablito, in the Mexican state of Puebla. It served as the primary form of paper in the Aztec empire. It later fell into disuse, after the Spanish conquest, and survived only in San Pablito for ritualistic purposes. Production of the paper expanded greatly, however, once it proved suitable for painting.

In 1972, American Ed Rabkin discovered several of the San Agustin Oapan amate painters and encouraged them to paint larger works on board. They exhibited in numerous locales across the United States and have been published in several catalogs.

Ramapo College is privileged to own many of their works, as a result of bequests from Selden Rodman and the Thompson family. This exhibit shows the amate background that these painters came from.

The Berrie Center art galleries are open Tuesday through Friday from 1 to 5 p.m. For more information on the exhibit, Mexican Amates from the Cowen Collection, call (201) 684-7147.

For more information on amate, see Jonathan Amith’s The Amate Tradition, and also


About Ramapo College

Ramapo College of New Jersey is the state’s premier public liberal arts college and is committed to academic excellence through interdisciplinary and experiential learning, and international and intercultural understanding. The comprehensive college is situated among the beautiful Ramapo Mountains, is within commuting distance to New York City, was named one of the 50 Most Beautiful College Campuses in America by CondeNast Traveler, and boasts the best on-campus housing in New Jersey per Established in 1969, Ramapo College offers bachelor’s degrees in the arts, business, data science, humanities, social sciences and the sciences, as well as in professional studies, which include business, education, nursing and social work. In addition, the College offers courses leading to teacher certification at the elementary and secondary levels, and offers graduate programs leading to master’s degrees in Accounting, Applied Mathematics, Business Administration, Contemporary Instructional Design, Computer Science, Creative Music Technology, Data Science, Educational Leadership, Nursing, Social Work and Special Education, as well as a Doctor of Nursing Practice.


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