Barro Negro: Ancestral Tradition and Masterful Craftsmanship

Barro negro (black clay) pottery, made of natural clay found only in Oaxaca, is the ultimate combination of intricate handmade work, the art of centuries-old traditions, and the almost magical effects of chemical reactions. Getting to a finished piece involves a knowledge that has clearly been perfected over generations: from mastering the elements; conquering the use of specific kinds of instruments; the perfect distress and hand coordination; to understanding precise temperatures to achieve desired colors. Barro negro products, which are 100% organic, made solely of clay and water, and carved using natural handmade tools and hands, take on a beautiful and unique sheen after firing, unseen in other natural clays.

We had a conversation with María Guadalupe Cantón Pérez, a master artisan whose family has been making stunning barro negro pottery for generations. Together with her family, she runs La Casa del Artesano, a collective solely dedicated to Barro negro (black clay) pottery in San Bartolo Coyotepec, Oaxaca. During this conversation, we had the most insightful and enriching conversation learning all about the process to create the exquisite pieces of barro negro.

María Guadalupe Next to her basket filled with her carving and polishing tools and three vessels in different sizes.

María Guadalupe has been making barro negro for more than 60 years. She told us how making barro negro has been a trade that has existed for generations before her and her family has always been a part of it. She learned to make pottery from her grandmother, Carmen Guzmán, who also learned from her grandmother. However, she mentioned, the difference between hers and her great-grandmother’s generations is that they would sell their pottery in the surrounding regions of the Oaxaca Valley, usually in festive occasions, were markets (like the pre-Hispanic ones) were held, especially in Ocotlán, Zaachila, and Tlacolula. From what her grandmother told her, they would sell pitchers, or vessels, that were (and still are) used for mezcal, water, and tepache, a pre-Hispanic drink.

Seeing these amazing pieces in person is something worth admiring and so is the process to make them. The clay used to make barro negro pottery is not originally black, but it does not have any dyes or pigmentation. So, how is the astonishing pure black color achieved? María Guadalupe told us all about the process from mining the clay to finishing a piece and the materials used.

From what María Guadalupe told us, the process starts with mining the clay. This mine is guarded by the San Bartolo Coyotepec men, who are the only ones allowed there. She told us how women are not allowed into the mines and it is a strong offense to even attempt to do so. The belief is that, if a woman were to go into the mine, the clay would turn to stone, and it would make it impossible to work. This is such a strong belief that women will not even ask to go near there. That is one reason why men guard the mine: to prevent men from bringing women into the mine.

However, as María Guadalupe continued to tell us, there is another reason why the mine is always guarded. The community of San Bartolo Coyotepec rest their livelihoods on pieces of barro negro, so they protect their rights to the clay from the government and other communities who might try to expropriate it, stole, or mine it. For these reasons, all men in the community, including María Guadalupe’s sons, must take turns as guards at least once a month. In turn, the mine’s clay is free for everyone in the community. However, they do have to pay to transport it to the town, or they could haul it with carts drawn by donkeys, but this is a more ancestral practice that is rarely used anymore.

Once they have extracted the clay, which is more of a brown/beige color, men also take care of preparing it. First, the clay is laid under the sun for at least two days to later moisten it and filter it to get rid of all impurities such as gravel and sand. María Guadalupe told us how men use petates, bedrolls woven from dried palm leaves, to filter the clay with their feet to feel for any impurities that might have escaped the first round. Lastly, the clay is shaped into blocks so that the women can begin their master artisanal process of shaping the pieces that will be made.

The impressive shaping of these master pieces that comes after is fully the women’s turn. María Guadalupe told us how every single piece that is made from barro negro is entirely made by hand—no molds or machines are used. The tools that are usually involved in the process are potter’s wheels and carving instruments, all handmade. For example, when talking about her potter’s wheel, María Guadalupe told us that hers is made by the same clay used to make barro negro pieces. She also uses her carving tools: a small deer’s horn, a quartz stone, a jícara, and pieces of metal to carve and smooth out imperfections. She also told us how she has one cacho, deer’s horn, that belonged to her grandmother and is the tool that she takes care of the most. Although she loves making pieces of barro negro and working entirely with her hands, there is some stress because there is no room for mistakes when working a piece, especially with carving.

María Guadalupe's Potter's wheel, made of the same clay used in her pieces.

María Guadalupe’s precision and masterful craftsmanship is evident once we admire the product of her work. However, the process is not done yet. To achieve the black glass-like sheen exactly right, artisans is San Bartolo Coyotepec depend on a traditional process that blurs the lines between chemistry and magic. First, she moistens the clay she has previously shaped in pots, cups, or other pieces and decides if she wants them matte or glossy. If she is making glossy finishes, she polishes it with her quartz stone, which compresses the clay and gives it its distinctive glossy finish. If, instead, she wants them matte, she skips that process and stores it with all pieces in their isolated rooms.

Finally, fifteen days after the pieces are shaped and ready, they go into the oven, which is where the second and final magical step occurs, and the clay finally turns black. After storing all pieces in an isolated, shaded room, María Guadalupe and her family begin lighting their two ovens until they reach temperatures from 700-900°C (1300-1650°F). Once lit, in go the pieces for an entire day, making sure the piece is fully dry.

María Guadalupe also explained how one of her favorite parts of working with barro negro is that not all pieces had to be black. What one of her son’s enjoys most about their oven is being able to “play” with the temperatures, and smoke to achieve different results in color without having to take an extra step or using any sort of dyes to achieve the impressive colors in their pottery. The final piece is a true work of art that can be appreciated in a sheer black piece, all different shades of brown, or a perfect earthy beige, we do not believe we need any other colors anymore!

So, what do you think? Were you familiar with barro negro? What do you think about the process? What is your favorite piece so far? We would love to read all about your thoughts on these wonderful works of art. Also, if you would like to support María Guadalupe and her family and get yourself a piece of art, be sure to check out our new, barro negro collection!

Artisanal crafts and techniques

1 comment

Kathy Duarte

Kathy Duarte

Hello, I have several pieces that I would like to add to. My parents purchased several pieces of glass that is applied to pigskin with I think epoxy black and red but it was 70 years ago

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