In Mexico (and other parts of Latinamerica) it is common to see bold and colorful decorative boxes called "nichos" hanging from walls or set upon tables, and altars. What is so striking about these is what is inside: these boxes usually include dioramas with skeleton figurines that appear to tell a story or to have a scene going on inside. In this week’s blog besides highlighting the lively art that are shadowboxes, we would like to highlight the talented hands behind Casa Calavera, the small, family-operated workshop behind Lolo’s shadowboxes. We had a sweet, short, and highly informative conversation with Antonio, one of the artisans who handcraft all nichos found at Lolo to learn more about these pieces of art and the history behind those who make them.
Mexican nichos, sometimes called vitrinas or retablos, or known as Mexican shadowboxes, are three-dimensional art form displaying a scene, often seen placed on ofrendas during Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead celebrations. These are a deep box framed and decorated with paper flowers, glitter, sequins, lace, and paint, finally adding miniature objects and figures creating a small theater-like stage that seems as if the characters in it were alive.
This type of altarpiece has its origins in the Roman Catholic retablo- which are paintings of patron saints that were commonly done on wood or tin surfaces which families used to buy or make to embellish as a symbol of devotion, decorating them with the strong, contrasting colors that characterize them, often using common household items.
Over the years these nichos began to lose their religious character and were also made with representations of other images that depict Mexican culture. Today, artisans who create these shadowboxes continue the tradition of making these niches with religious figures in honor of saints and patrons. However, their popularity has meant that these are also made with other objects, both with religious and popular art connotations, such as images of the Virgin of Guadalupe, emblematic characters such as Frida Kahlo, the Sacred Heart, Lucha Libre wrestlers, lottery images, and, more specifically, images of popular professions and activities alluding to the Day of the Dead, such as skulls dressed as mariachis, doctors, teachers, and many others.
The exterior of the Mexican shadowboxes, or nichos, is generally made of metal or wood, in the shape of a box or a cross and may be covered with glazed walls. While the interior scene is usually made up of miniatures (mostly skull-shaped) made of papier-mâché or hand-painted clay. In the case of tin nichos, they usually have a small glass door, which allows us to place any desired image inside.
These shadowboxes, or nichos, are seen and used generally for Día de Muertos celebrations in the month of November. Although perfect for Day of the Dead decorations for its bright and colorful colors, in Mexico, these shadowboxes can be seen decorating all spaces throughout the year. This is not only for the obvious reason of their beauty, but also because shadowboxes provide a stage-like setting for an object or a person of great significance, making it a personal statement that incorporated images and/or activities that are important to the creator and the owner of this piece of art.
Currently, nichos have become one of the most representative artistic practices of Mexican popular culture, so it is possible to see them widely marketed in the most important markets of Mexico City, Guanajuato, Puebla, and Oaxaca, among others.
The artists who create these works of art are masters in the elaboration of nichos. For a shadowbox to be made, artisans require talent working with wood (or tin, depending on the material with which is made), but, more importantly, they need a required set of skills to make the miniature figures inside the box, which is where the real challenge lies. If we pay close attention to a shadowbox, we can identify the detail in every figure that is portrayed which is what gives life to the overall piece.
Luckily for us, one of the workshops who specializes in this art form wanted to share their history with us. Located at San Francisco municipality, in Puebla, Antonio and his family have a small, family-run workshop dedicated to the creation of nichos, or shadowboxes. He told us a little bit about his family history and the generational knowledge that led him and his family to start this business:
“My great-great-grandfather began to work with clay because he went blind during the Mexican revolution. At that time, what was made were retablos, with little saints and a family of animals, these were made a lot. He had a daughter (my great-grandmother). She also learned to make figures with clay. She made small saints, the size of a bean, and put them in little glass capsules. She had a son (my grandfather) who also learned to make figures with clay and would make clowns, farm animals, frogs, and some mini mice in different scenes like boxing, playing soccer, driving a car, etcetera. He was inspired by Posadas' book and later began to make skulls in different scenes, such as the Catrina or the drunken revolutionary Catrín, all made in the shape of skulls and skeletons, not necessarily for Día de Muertos but in that scene. My grandfather had 15 children and they all learned the trade but not all of them do it, my father and 5 other brothers are the only ones.”
Antonio explained that the creative process started many generations before him but, today, the workshop is meaningful in other ways, particularly because of the people who work with him, his parents and his wife. He explained how each shadowbox is a result of their own creations and originality:
“My father taught me to work with clay at the young age of 13. I have been working in this trade for 20 years. All the pieces of Casa Calavera are our own creations, mostly mine and some of my father's. We work from what we like and what we are interested in, like music, we listen to a lot of Mexican regional music and you can see that it inspires us in some of our pieces. Another person who is very fundamental in this process is my mother and my wife, who, without coming from a family of artisans, all learned to make clay figures and to paint them and also create nichos of their own inspiration. My mother, for example, is devout to la Virgencita so every time she makes a nicho of La Virgen de Guadalupe she puts her heart into it and ensures it is well done.”
Lastly, while telling us about his workshop, he told us a little bit about the difficulties they endured when, in 2020, lockdowns and economic challenges impacted them and their workshop, and how they have adapted:
“We do not have a workshop. In fact, since the pandemic lockdowns in 2020 we lost our shop and started working from home; that is why it is called Casa Calavera. There are only 4 artisans here: my father, my mother, my wife, and yours truly. Being a small workshop like this, we are proud to have the opportunity to continue my family’s legacy and sincerely grateful to those who appreciate what our house makes. There are days when we cannot believe that people over there [in the US] like these nichos! So, thank you for letting us show you what started five generations ago. For us this means that better times are coming if we continue to work with our hands and hearts, maybe even re-opening a storefront someday.”
The exclusive collection of shadowboxes that you will find in Lolo stands out for its high quality and the originality of the designs. The base of the creations of our craftsmen is wood. When decorating it, the artisans give free rein to their imagination, adding various elements to its niches such as glitter, chains, cords and threads, clay and papier-mâché figurines, and any other element that comes their way.
So, what are your thoughts? Do you like these shadowboxes? Is there a specific one that you like or would like to see? Also, would you like to hear about other artisans? Let us know, we love hearing from you and read all of your feedback with love and gratitude! If you are interested in supporting Antonio, his family and their workshop, be sure to check out our shadowboxes and all artisanal home decor!