Lew is an American expat living in Honduras. A former gold assayer, he is now a photographer and conservator of Central American culture.
An Artistic People
The ancient Mayas were a very artistic people. Their paintings, pottery and sculptures are strikingly beautiful, and in a style unique in all the world. Their descendants today are no less artistic, though on a much smaller scale.
Much of modern Honduran folk art is quite rustic, some even primitive, but there are plentiful examples of very refined and sophisticated work. Give a Honduran a piece of wood, a lump of clay or some paints and brushes, and he will create art.
Wood: A Favorite Medium
Honduras is blanketed with forests, and it is no surprise that wood is a preferred medium for artists. From tabletops cut from a single slice through the trunk of a giant Guanacaste tree to small trinkets for the tourist trade and export, wood is ubiquitous as an art medium.
Human and animal forms are favorite subjects for wood sculpture, particularly faces. Honduran artists love faces of every variety imaginable.
Panels and Doors
Carved wood panels in high relief are common in many homes in Honduras, with subjects mainly of ancient Mayan motif, or rustic scenes of rural campesino life. Many of these are exceptionally well crafted and showcase the remarkable talent of the artist.
Jade: Gem of the Mayas
The pre-Columbian Mayan city of Copán was situated upriver from a deposit of high-quality jade, which became their source for the many finely sculpted figures and jewelry items found by archaeologists in their excavated tombs. Today most jade used by Copán artisans comes from across the border in Guatemala and is an excellent-quality stone known as jadeite.
The Copán artisans carve the pieces by hand from a single block of jade with diamond-impregnated cutting tools, and practically all are for the extensive tourist trade. As a result, every piece is unique, even if depicting a common subject. The value of the semi-precious stone and the labor involved should make these far more expensive than the nominal charge of the artisans. For their beauty and sentimental value, they can be priceless.
Modern Mayas also sculpt figures from the same type of stone used by their ancestors, a hardened volcanic ash composition called "tuff". This stone makes some very realistic and convincing replicas of ancient carvings.
Modern Mayan Clay
Modern descendants of the ancient Mayas also like to work in clay, fashioning earthenware items reminiscent of their ancestors. Much of the clay work is modern, and is not meant to be exact copies of authentic Mayan artifacts. Some, however, are exquisitely made, even using local clay and the actual natural organic and mineral dyes used long ago, and are intended to be as near the originals as possible.
Some ceramic pieces are painted in the ancient style and fired in the same clay or stone kilns. A few artisans even go as far as to bury the pieces in the ground for several months or years. When they emerge, it is almost impossible to determine their actual age, and a small number are passed off on the black market as actual artifacts, or sold to would-be unscrupulous tourists at inflated prices.
It is illegal to buy, sell or possess ancient Mayan artifacts in Honduras, and the penalties are quite severe. Nearly all artisans are honest, and will quickly tell potential buyers that the pieces are modern, rather than risk some serious prison time. Still, as a tourist, there is little reason to fear legal problems when buying souvenirs.
The little pueblo of Ojojona is famous for its pottery, notably large clay jars decorated in beautiful designs, sold mostly to locals. Ojojona is one of the oldest Spanish colonial towns in Honduras, and the pottery industry predates even their arrival. Many local people use these as decorators in their yards or patios, and some are quite old, maybe a couple hundred years or more.
Original oil paintings are quite popular in Honduras, and most homes have one or more gracing their walls. Some of the local artists are becoming known in other countries, and a few of the names and works are now collectible.
Political Art at the COPINH
Most political art in Honduras is not done for sale, but to tell a message. It is most often found on abandoned walls, or as murals within buildings of political activism. These are murals from the COPINH Center in La Esperanza, Intibucá. COPINH is a very leftist activist group with centers in many locations in Honduras. Though they sometimes advocate armed revolution and the violent overthrow of governments, they also do a lot of good for the poor campesinos of rural Honduras.
A visit to a COPINH center is worthwhile. They treated me with the utmost kindness and respect, which I returned in kind. These photos were taken with their permission and encouragement. They want the world to see their work, and some of their artists are very talented.
Lencas: The Other Mayas
The Lencas are the largest group of descendants of the pre-Columbian Mayas living in Honduras. They occupy a large portion of the Departments of Santa Barbara, Lempira and Intibucá in the western part of the country. They separated from the Mayas of Copán before the Spanish conquest, and they have developed their own distinct culture.
Today the Lencas are recipients of aid and support from the COPINH political activists, mainly in their battle against the government to prevent a hydroelectric dam on the Río Gualcarque in northern Intibucá. The Gualcarque valley is the ancestral homeland to the Río Blanco Mayas, and the dam would destroy their villages and completely displace them. They would be utterly destroyed as an autonomous people.
Lencas are known worldwide for their unique black and white hand-crafted terra cotta work, and for their beautiful "blackware" with stylized motifs. A favorite with the tourists, Lenca pottery has been introduced around the world, and can always be found for sale in online auction sites.
Another distinctly Lenca item is their brilliantly colored headscarves. Every married Lenca woman wears a hand-woven scarf over her hair. Many of these are gorgeous, and most likely made at home on a hand loom. These are not as well known outside Honduras as is the ceramic ware.
Just for Fun: The Dolls of Copán
Another art form, particularly in Copán, is the handcrafting of dolls from corn husks. They come in untold varieties, and when offered by a cute little Mayan girl for less than a dollar, are irresistible. I asked one of the girls who made the dolls. She told me she made them herself, which I believe.
By the time Mayan girls are twelve years old, they are well-schooled in the fine arts of homemaking, cooking, weaving, cutting wood for the oven and harnessing the family burro to haul the wood home . . . and making corn-husk dolls. Few tourists come home without at least one.
A Well-Schooled Young Lady
None of the foregoing is meant to be offensive to anyone, but merely to illustrate that the people of every country, especially those with a large population who live close to the land, develop folk art of some form. The styles, media and varieties are endless. Art is a reflection of the soul, and the soul of a people is reflected in its art. A visitor to any country can hardly claim to have seen it without viewing the art of its people.
© 2014 Lew Marcrum