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The Precariousness of Devotional Paper Arts

The Precariousness of Devotional Paper Arts by Raul Aguilar

An in-depth analysis of the thin line between what is art and what is craft, and how they are perceived in the art world.

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  • Date addedAdded: May 28, 2003
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There are many specific examples of paper art that lie between the spiritual, the celebratory, and the artistic. Origami, paper cut-outs and certain papier mâché figures are examples of paper arts originated by devotion. They remain separated from other crafts made out of paper mainly because they were created for reasons independent of aesthetics and artistic expression, even though they are beautiful and interesting enough to be used as decorations. Devotional paper art is often overlooked. This type of folk art evolves, changes or completely disappears into obscurity. It is most likely to catch the attention of a sociologist or an anthropologist but not an art curator, since it would be considered too “low-brow” to be accepted as a true from of art. Examples exist in many cultures, but here I mostly focus on Mexican and Chinese devotional paper arts.

Sometimes it is hard to define what a devotional piece of paper art is. During a recent visit to Mexico City, I was fascinated to discover a perfect example. It was a monumental papier mâché figure, found in the most unlikely place. It was originally hard to spot until I directed my view directly up, since the figure was attached to the ceiling, behind some light fixtures. It was a monumental figure in the shape of a mustached Mexican cowboy, wearing a bright blue suit and a fancy red tie.

Mustached Mexican cowboy
Mustached Mexican cowboy

His right hand was ready to choke a yellow devil that sported a bright sun on his chest. The paper cowboy’s left hand was petting the head of a donkey, one of the two heads growing from a second papier mâché devil. All three pieces blended perfectly with each other. This hallucinating, bright piece of art was probably more than eight feet tall, and it was staring down at the users of the men’s bathroom at an old colonial house that had been transformed into a crafts market. This was a clear example of something I have often noticed. Beautifully executed pieces of folk art do not hang in museums and galleries. As it is, collectors and curators often shy away from paper arts. More often than not, devotional paper arts are not even considered art at all. The reasons are many, from the obvious to the ones that are a little bit more difficult to understand.

Artists are often looking for innovative mediums, and paper is actually gaining momentum as a respected medium in the west, even when it proves to be a challenge for curators to maintain paper pieces in good condition. Artists like Pablo Picasso, George Braque and Juan Gris began exploring paper construction in the mid twentieth-century. Recently, the London Craft Council staged an exhibition of more than 100 pieces of three-dimensional works on paper. Artists with backgrounds in fashion, sculpture, collage and installation were also featured in a companion book that featured lamps, minimalist installations, complex constructions and vessels, executed in a wide variety of paper methods. The sleek cover featured a couple wearing suits and shoes made completely out of paper. The versatility of paper is what makes it appealing. Depending on its finish, paper can behave like fabric or cloth. Paper pulp can be used almost as clay, and when dry, can be surprisingly hard and durable. Devotional paper arts also share these versatile qualities, but more often than not, artisans choose paper due to its wide availability. It is a cheap material. Absolutely nothing is wasted for the economically hard hit populations that produce devotional paper art. Paper is very economical to the artisan, so it is chosen out of necessity.

Market stall at the Coyoacan market that sold fruit and pinatas
Market stall at the Coyoacan market that sold fruit and pinatas

Even well executed paper arts are often relegated to the less prestigious category of “craft”. Most of these perceptions have to do with the perceived value of the material itself. To a consumerist Western society that is constantly on the go, the sturdiness yet volatile nature of paper makes it the perfect material to utilize and quickly dispose of. From paper tissue to paper plates and cups, we use disposable paper items without giving it a second thought. But even in this modern age of electronic information, the importance of paper cannot be understated. We still use paper money, and important documents are printed on paper, from receipts to tax returns. Since very early times, paper has gone hand in hand with the evolution of communication. Paper has become a mute and loyal servant to progress, but it can be important for other reasons. To the Chinese, paper was an important link between the real and the spirit world, and magical powers are even attributed to it.

More than 2000 years ago, the Chinese created paper. Originally, it was not an item with the disposable associations like the ones we now have. It was precious, since it was used to create luxury items like fans, elaborate pleated lanterns, beautifully decorated screens and even garments. Paper was also used for spiritual, folkloric, philosophical and ritualistic reasons. One of these rituals involved burning paper as a means of sacrifice and purification. The burning of paper had deep mystical properties. Maybe it was the original luxury of the paper that made it a relevant item to be sacrificed, or maybe fire was seen as a purifying medium. It was also used as means of protection. According to Carson I.A. Ritchie, the Chinese believed that a demon could be defeated when burning a piece of punched paper. The demon would be forced to jump between each individual hole of the paper, before the paper was completely consumed by the fire. This would embarrass the demon, therefore rendering him harmless.