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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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Some of the rituals associated with paper have disappeared into obscurity, but many remain today. The popular tradition of folding paper known as Origami is one of them. Origami originated some 1,200 years ago, and initially was used for symbolic or ceremonial purposes. It is still common to see folded paper cranes as offerings in Japanese shrines. In China many people can obtain complex papers used for ceremonial reasons. A lot of these papers are artistically printed with woodblocks and colorful inks. They can be pleated, embellished with foil, and elaborately cut out with a variety of designs. These spirit papers are meant as contracts or charms meant to be carried for protection, not as art to be framed. Another category of ceremonial paper constitutes paper outfits. The garments are true artistic representations of funerary robes, and are also exquisitely rendered with foils and highly decorated paper. Shoes, gloves and other items are also rendered in these materials. These garments are meant to be burned along with fake money that is at times referred to as “hell bank notes”. The action of burning these representational items sends their essence to Gods and Goddesses or one’s ancestors.

Even though they are far way, Mexicans have traditions that are similar to the Chinese. The paper sculpture that I saw hanging at the market’s bathroom was a beautiful example of a Judas, a papier mâché figure specifically created for burning the Saturday before Easter Sunday. A Judas was traditionally stuffed or laced with fireworks. The origins of the Judas are vague, but they could be traced back to middle age Spain, when the Spanish learned about fireworks from the Moors. The Moors most likely leaned this craft from the Chinese. The Spanish had monumental sculptures created out of wood named “fallas” that were burned during the month of March. In Mexico, a Judas was created in the shape of a demon, and it was supposedly a representation of the biblical figure of Jude Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus Christ. The people executed the Judas out of piety, a form of mock human sacrifice that the ancient Mexicans were not unfamiliar with. However, many Judas also took the form of politicians, corrupt public servants, or any other unpopular character. Historian Luis Gonzáles Obregón states that the burning of the Judas originated around the time of the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition in Mexico, when public burnings of heretics were common. The burning of these images became a symbolic execution of the people’s oppressors, a form of dissent, and a way to release social tensions. In 1957, the explosion of an illegal deposit of fireworks prompted the government of Mexico City to ban the burning of Judas figures, literally destroying this fascinating tradition.

Mask on display at the Museum of Antrophology
Mask on display at the Museum of Antrophology

Another ephemeral folk art is the piñata, a figure made out papier mâché and stuffed with candy, meant to be broken during a party. The piñata probably originated in China as well. Certain sources state that figures of bulls and other animals were fashioned out paper and stuffed with seeds. They would be destroyed during a fertility ceremony. Marco Polo probably took this tradition to Italy, and in time it was taken to Spain. In Mexico, priests used piñatas to spread Catholicism among the Indigenous populations. On Christmas Eve a piñata would be broken to symbolize the triumph of good over evil, and people would be blindfolded before breaking it, to symbolize blind faith. Breaking a piñata no longer has religious implications, and it is considered no more than a game.

So, we may not see a piñata in a museum any time soon. The simplest reason is that most devotional paper arts are not meant to survive. But there are still other reasons besides the ones already mentioned. Popular art doesn’t belong in galleries or museums because in a way, it still belongs to the people. Unfortunately, class prejudices also play a factor, since classically “untrained” artisans often create these popular paper arts. In any case, these anonymous forms of art enjoy a genuine, incredible freedom worthy of envy from any gallery art. Maybe devotional paper arts will gain recognition when skilled artisans that produce them become less available. Paper is also an incredibly tactile material, surviving in an impersonal age of television and electronic information.

Our history cannot be separated from the history of paper, it would be nearly impossible to separate it from our lives. To some cultures, paper speaks of life and death. To the Chinese the color of paper was also the color of mourning. It is no wonder paper was used for so many mourning rites. Mexicans create elaborate lacy paper tissue banners to decorate altars for the deceased, and fantastic papier mache skeletons that mock the living.

Young woman's stand at the Coyoacan plaza. She was selling papier mache skeletons.
Young woman's stand at the Coyoacan plaza. She was selling papier mache skeletons.

In a world of mass produced items, this ephemeral and humble form of devotional paper art becomes the ultimate metaphor. It is natural, full of beauty and mystery, precious yet fragile. It is ephemeral, pretty much like life itself.