One of the things that strikes me most when I go to Puerto Vallarta is the amount, and the amazing diversity, of the Mexican art I see. Strange to think that a resort town best known for its beaches has become a showplace for some of Mexico‘s most traditional, and some of its most modern, art.
On my first visit here, several years ago, I discovered the magic of Puerto Vallarta’s specialty, Huichol art. Made by the Huichol Indians, a very traditional people who live in the nearby Sierra Madre mountains, it’s a craft turned into a sophisticated and very Mexican art form: tiny, brightly coloured beads are strung into intricate and usually symbolic designs, then applied to figures of animals or various objects. This jaguar, and the figures above, are from a shop called Tierra Huichol on the city’s waterfront malecon.
The combination of the bright colours and intricate symbols can be almost electric, and even when the figure itself is mundane or even comic, the symbols tell a story. For example, a sun figure denotes power, the moon, fertility; a butterfly means good luck, while a salamander foreshadows rain. In some cases the symbols are arrayed on a flat canvas, like a painting or a mandala, to tell an involved tale.
If you like Huichol art, Puerto Vallarta is the place to visit, since it’s just about everywhere here. I sometimes think the Huichols must be staying up nights to turn out all the art that fills the shops. Still, there are some stunning pieces, and you can spend a good afternoon admiring them in galleries around town.
Often sitting side by side with the Huichols’ artistry, and just about as ubiquitous, is another very traditional form of Mexican art — the Catrina. In fact, it’s hard to think of another art form that’s more Mexican than these outlandish skeleton figures you see grinning from shop windows in almost every block.
To outsiders, these creatures may seem ghoulish, even sacrilegious. But they’re part of a unique Mexican devotion to the dead that harks back to the folk icon Santa Muerte, the Aztec goddess of death and old European Catholicism. So when Mexicans observe their Day of the Dead with skull candies, who are we to quibble?
Catrinas have also been a form of social commentary. The iconic Calavera Catrina, depicted with a fancy, broad-brimmed hat, was originally a satiric portrait of the wife of president Porfinio Diaz: no face, no problema for the artist.
Of course, once they started making Catrinas, the artists couldn’t stop, and today they make them in every shape and form, from mariachis to pirates, insects and society couples.
A third type of art I’ve discovered in Puerto Vallarta is less known, but to me, even more affecting. In a town called Iguala in the state of Guerrero, an artist nicknamed El Tigre carves out of balsa wood plump, soulful little angels that look both classical and at the same time completely Mexican. His father did it before him, and his son likely will after him.
Sometimes there are full figures, but the ones I like best are simply the angel face (or sometimes two or three) with a pair of celestial wings. Again, it’s an ancient symbol, like the death heads that adorn pioneer graves, but in El Tigre’s hands it seems completely innocent.
These pieces are from a shop on Olas Altas called Safari Accents, which has a great collection of carvings and other pieces, like these flaming hearts from San Miguel de Allende.
Finally, you can’t visit Puerto Vallarta without being impressed by the public art that punctuates its public spaces, especially downtown. Walk the malecon from end to end and you’ll find statues of everything from traditional dancing couples to athletes, priests and these science fiction creatures, which double as seats if you get tired or want a photo op.
There’s more Mexican art in Puerto Vallarta, of course. Contemporary artists are showing their work in galleries all around town. But to me, these examples give a small look into the heart of Mexico and its culture — and all on the streets of a beach town. Go figure …