In Ocumicho, a town where Mexican pottery artisans are better described as surreal artists because of the way they portray the devil figure, locals have created a beautiful way to combine their traditions with commerce.
Deep in the heart of Mexico’s western communities, in the state of Michoacán, there is a rural town with houses of plasterless walls and aluminum roofs. Its name is Ocumicho, and it is famous for its prize-winning devil figurines that captivate people from all over the world with an enchanting universe of mischievous and playful characters. The figurines represent the collective effort and imagination of a whole tradition rich in myths and creativity. Most of Ocumicho’s inhabitants are Purépechan indigenous people whose ancestors settled in the region in the 14th century.
The sculptures feature strange hybrid scenes that combine everyday life, religious allegories, and local folklore and legends, leading to funny and endearing results. Legend has it that the practice comes from a single mind, that of young Marcelino Vicente, a local, eccentric artisan who dared look beyond the obvious and into the depths of the surreal.
One day on his way back home, the legend goes, Marcelino found on the road an odd-looking stranger. “Your statuettes lack beauty,” the stranger said. “Look at me: I’m beautiful. You must use me as a model,” and then he turned around and around as he lifted the bottom of his coat. Marcelino noticed that the stranger had chicken feet instead of hands, goat hooves instead of legs, and a long, thin tail. The young man understood he was in front of the devil.
What the figurines have become, however, is more fascinating than their legends. They are an icon of satire, absurdity, and colorfulness that juggle deep cultural symbolisms and commercial enterprise. In general, artisans use one of five recurring themes for their production:
Standing statuettes depicting devils either alone, with animals (often reptiles or prehistoric-looking creatures), or accompanied by other devils in a satanic and playful scene.
Photo by Alison Heney
Devils in Modern Circumstances
Laughing devils riding bicycles, flying airplanes or helicopters, or driving cars and trucks. There are also devils portrayed as surgeons or mechanics, among other such contemporary professions. This is where locals represent modernity as they understand it.
Photo by @mexicobyhand
Festive and Religious “Tradition”
This theme rides on folklore from before devil figurines were even produced. Horses, dances, weddings, and funerals are common elements.
Biblical characters in biblical scenes are replaced with devils. The last supper, for example, becomes a dinner party for thirteen tortilla-eating devils.
Photo by @soycabagge
Each and every custom figurine requested by tourists or people from outside the community, usually Mexican collectors or American nationals residing in Mexico.
Photo by @mexicobyhand
The figurines are made from scratch, without any molds, as the artisan relies solely on their creativity and mastery of the craft. The resulting pieces are mystifying works of imagination that incorporate both the symbolic structure of the whole culture as well as the individual inventiveness of each artist.
Indigenous communities in Mexico face a challenging dilemma when it comes to adapting to the standards of the contemporary world. Profoundly aware of their history and cultural heritage, with an ancient tradition deeply entrenched in their identity, these communities fight to maintain their cultural patrimony. As they face the pressures of contemporary life, of technology and globalization and late-stage capitalism, the residents of Ocumicho have found in their devil art a compromise, a bridge that allows them to make sense of the ever-changing context of the modern country they inhabit. The devils are the manifestation of indigenous people’s ability (and need) to adapt, without sacrificing their own sense of identity.
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