Barro Betus (ceramics rubbed with birch oil extract)
On the outskirts of Tonala, Jalisco, in a small community known as Santa Cruz de las Huertas. Here there are only a few families have inherited their craft of barro betus from generations past. This type of ceramic folk art has its own unique style of giving life to fantastic creations of the imagination. The renowned ceramics sculptor, Candelario Medrano, is credited with the beginnings of the celebrated Mexican ceramic folkart known as barro betus. This art alludes to a bright sense of amusement with life, with outlandish creations carrying the unmistakable imprint of the artist who creates each piece.
Juan José Ramos Medrano is Candelario's grandson. He works in his humble home creating the most incredible art pieces. He transforms the pliable clay into colorful creatures that are then coated with betus.
The name Betus comes from the word Abedul, Spanish for birch tree. Birch oil extract is heated and rubbed onto the ceramic figures, giving the pieces a sheen similar to varnish. The clay used for this particular work is a mixture of white and black marl from the towns of El Rosario and La Junta, municipalities of Tonalá, Jalisco.
Juan José is not a prolific artist and often when you visit his home, he has very little to sell. However, when there is work available, you may happen upon a real treasure. On one visit, he had two amazing virgins approximately 18" tall with at least a hundred birds and flowers flying around her. Many barro betus pieces have these birds or flowers that are affixed to wires that are fired into the ceramic piece itself. She was sitting in a ceramic cart pulled by tw o Nahuales. Incredible work
The process begins with "tortillando" or kneading the clay into unique devils, lions, roosters, churches, trucks and Tastuanes (grotesque figures inspired by a local ceremonial dance). The kiln is readied and fires pieces created several days before. The pieces have to be dried in the open air before baking them or they will explode. The firing is done at a very low temperature compared to other types of ceramics. Each figure is rubbed with birch oil just before firing, giving them a lacquered appearance once finished.
The origin of barro betus dates back to colonial times and is surrounded by myths. The most popular pieces of art are the colorful Nahual figures with the reputation of coming from a magical world. Nagual or Nahual (both pronounced [na'wal]) is a human being who has the power to magically turn him- or herself into an animal form, most commonly donkey, turkey and dogs, but also other and more powerful animals.
The Nagual can then use his powers for good or for evil causes according to his personality. The common Mesoamerican belief of tonalism, that all humans have an animal counterpart to which their lifeforce is linked, also often intertwines with nagualism beliefs. In English the word is often translated as "transforming witch" but a translation without the negative connotations of the word "witch" would be "transforming trickster"
In modern rural Mexico the nagual is often the same as "witches" or "brujos" who are thought to be able to shapeshift into animals at night (normally into an owl, a bat or a turkey) and suck blood from innocent victims, steal properties from others, cause disease, etc. In some indigenous communities, the position of the Nagual is an integrated part of society and the community knows who is a Nagual and tolerates them or even fears and respects them, sometimes hiring their services in order to remove curses from other naguals. In others the accusation of being a nagual may result in violent repercussions by the rest of the community towards the accused - much like the witch processes of renaissance Europe.
Click on the following link for an interesting look at how barro betus pottery is made Facebook Video - Barro Betus