Mexican Amate Bark Paper Art – A Debate

(Last Updated On: September 29, 2016)

Amate Bark Paper Art is an ancient form of folk art in Mexico with a rich past and an unclear future. We discovered these fascinating pieces when wandering down 5th Avenue in Playa Del Carmen. As with so many shops along this touristic street the owner enthusiastically asked us to come on in and take a look. Usually, we keep walking, but in this case, we went in.

Mexican Bark Painting
Mexican Bark Painting

The shop was full of Amate – or bark paper – in all shapes and sizes. We learned that it is made by taking the bark and boiling it for a full day with a softening agent. The bark is then cut into strips and flattened with a rock (usually volcanic or granite) and fashioned into a thin sheet or woven into intricate designs. The brown pigment left behind in the process of boiling the bark is then used to enhance the painting.

Playa Del Carmen Amate Shop
Playa Del Carmen Amate Shop
Amate Bark Paper Art
Symbols for patience and the god of health

In some cases additional colors are added. The process has ancient roots that date back to pre-Hispanic times in Mexico and has changed very little over time. The paper was extensively used by the Aztecs as gifts for warriors, in religious ceremonies and as gifts for royalty.

Amate Mexican Folk Art
Colorful Amate displayed on the ceiling

When the Spanish arrived on the scene in the 1500s the process of making the bark paper was banned because they felt that it was used in witchcraft and magic. There was a resurgence of bark paper use during colonial times when paper from Europe became scarce.

The ficus, the most common tree from which the bark is harvested, grows deep in the mountainous regions of San Pablito in the north Puebla. Today the paper making process remains an important part of the culture and economy for the indigenous people. Commercial production began in the 1960’s. Prior to that the paper that was manufactured in these small villages for ritualistic purposes only and was thought to have magical properties. Shaman began documenting the meanings ascribed to the symbols in the paper by developing sample books. The resulting small pages became very popular and sharply increased sales of the artwork.

Amate Art Symbols
Sample of symbols found in Amate works of art.

The loser in this process has been the ficus tree itself. In pre-Hispanic times the bark was only collected from the adult branches of the tree. Bark would be removed from ficus trees that were over 25 years old, when the bark almost comes off by itself and less damage is done to the tree. The sacred tree would be thanked for its gift and surrounded by candles. As demand grew and production has stepped up another notch, young trees are now stripped of their bark – as we saw in the video at the store we visited. And industrial chemicals have been added to the production process, increasing the environmental impact and having a potentially toxic effect on the artists. Up until learning this we were pretty excited about the Amate art and thinking about where we could hang a piece on our wall.

We are still debating the pros and cons of purchasing a painting that has such deep roots in the Mexican culture. We enjoy the idea of supporting the economy of the artists and their community, but are concerned about damaging the ecosystem and trees that make its production possible. Not to mention risking the health of the artists themselves. At this point, that spot on the wall is still empty. What do you think?

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18 thoughts on “Mexican Amate Bark Paper Art – A Debate”

  1. The constant delema! The artist success will be there undoing. Feed the Artist, starve them when the trees are gone. Save the trees and the arts starves from lack of materials. In both senarios the artist starves, but in one the tree lives.

  2. Hmmmm dilemma indeed – I wouldn’t feel guilty about buying the art and supporting the local economy in the process. I don’t think a boycott in these situations is a successful way of instigating change, I think that it’s very difficult to change a tradition so deeply rooted in a nations culture, and the only way to go about stopping it is to raise education, understanding and awareness. So perhaps talking to the locals about the issues and seeing whether or not they’re aware etc.

    Totally get the point that it’s hard to think of it as supporting something which could make the artists ill, but I guess by that same token if we were to boycott and stop buying, would they have any other form of income? It’s a tricky balance 🙂

    • I think that finding ways to make this art form sustainable is the best solution. I understand that efforts are being made to find new sources of bark and to change the chemicals that are used so that the artists don’t risk becoming poisoned and the water in the area will not continue to be contaminated. Hopefully they will find a solution, and if so I’ll happily write a post and buy some art!

    • I totally agree with Megan! It’s so deeply rooted in their culture that boycotting wouldn’t likely do much besides hurting their local economy. It’s too bad that they have started using chemicals though. 🙁

      I admire you even caring about the process and the way things have been made and the impact on the environment. Not many people I know do!

  3. When the original purpose for the pieces changes from sacred to art the problem begins. Where money is to be made caution goes out the door whether it is killing the trees or killing the artist or both.

  4. I’d be torn on this issue as well. As a child, I was the one hanging up reminders to turn out the lights all over my house so I could singlehandedly save the planet. But, as an adult, I know that culture and art are incredibly important to a civilization–to take that away strips them of their collective identity. Something definitely needs to be done to protect the trees–I just wish I had the perfect answer.

  5. What an interesting concept–I really enjoy seeing the local art produced around the world. It’s too bad that it has such a large environmental impact though. I hope they can find balance and a more sustainable way to keep making their art and thriving as a culture–always such a tough dilemma!

  6. The art they make with is really unique especially because of the spiritual aspects of it and the element that is used. With that said, it’s unfortunate that there is a decline in the trees because of demand, but I wonder why they don’t just make replicas with a different material. I guess that might be too expensive to make. In any case it is beautiful and I had never known about this before, thanks for sharing!

  7. The process of harvesting the ficus bark reminds me of over-fishing our waters. I understand the ecological debate, but the art is definitely beautiful. In situations like these where you are damned if you do, damned if you don’t, I think you should do what you want.

  8. This is a tricky one and I can understand the complexity of the debate. Personally I would probably purchase the product if I knew I was going to use and it wouldn’t end up in another landfill site somewhere down the line. The artistry is spectacular and completely unique, but as you said I don’t want to be harmful to Mexico’s ecosystem

  9. I grew up with these in my house, my Mom lived in Mexico as a kid and they carted the painting/art pieces around. I think they are beautiful but they do have a controversial element. That’s a hard one, I’m not sure if I’d buy one now.

  10. Wonderful images and artworks that express such culture. I understand the dilemma though, I think in the modern day there must be a way of making these that is true to the culture but safe for the environment.

  11. Beautiful art – I had no clue they were made from a ficus! It’s unfortunate the have to destroy their own land to create art – which I’m sure brings in money…

  12. What an amazing article, I had no idea about the environmental impact of traditional art like this. For me though it’s a no brainer. As much as I agree about supporting local artists and culture, the fact that it is having such an environmental impact makes it a no go for me. At the end of the day where will the culture be when there are no trees left? Thanks for a thought provoking article.

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