This article is from the December 2005 - January 2006 The Mexico File newsletter.
Back Issues and Subscriptions available.

Arte Magico

by Lyneer Turner 

Lyneer Turner is a free-lance writer based in San Diego and has been traveling to Puerto Vallarta since 1977. 

On a recent trip to Puerto Vallarta I had the great pleasure of discovering a style of art that was totally new to me. These days, Vallarta has developed an active and interesting art scene. Starting in November and running through the high season, art galleries are open for art walks every Wednesday from 6 pm to 10 pm. There are so many galleries in the area these days that you need more than one Wednesday to cover them all.  

During one of these walks, I happened in to Arte Magico Huichol – and the rest of my trip changed into a fact-finding mission.  

The work that captured my imagination is called Nierika. These are wild and wonderful yarn paintings done by Huichol Indian shamans. I stood in the gallery, flabbergasted that I had been unaware of this style of painting until now. I had admired the bead work that the Huichol Indians are so well known for, but for some reason the yarn paintings just had not registered with me until now. I ran back to another gallery, grabbed my wife and dragged her across the street, babbling all the while that she had to see these paintings – and that we had to have one for a freshly painted wall in our house. We spent the next hour looking at and learning about these mysterious paintings. A kind gentleman by the name of Maho, who runs the Arte Magico Huichol,  began to explain the history and meaning of the various works in his gallery.

Basically, the artist / shaman depicts various peyote ceremonies that are a critical part of the Huichol religion in the yarn paintings. The Huichol Indians, because of their location in the rugged and remote area of Nayarit, were ignored by the Spanish and were able to maintain their nature-based religion that is guided by shamans. It is difficult to describe the explosion of colors that each of these paintings contain. This style of art was developed in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, so there is a modern sensibility, that uses tradition, but also looks contemporary and abstract. The artist / shaman covers a board with beeswax, designs a story that makes up the painting and then meticulously uses small pieces of yarn to bring the story / painting to life. Looking at one of these pieces from more that a couple of feet away, you would be hard pressed to figure out that yarn was involved at all.  

But like any art, it is not the technique itself that is the key –  it is the creativity and talent of the individual artist. As Maho showed us the works in his gallery, he introduced us to the art of several of the major artists / shamans who work in this medium. The artist considered one of the originators and the master of this style is Jose Benitez Sanchez. At first glance, many of the works look very similar, but as you look closer, the ability of the artist to convey the story through the use of traditional icons from their religion and the use of color and detail, along with a sense of drama, separates the artists from each other. The Sanchez pieces exhibit a level of detail, composition and use of colors that stand out, even among other top artists. While enjoying these works, I was also intrigued with the fact that they are done by a shaman who is attempting to recreate a vision that occurred during a sacred peyote ceremony.

A quick web search of the name Jose Benitez Sanchez will take you on an interesting journey. This is exactly what I did the morning after my first encounter with Nierikas. Like they say, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Since we still had almost two weeks left in Vallarta, I spent a good amount of time searching down other places that had Nierikas. This is when I really learned that it is the artist – not the medium – that makes all the difference. Now that they were on my radar, I was able to spot Nierikas in various locations all over the town. Much to my surprise, I saw them in many places I had been before. But after being spoiled by the quality of the pieces at Maho’s gallery, I began to see that many of the lesser artist’s works really look like novelty items. Some of the places that sell these pieces will actually take you into a room with a blacklight and pitch the “psychedelic relic” aspect of these works, which I found hysterical.  

So the moral of this story is that not all Nierikas are equal. During this quest I would return to Arte Magico Huichol every couple of days to sit and admire the works and see if they still spoke to me the way they did that first night of the Art Walk. Much to my chagrin, they did. The problem with this is, of course, that you actually have to pay for this sort of thing! These paintings come in various sizes, from as large as 48” x 48” and as small as 12” x 12,” with the prices depending on the size, the artist, and who you’re buying them from. As you can probably tell, my story has a happy ending. After much hemming and hawing, I chose to purchase two pieces from Maho’s gallery – one by Jose Benitez Sanchez and another by one of his ex-wives, Maria de Jesus Rivera (he does have several ex wives – he is a shaman after all and I think they play by different rules). And as luck would have it, Maho was making a trip to San Diego to visit an old friend at the same time we were returning, so he brought my paintings with him and we didn’t have to deal with transporting them. And as a bonus, he had two more Jose Benitez Sanchez yarn paintings available in San Diego that he was going to take back to Mexico with him, and I bought one of those as well. So now our freshly painted wall has three 24” x 24” Nierikas - and yes, they still speak to me. Thank you, Maho. 

Arte Magico Huichol
Corona #179, C.P. 48300
Puerto.Vallarta,.Jalisco, Mexico