The Olmec, Mayan and Aztec empires left brilliant legacies of architecture, spirituality and civilization. They were the first in the world to domesticate beans, corn and tomatoes. They erected pyramids, complex irrigation systems and vast cities. On the eve of the arrival of Cortes, Tenochtitlan had over 200,000 inhabitants – twice the population of London. Today Mexico City, its successor, remains the largest city in North America.

The country has been the bridge between North and South America, a meeting place for the Atlantic and Pacific worlds. The diversity of its indigenous peoples is matched by its wealth of natural habitats, from desiccated desert to rain-washed tropical forest, embracing more than 200,000 species – 10% of the world’s current biodiversity.

Mexico is today a hotbed of trade and entrepreneurship – a G20 member, an auto-making giant and an exporter with growth rates to rival China – in part because of these connections.  It has fabled museums and architecture, a burgeoning cuisine, as well as one of the largest tourism industries in the world. It is no surprise and no accident that the paintings of Rivera and Kahlo have become iconic trademarks for this success.

Amid this national revitalization, Mexican “artesania” – the crafts sector – has exploded. With its roots in an amalgam of aboriginal and imported techniques using paper, leather, metal, wood and fibres, it continues to deploy a riot of colour across a vernacular that spans religion, folk tradition and every field of the decorative arts.

Ceramics were one of the highest art forms under Aztec rule -- one still widely practiced in native communities. Forbidden to most Mexicans over centuries of colonial rule, silverwork is again one of Mexico’s major exports. National celebrations such as Navidad, Independence Day and the Cinco de Mayo showcase the rich variety of contemporary Mexican crafts.

But the handicrafts industry is under pressure. In some areas industry is stifling traditional arts. In others crafts producers have been stymied by drug wars, crime and local rebellion.  But they remain highly original products with enduring appeal.




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