Earth, Water, Fire: The Secrets of Barro Negro Pottery
Discover the magical practice of Oaxacan black clay pottery, and meet the inspiring female artisans reviving this extraordinary craft
Written by: Arianna Meschia for The Nopo
The most striking thing about handmade artisanal crafts is the blend of diligence, passion, skill and ingenuity that goes into creating them. Even the apparently simplest of products go through a complex process, perfected through the generations, where often several pairs of hands make the artist’s imagination come to life.
Barro negro pottery, made of naturally black clay found in the Oaxacan region in Mexico, is the ultimate combination of physically-intense handmade work, the mystery of centuries-old traditions, and the almost magical effects of chemical reactions.
Barro negro products, which are 100% organic and made solely of mud and water, take on a beautiful and unique sheen after firing, unseen in other natural clays. Getting to the finished piece involves everything from a healthy dose of muscle to precise temperatures and the use of specific kinds of stones to polish the clay.
We fell in love with the craft when we were introduced to the wonderful work of Nelly Ortiz, a master artisan whose family has been making stunning barro negro pottery for generations. Helped by her husband José, who is in charge of the firing process, Nelly took her fate into her own hands when she decided to take the reins of the family business, expanding its operations and adding new designs alongside the more traditional pieces. It’s a testament to her strength and ingenuity that she accomplished all this at the same time as becoming a mother and taking care of her young baby, Milagro.
Nelly’s craftsmanship is evident when it comes to getting the black glass-like sheen exactly right, in a process that blurs the lines between chemistry and magic. First, she moistens the clay she has previously shaped in pots, cups, and more, then she polishes it with a quartz stone at a precise moment just before they dry completely in well-insulated rooms. The quartz compresses the clay and gives it its distinctive glossy black shade after firing at 700-800℃ (1300-1500℉).
Before you even get to this stage though, the process of extracting, soaking, refining, kneading, and spinning the clay into the desired object can take over a week and is an extremely taxing job, which is why parts of it have traditionally fallen under the men’s duties. Apart from the actual extraction of the clay, men also take care of filtering it to get rid of all impurities such as gravel and sand, using petates, bedrolls woven from dried palm leaves, and eventually their own feet, to feel for any smaller impurities that might have escaped the first round.
When it comes to shaping the actual items, though, the women fully take over spinning the clay on handmade plates balanced on rocks of various sizes and smoothness, preferring them to modern electric pottery wheels. In Nelly’s community, girls start learning about the art of black pottery around the age of five or six, making this craft a strongly matriarchal one. Nelly’s own daughter Milagro has just started following her mum around in her daily work, and is on course to becoming a master potter herself someday!
After meeting Nelly and learning more about barro negro, we decided to continue on the incredible journey of discovery she had taken us on, by finding out more about this lesser-known craft. Our off-the-beaten-path research took us straight to one of our newest vendors, Albana, who also work with incredible masters in Oaxaca making barro negro pottery.
Sisters Maria Andrea and Viviane set up Albana to promote the development of a social, environmental, and cultural consciousness in their native Mexico. Their work strives to go back to a purer, more original way of living and rescue our very own essence as human beings through the craftsmanship that Mexico is so rich in.
Pushed by their shared love for interior design, they started developing designs and prototypes for interior decor and homeware, and when it came to ceramics, they found their ideal partner in Estela Cardozo, a craftswoman from the same village as Nelly, just outside the capital Oaxaca City and home to tens of artisan families specializing in the craft.
Estela works her black clay using a similar burnished technique, which has been developed in the region over the last one hundred years. The technique is the fruit of decades of experimentation and trial and error, and consists of leaving the still-wet clay pieces in a completely air-tight oven where oxygen can’t affect the composition of the piece. Estela then burnishes the pieces with a pyrite stone before baking them, to get the characteristic black sheen at the end.
In both the Ortiz and Cardozo families, the process of making pottery is a truly collaborative effort of every single family and community member, working together to use their craftsmanship and creativity to advocate for the preservation of their ancient culture and traditions. In that sense, their work embodies the highest and purest form of community: each member doing one small task for the benefit of society as a whole rather than that of the individual.
Learn more about Nelly and Albana, or shop their stunning wares in our new Barro Negro Collection today.