A collection of Mexican feather art
Birds of a feathers. That’s what they were. Pictures of birds made out of their own plumage. They were both strange and bizarre, but they were so wild with colors that they provoked me to stop and stare at the display at the auction house.
I first encountered this artwork a couple years ago at first one auction house and then a few others. And then, it seemed to have disappeared. Until recently, when an auction house was selling a long wall of feather art pieces in various sizes, obviously someone’s collection.
The pieces were hanging on the wall and stacked on the floor under a table, and there were so many of them. Whoever created the art – I don’t recall if they were signed – used the beautiful reds and yellows and blues and fuchsia of feathers from the tails and bodies of the birds. They were the colors of paints in an artist’s palette and were used in much the same way.
The birds’ legs and beaks - along with tree branches and other elements in the artwork – appeared to have been painted.
I wondered if the owner had also hung the pieces or stored them away someplace. They were not covered in dust – which happened sometimes when a collector seemed to have lost interest or the wherewithal to dust them – and appeared to have been cared for. Most were in the same type of carved wooden frames that I remembered, indicating that these frames were commonly used with this art.
Knowing little about feather art – I wasn’t even sure what it was called – I went sleuthing. Tons of it were selling on the web, labeled as Mexican folk art or Mexican Feathercraft. One retail seller had two pieces that were identified as “Souvenir of Panama” and “Made in Mexico” with a date of 1942 written in pencil.
The best of feather art dates back to Aztec artisans before the Spanish conquest of the nation in the 16th century, and continued long afterward, according to the 1919 Encyclopedia Americana. These artists were highly regarded, and children began training early as craftsmen. The feathers themselves were sold at markets and were as priceless as gold.
The Spanish invaders were especially impressed with the feather mosaics – small images created with feathers – of which only a few still exist.
Craftsmen “painted in feathers, producing the living colors of nature,” as one witness – apparently a Spaniard - described the work, according to the encyclopedia. The Aztecs had produced elaborate feather draperies, tapestries and more. Once “converted,” they created mosaics of the saints of the Catholic Church, among other items, the witness noted.
Some feather artwork is still being done today. I’m sure that a lot of it is the stuff I saw at auction and purchased primarily as tourist art. Most of the ones I saw on the web seemed to be from the 1940s and 1950s.
In some cultures, feathers represented power, wealth, fertility and currency, and were used in ceremonial rituals, according to a 2007 Los Angeles Times article about feather art and an exhibit that was opening there. Two years later, an exhibition in Mexico City was set to feature 120 feather mosaics made in the 16th and 17th centuries, according to the newspaper. An auction at Christie’s in 2003 included a religious feather mosaic from 1560 that was estimated at $45,000 to $55,000, but did not sell.
Most feather pieces – whether done by Mexicans, Native Americans or others – are so delicate that many institutions that own them are reluctant to allow them to travel to shows, according to the newspaper article. They also attract insects that can be just as bedeviling.
After learning the history, I had a greater appreciation for the mosaics and the old art of feathers. But I’m still not too keen on the 20th-century souvenirs. One person noted in answer to a question on the web that the art was too “kitschy” to be yet appreciated. I agree. You have to be the right sort of person to want one hanging in your home or to collect hundreds of them.