Amate is a type of “paper” in Mexico made from tree bark. Amate stems from the Nahuatl (ámatl), a type of tree. The term “amate” is applied to the paper and the paintings done on the amate paper. Papel amate is also a term used for the amate paper.
Papel amate sold as Mexican goods
Papel amate is an excellent option for works of art. Papel amate paper products such as lamp shades, book covers, are sold in markets, bazaars, workshops, handicraft and specialty shops and on the Internet.
Papel amate is included in various types of artwork, handicrafts, and is used to create paintings. It is produced in various colors, textures and designs, painted and embroidered.
Papel amate can be acquired by artisans in various states including Guerrero, Michoacán, Morelos, Puebla, Hidalgo and México City.
For more than 500 years, the technique of making papel amate has not changed. According to the accounts of some of the early Spanish observations, they noted that the bark (from the amate tree) was left in water to soak overnight. Then the inner fibers were separated from coarse, outer fibers. These were then beaten or pounded into flat sheets.
Presently, bark from the wild fig (ficus), nettle and mulberry trees is used. The bark is softened in ash, boiled for 8 hours. It is then cooled and cleaned through a process of rinsing 3 to 4 times. The material is selected and extended on a flat surface, commonly on flat sheets of wood.
Interestingly, Otomí artisans have incorporated innovations. Other materials have been introduced to the process of softening the bark.
Each type of bark produces a different shade of color, ranging from dark brown to white. New species of trees are now used to obtain the bark. Artisans also experiment with the diversification of shades and colors from brown to white, and in the coloration of the material. Often, the pulp is combined to produce a marble effect of colors.
Once the pulp is on the flat sheets, it is beaten or pounded with stone beaters.
Beaters made from stone are mostly made of volcanic stone. Types of beaters, similar to ancient beaters, are still used by Otomí artisans in Puebla. Most beaters are made of volcanic stone, some are made of granite, others from river stones. The beaters are usually rectangular or circular with grooves on the sides to macerate the fibers.
The culture of the amate process and use dates to Pre-Columbian times in Mesoamerica. Researchers have found stones used to beat the bark material dated to around 1000 B.C. Furthermore, it is also believed by investigators that “paper” made from tree bark goes back to primitive times, as papel amate fragments has been found in ancient organic materials.
In ancient Mexico, papel amate was used extensively. The Hñahñus (Otomí), Nahuas (Mexicas), Mayans, Toltecs, and other indigenous peoples made and/or acquired, and used amate. The amate process was carried out in regions of the present-day states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, Guerrero, Michoacán, Morelos, Veracruz, Tabasco, Yucatán and part of the Valley of México.
Initially it acquired a religious, magical and spiritual significance. Amate occupied a sacred space. Its representation became a part of celebrations, practices and festivities. In various forms, amate was used to make rope, adornments for celebrations, for priests, for offerings, for the religious ball games, and diverse type of paper elaborations in the representation of deities.
Amate was used as a tribute during the Aztec empire, primarily for experts to create calendars, log books, accounts of tributes, and codices (religious and/or historical manuscripts).
Upon their arrival, in the 1500’s, the Spanish carried out complete destruction during their conquest, and due to its sacred connotation, thousands of manuscripts were destroyed. Amate was prohibited by the Spanish and production of amate was concealed in México for many years.
The pages of the Dresden Codex, a Mayan manuscript, the oldest surviving codex from Mesoamerica, are made of papel amate.
Nevertheless, the amate process was continued by some Indigenous communities.
As the amate process requires great ability and craftmanship, artisans have proudly preserved and transmitted techniques to new generations, such that this forms part of a living Mesoamerican culture that continues to contribute to the world.
See Paul Tolstoy. ‘Cultural Parallels Between Southeast Asia and Mesoamerica in the Manufacture of Bark Cloth’, in: Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences, Series 2, 1963 (25/1).
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Written by AllGoodsOnline