Carvings from Pisté, Yucatán

Lady Sac K’uk, the Feathered Serpent, and a Chaak Mask, chakah wood in a burgundy red brown acabado. Jorge Enrique Pool Cauich, 1999.

This mascarón type sculpture is inspired by the figure of Lady Sak K’uk from the Oval Palace Tablet of Palenque. However, here she is shown offering a miniaturized figure, perhaps Pakal, to Time itself, while a feathered serpent flies above. To the right and left of Lady Sak K’uk’s feet are a pair of glyphs that mark the zero or “new era” calendar date of the Maya Long Count, “4 Ahau” and “8 Cumku.” Below the glyphs, the artist has written the corresponding dates in Roman numbers and alphabet. This figural group rests atop the head of a Chaak (Rain God) mask typical of the Yucatán Maya region. This unique artwork combines distinct Maya cultural icons from three regions in a hybrid that relies on elements from the máscara, mascarón,
and ídolo forms.
Photography by Matt Seiber.

Appropriation of Mayan themes for Present Works.

The town of Pisté, Yucatán, located some three kilometers from the archaeological zone of Chichén Itzá, is the center of a flourishing and highly diversified practice of woodcarving that has developed since the mid-1970s. Quetzil Castañeda considers this arte pistéño tradition, first developed by Vincent Chablé (a guardian or warden-like caretaker at the site) to be the principal origin point for a plethora of regional forms of tourist arts in northern Yucatán. Based on mixtures of ancient Maya (or other Mesoamerican) visual sources (e.g., codices, stone monuments, iconic Chichén Itzá images such as the Chac Mool or feathered serpent), but lacking a long-lived local heritage, the Pisté carvings were at first disparaged as a kind of inauthentic hoax. As these tourist souvenirs have become more popular, in part through official recognition by INAH, and also abetted by the scholarship and promotional support provided by Castañeda himself, some carvers have been able to explore another identity, that of an artist-entrepreneur, although the expression of this identity is “subtle and resides materially in the quality of their work and the recognition by Pisté artisans and artists of this qualitative difference in their work and abilities to produce more beautiful pieces.”

As discussed by Quetzil Castañeda’s in the catalog for this exhibition and in other publications, Pisté artisans are sensitive to the consumer preferences of the tourists who visit Chichén and have created a variety of styles and forms over the course of the last thirty years. The majority of wood carvings are produced quickly in cottage based mass-production. However, a number of Pisté carvers have created more ambitious and aesthetically developed works, initially as an expression of their own creativity and skill. Unlike other regional arts produced for sale to tourists (e.g., in Oaxaca or the Maya highlands) that strive to maintain a “folk art” quality, the Pisté carvings (particularly “high end” examples shown here) are more carefully finished and bespeak the naturalism favored both by the ancient Maya and tourist visitor. Increasingly, due to the flooding of the market with lower quality souvenir carvings and tourist preference for less expensive handicrafts, these artists create works of art mostly by commission from collectors. Such pieces demonstrate a combination of inventiveness of form and mimetic carving of life forms that convey a sense of energy and life-like presence. We have included several of the various types of more detailed, imaginative, and highly finished examples of such carvings by Pisté artisans/artists in this exhibition.

The Pisté carvings displayed in the exhibition from part of Quetzil Castañeda’s personal collection.

The symposium is free and open to the public.

We encourage attendees to contact Connie Rhoton (, or 815-753-1474) to give us an idea of the audience size. Those who would like to purchase an on-site lunch, which will cost  $8.00, must pre-register by contacting Connie Rhoton.

Balam Ahau, Jade Mask of Jaguar King, Cedar in painted acabado. José Mitch, 2003.

The Balam Ahau, Jade Mask of Jaguar King, represents an artistic innovation that the artist José Mitch initiated in 2002. The smooth face is carved in geometric or other designs and painted before the application of the chapopote acabado. This creates a mosaic effect that evokes the jade masks found in Maya tombs. The headdress consists of a double-headed feathered serpent bar with glyph signs taken from niche carvings on the Venus Platform, Chichén Itzá. Emerging from the serpent bar is a yellow jaguar head, on top of which is seated a Maya man, to whose right are three figures kneeling in a row and to whose left is a Maya priest in Chac Mool position with K’uk’ulkan (feathered serpent) flying above the scene of sacrifice. The artist’s use of the jade-mosaic technique and the figural headdress was so thoroughly imitated and mass-produced that it transformed the Pisté art scene and the aesthetics of masks beginning of this decade. Photography by Matt Seiber.

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