Black Clay Pottery, Coyotepec, Mexico


Barro Negro is the traditional technique used to make the intricate and beautiful pottery that comes from the town of San Bartolo De Coyotepec in Oaxaca, Mexico. It’s a short ride out of the center of busy, bustling Oaxaca City, but the puebla is easy to miss. When our collectivo (shared taxi) pulled over on the side of the highway to let us out, it was hard to believe anything could be happening in this sleepy, tiny town.

The short, stout buildings appeared to be closed and the single, dusty street running through the center looked all but deserted. With further inspection though, one door after another of independent stores housed a single shopkeep sitting as still as the densely surrounding pottery that nearly barricades the doorways. A friendly and welcoming “hola” ricochet from somewhere in the back of every store.

The pottery has a remarkable and distinct aesthetic. Beside vases and plates, decorative trinkets dominate. Owls, skulls, and eggs stand out the most. Walking through the maze of black and occasionally, dark brown detail, repeating shapes start to feel like you’re spinning inside of a colorless kaleidoscope. Hand carved patterns look the same from a distance but up close, slight intricacies distinguish the details of one artist from another.

The sheer amount of pottery produced from this quiet pocket of the Earth is astounding. At the edge of town, a undiscript, modest outdoor market made of unfinished wood stalls is dedicated to individual vendors. The producers widdle away, constantly creating and adding to the warehouse feel of endless supply. Only ten or so potential buyers peruse the grounds while we are there. The seller to buyer ratio is dramatic, lending favor to the purchaser to score a tremendous deal.  The cost of these stunning black pottery pieces is shocking. A cute little mug or sugar skull (used to celebrate Día de Los Muertos) will run you around 15-20 peso, or roughly a dollar. Most of the mid size pottery pieces are only a few dollars more and large pots are usually still under 20 dollars.

What makes this pottery so unique are the special properties of the clay that are specific to this region. Each piece is produced and cut by hand and then baked in a fire. The baking process is made such to create a thick smoke that gives this pottery its opaque and distinct black coloring. Pieces can take up to twenty days to complete.

The Barro Negro technique has been around since pre-Colombian civilizations of the Monte Alban period and has carried on to this day. Originally, the pottery was made to look more grayish-matte in finish. Since then, variations on the tradition include the addition of creating a black metallic like sheen onto the pottery by polishing it with a quartz stone before firing. This is the widly popular and sought after look these days. Other variations include a way of baking that allows the pottery to turn a deep brown almost resembling wood.

All the variations and styles stay within the confines of very recognizable work. The tradition and technique of this one of a kind pottery are preserved with attention, care, and pride. The work is beautiful and truly special.