'Manual work has an addictive energy, you have to immerse yourself in it. I refine each form bit by bit, falling in love with it every time until I can't wait for my next project'
- Anna Orska
This isn't the first time the artist has traveled to a far corner of the world in search of a piece of an exotic culture for her to interpret according to her own vision. In her quest for inspiration and new techniques, Anna Orska has always chosen to visit destinations famous for high-quality handicrafts and unique aesthetics. She finds master craftsmen, ready to share their knowledge and skills, in small villages, where artisanal traditions have been passed down through generations. So far, Orska's travels have allowed her to draw from the craftsmanship of Nepalese jewelers, Indonesian sculptors or Vietnamese lacquering masters.
'After finishing work on the Vietnam collection, I automatically started looking around for a new destination', says Orska.
'Because my last three foreign collections were created in the East, my thoughts began to pull me westwards. Looking for the right place to go, I realised that what is most important to me is the handicraft of a specific region. When I first saw alebrijes, I no longer had any doubts. I set off to San Martin Tilcajete in the Mexican province of Oaxaca'.
Alebrijes are sculptures made out of cardboard, paper or wood, hand-painted in incredible colourful, geometric patterns. They are fantastic, hybrid creatures which combine the features of different animals. Alebrijes are associated with the Mexican artisan Pedro Linares, active in the 1930s. During an illness, Linares fell into a deep sleep. In his dream, he saw a donkey with wings, a rooster with a bull's horns and a lion with a dog's head. Together, they called out one word: Alebrijes! When he woke up, all Linares could think of was sharing the stupefying experience with the world.
'What really amazed me about Mexican art were the saturated colours and rhythmic, precise patterns, painted with lines the width of a hair. Many patterns have specific meanings which stem from Zapotecan symbolism. Creating the decorations requires years of practice and calligraphic skills. The village of San Martin Tilcajete is the capital of the craft, boasting hundreds of workshops which opened in response to the huge popularity of alebrijes. During my visit, I saw many different works of various designs, shapes and embellishments. What surprised me was the fact that none of them were functional – they were all exclusively decorative. Despite 70 years of tradition, my ideas surprised the local artisans'.
Usually, entire families work on the sculptures, with particular family members specialising in specific tasks. Some people are responsible for choosing the right copal tree root, others are expert sculptors, having mastered carving with machetes, knives or chisels. A sculptor's experience and intuition is as important as their knowledge of tools. Not every machete will allow you to create a beautiful sculpture. The blade of a good machete cannot ring when hit – it should make a dull sound, a bit like that of a bell. Only then is it a useful tool. Sculpting should be done straight after the wood is cut, as it is the softest and the easiest to work with.
The components used in the Mexico collection were created in two workshops. One of them was ran by Gabriel Sosa Ortega, the son of Jesus Sosa Ortega, a local artist and founder of one of the first certified alebrijes workshops. Gabriel worked with Francisca, Ramzes and his mother.
'I was very lucky to meet good people. It's amazing how their perception of me changed over the time I spent with them. The village is a peaceful, happy place. Here, Mexico seems like the safest place in the world'.
Each sculpture takes a different amount of time to make, depending on its form. The components created for the Mexico collection took up to a few days to make.
'Francisca was the sculptor at Ortega's workshop. She was a wonderful person and we got on very well from day one. She would swing her machete while the men were busy painting with fine, calligraphic brushes. I was amazed!'”
The next stage after carving is polishing the piece until it is impeccably smooth. The sculpture is then left to dry in the mexican sun for about 4 to 8 hours before it can be primed with a mixture of copal dust and glue. This is done to cover up any irregularities, such as knots. After the primer dries, which doesn't take long, the piece is polished and smoothed once again. Thus primed, the sculpture is ready to be painted.
'The quality of painting varies from workshop to workshop. I was able to find two which surprised me with their precision'.
'The paint is applied in layers. The first is a monochrome background, which is then covered with delicate patterns formed from lines as fine as hairs. I tried my hand at painting them, but despite the fact that I'm quite skilled with a paintbrush, I failed. The painting process takes longer than sculpting – from 2 to 6 days'.
Work on the collection didn't end in Mexico. The painted elements were flown to our studio in Poznań, where they were framed, thus becoming pieces of jewelry. Every piece is a unique work combining sculpture, painting and the art of goldsmithing. Each one is decorated with different patterns derived from Mexican beliefs and folklore. The pieces convey important values such as family, respect, hope or work. They remind us that certain fundamental issues are timeless and permanent, immune to change and equally important in different cultures. The main motifs include jaguars, lizards, hummingbirds and snakes – animals of great symbolic significance in Mexico. Several simple, geometric forms, such as circles or half-circles made from the shells of local nuts, were also created for the collection.
Anna Orska is famous for her original approach to materials and themes. So far, she has created collections inspired by nature, upcycling, insects or fossils. The Mexico collection is innovative in many respects, even for an artist as prolific as Orska. Despite their often impressive designs, Anna Orska's jewelry is, essentially, minimalistic. The Mexico collection abounds both in shapes and colours. Its faithfulness to Indian art, which the artist didn't try to correct or interfere with, gives the collection a strong artistic character.