A Network of Hands

In the third post for Our Dark Materials series, we go to Mexico to learn about the art and craft of Gabriel Rivera, who works with artisanal paper. Here from a current exhibition in Oaxaca, he describes one of his 'rested forms,' Tovero, and shows the depth and integrity that come with paying  attention to 'a micro experience with a macro outlook'. A celebration of the relationships between human hands and native plants that can hold cultural memory in times of unravelling
is a first-generation Mexican American artist working and living in Oaxaca, Mexico. Rivera studied Fashion Design at the Pratt Institute and received his Masters in Studio Arts from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He began his practice with natural dyes in 2008 studying with Linda Labelle, travelling to Mexico, India, Canada and the United States to broaden its scope.

From ancestral garments of prickly weeds, via ink made of dissolved guns, Our Dark Materials now takes us to paper, that most unassuming of everyday surfaces. If we only know machine-made writing paper, newspapers and books, then we see only one side of the story. Into Gabriel Rivera’s paper pulp goes cotton, local plant fibre, pigments and minerals that transform this ordinary material into a richly textured base to hold personal memory and cultural continuity. Through art incorporating performance, traditional dyes, research into Aztec herbals, and sculptural forms, Rivera repurposes the skills and methods used to make garments and books. In this photo essay, you’ll find hybrid forms full of depth and poetry, soft lines, frayed edges and family history.  CR


The text that follows I wrote and read as part of my exhibition, Donde las Lágrimas Relucen or Where Tears Glisten, currently up in Oaxaca, Mexico at a former textile factory. The exhibition takes form as an intimate guided walk on the grounds of the former textile factory where I share various facets of my practice including voice, performance, garments, and sculptures. 
My father’s suede charro jacket from the early 70’s made in Tijuana, Mexico. Creating the pattern for the jacket.

The sculptures, in form, are inspired by the charro suit, the formal attire that Mexican cowboys wear during charreadas, or Mexican rodeos. My father, Bonifacio Rivera, was a charro and his suit was gifted to me after his passing over a year ago. I decided to duplicate the suit via patternmaking, make it anew, and deconstruct it into sculptures that I like to call ‘rested forms’.

Constructed from artisanal paper developed with master papermaker Alberto Hernandez of Papel Oaxaca in San Agustin Etla, the sculptures are primarily made from ixtle (a fibre that comes from the native agave or maguey plant, grown in Oaxaca to make mezcal) and cotton pulp. I dyed the pulp with locally sourced natural dyes. Other materials used in the sculptures such as mica, ceramic, yarns, iron, and textiles were also locally sourced from and/or developed with various artisanal craft makers in Oaxaca. Here, to accompany my text, I share images of the materials, the processes and making of one of the sculptures titled Tovero. Tovero is based on the jacket of my father’s charro suit.

The workshop of Papel Oaxaca in San Agustin Etla where I worked with master papermaker Alberto Hernandez and his assistant Luis Torres to create paper suitable for sewing and constructing the jacket. Seen here is Luis setting up the screen the pulp is poured onto.


It’s been said in various ways that museums are where art goes to die. I’m ambivalent about that idea but there is precedent to that train of thought. One being the wall labels that are placed next to artworks that list the name of the artist, the title of the work, the year it was completed, and the materials used to make the artwork. These wall labels in museums are called ‘tombstones’. Tombstones in intent are informational, not unlike the labels that hang from a garment, with the brand name, where it was made and what it’s made from. But I find tombstones to be more than just information or more accurately, they’re like façades. They conceal as much as they reveal, specifically in the list of materials given.

Alberto discussing and sharing the various papers he makes from local fibers such as ixtle, pochote, pineapple, carrizo and many others.

Since my work leans towards craft making, the list of materials on a tombstone for an artwork of mine is important to me. I put in the time and labour to understand what my materials are, how they are made, where they come from, their history and whose hands they have passed through. As I work with so many organic materials I’ve come to understand they had lives too, in the form of plants, insects, worms, and in geological time, minerals. In their lives, my materials pass through a network of hands. These hands are the caretakers that help them grow, thrive and remain nourished. These hands also become the custodians of their remnants, of what they leave behind after their lives. A little of what you will see in these images below is the work of all those hands and the lived lives of those materials, in the form of dyes, threads, paper, and clay. 

A sample of Papel Oaxaca’s work.


I have a working relationship with a dyer in San Sebastian Rio Hondo named Angel Valeriano, pictured here. I go occasionally to San Sebastián Rio Hondo to share some of my dye knowledge with Angel to benefit his practice and work.


One of the dyes I worked with is Zacatlaxcalli (Cuscuta tinctoria). Zacatlaxcalii is a parasitic creeper that grows on trees.
Zacatlaxcalli gives a brilliant yellow as pictured here dyed in cotton.


Lately, I worked with Palo de Brasil (Haematoxylum brasiletto) that can be purchased at the local markets. Palo de Brasil is a small tree that grows in arid land. The heartwood is used to dye. I must chop it down to bits so that it releases the dye extract more readily.


Here you can see the dye being released when soaked in water.


You can get a range of reds, plums, pinks, and lavenders from Palo de Brasil, depending on how you work with it.

When I work with my materials, I think of all the hands they have passed through to arrive at my own: the spinners, the weavers, the farmers, the papermakers, the vendors, and nameless others. All the energy, time, and care to cultivate and transform these materials. I’m incredibly grateful and proud to be a part of that continuity of passing hands.

I think of all the hands they have passed through to arrive at my own: the spinners, the weavers, the farmers, the papermakers, the vendors, and nameless others.

I made small dyed pulp samples to see the dried results. Here’s half of the pulp dyed black with the help of iron.

So for me, in many ways, tombstones fall short in what I would consider a comprehensive list of the materials I use in my work. Not only in certain materials typically disregarded in tombstones such as water, sunlight and air but also all the labour and energy from the network of hands I mentioned. I find it important to have this kind of perception of my materials because it supports a wide relational understanding of interconnection and interdependence. My process with my materials is a micro experience with a macro outlook. It’s a subjective, individual process with an objective collective understanding.

I also sought out silk yarn to create netting for the sculpture. I went to San Pedro de Cajonos in the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca to work with Wen do sed. Wen do sed specifically cultivates silk from raising the silkworm to weaving silk cloth. There is also a museum that in San Pedro Cajonos that Wen do sed runs and uses as a workshop.


The yarns that are hand-spun by the women in San Pedro Cajonos come in a variety of weights and tones. They are all one of kind.


I got interested in netting when I began researching Aztec netted capes from the 16th century, so I began learning the technique.


The pattern of the jacket is laid out to trace out onto the screen. Once the pattern is demarcated the pouring of the pulp begins

In saying all this I want to take the time to acknowledge and give gratitude to all those hands, all those living materials that have given energy to my work. Because it is a network, seen or otherwise, and I am just one part of it. 

To give gratitude seems like an endless task when considering the scope I speak of, but I do feel gratitude should be voiced and perhaps even centred. Because tombstones are façades, and none of this is perfect, but this, all of this, is a faint but intended resurrection of all that has passed through my hands.

Finally, a view of the room where Tovero sits, with the iron armature that is both a hanger and a candelabra. I worked with the artisans of Hacer Comun from Zimatlan, Oaxaca to create the armature.


Dark Mountain: Issue 23 – Dark Kitchen

The Spring issue 2023 is set around our Dark Kitchen table where writers, artists and cooks explore food culture in a time of unravelling

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