An Annual Tradition

September 12, 2019

Mosaic art made from seeds shows up in many places. I don’t know who began the tradition in Tepoztlan, but it dates back at least fifteen years, to before I started coming here.

Every summer, the main gateway of the former convent is decorated with panels depicting a traditional Mexican story. Last year the theme was Quetzalcoatl’s visit to the underworld, and this year it’s about part of the story of Ce Acatl Topiltzin (Seh-Akat’l-Topeeltseen – Our Prince One Reed), the human being who became (or was, or embodied) the Feathered Serpent, Quetzalcoatl.

Main gateway.jpg

The panels adorning the gateway. Behind are coloured streamers from a separate religious celebration.

According to what has survived of the old legends, he was born in a cave near my village of Amatlan, a few miles from Tepoztlan. He rose to become a revered Toltec leader and teacher. The ‘One Reed’ in his name derives from an early mesoAmerican calendar, identifying his birth-date as May 13 in 895 CE.

Left panel.jpg

The left-hand panel, showing incidents from Ce Acatl Topiltzin’s early life.

I’m cautious about the details of his life, since what was recorded seems intended to make the Spanish see him as an okay guy. The invaders burned all old records of the peoples they conquered, and it was Franciscan monks who later copied down versions of the myths, to provide the most trusted account. They appear to have been diligent scribes, but without original corroborating sources, it can be frustrating knowing what is true and what was altered or edited to appease the Mexicans’ new overlords.

Right panel.jpg

The right-hand panel, combining scenes from his adult life.

There is no such ambiguity about the seed mosaics. Using beans that are white, green, yellow red-orange, brown and black, the panels are designed afresh every summer, and installed over the gateway for visitors to admire. A friend of mine was invited to join the team making them, since it’s meant to be a collective local effort, not one artist’s solo effort. Also, covering over 100 sq ft of panels with tight-packed seeds is very labour-intensive.

After its year of glory, when it is photographed thousands of times, and features in countless selfies, the mosaic will be taken down and discarded. The creative process adheres to the principles of perishability governing the panels’ organic ingredients.

I find that a little sad, but well in tune with the traditions the bean-art is trying to acknowledge. The connection to the land and the natural cycles is still strong here, and the seed mosaics celebrate this fact instead of ignoring it.