Israel Soteno and the Rio Lerma, Mexico

Israel Soteno is a ceramic artist from Metepec, Estado de México, in Central Mexico. He is one of a third generation of alfareros and his family is renowned for its fabulous trees of life, first pioneered by Israel's grandmother, Modesta Fernández. Modesta took traditional ceramic art, usually a male preserve, to a new level whilst still being based on traditional trees of life and cuadrillas,  collections of pieces with a ritual/medicinal use. She introduced the use of modern, brightly coloured aniline dyes to painted pieces. Her sons went on to create spectacular, large polychromatic pieces.  

I had the pleasure of meeting Israel’s father, Tiburcio, and older brother, Carlos, whilst they were installing a tree of life at GOMA in the mid 1990s, in Glasgow. The tree, which has three faces, tells the story of ceramics in Metepec, a representation of the Creation and the history of Mexico. Sadly the piece is no longer on display nor is there a photo of it in the online archives. I went on to stay with the family on several occasions in Metepec and met Israel who was just starting to flourish as an artist. Visiting the Sotenos was like stepping into an unforgettable world of magic reality. Both Israel and his brother have gone on to be highly accomplished and creative ceramicists, who embrace tradition and but also push boundaries. Israel's daughters. Frida, Florecia and Fabia look set to become a fourth generation of artists making works in clay. 

Israel has created this nagual mask especially for the Ríos Solidarios project and is photographed on the bank of the River Lerma.  

Naguals, or nahualas, are an integral part of many Central American and Mexican belief systems and refer to the animal counterpart that each one of us is born with.  

This nagual takes the form of an eagle with a serpent, both symbols synonymous with Mexico's pre-Colombian identity, and form part of the imagery on the Mexican flag.  

The Río Lerma is the second longest river in Mexico and rises in the Mexican Plateau and empties into Lake Chapala in Guadalajara State. A high level of pollution affects stretches of the river to the point where levels of oxygen are low and there have been health impacts noted on some riverine communities. 

Israel states the following, "The Lerma River is about 10 minutes from my town, Metepec, in the State of Mexico. Unfortunately, because the river flows through an industrial corridor it has become a drain for its waste and now the river is almost dead. The water is no longer clean and is inhospitable to wildlife. The piece in the photo is a mask that relates to the agriculture of our people and is a combination of man and animal. These were used in the town dance, El Paseo de los Locos, which asks for rain to replenish the nearby rivers and for sowing the fields. The Paseo de los Locos, the day of San Isidro Labrador, is the largest festival in the town and is celebrated in May". 

Israel's message:   

Ríos del mundo arrastren sus piedras y olvídenlas en los pueblos llenas de amor”  

"Rivers of the world drag your stones and forget them, full of love, in the villages". 

Blog by Jan Nimmo

Man crouching with Mexican indigenous mask by river

Man with Mexican indigenous mask by river

Image of the Lerna river in Mexico