Barro negro pottery (“black clay”) is a style of pottery from Oaxaca, Mexico, distinguished by its color, sheen, and unique designs.
Oaxaca is one of few Mexican states which is characterized by the continuance of its ancestral crafts, which are still used in everyday life.
Barro negro is one of several pottery traditions in the state, which also include the glazed green pieces of Santa María Atzompa; however, Barro negro is one of the best known and most identified with the state.
It is also one of the most popular and appreciated styles of pottery in Mexico.
The origins of this pottery style extend as far back as the Monte Albán period and for almost all of this pottery’s history, had been available only in a grayish matte finish. In the 1950s, a potter named Doña Rosa devised a way to put a black metallic-like sheen onto the pottery by polishing it before firing.
This look has made the pottery far more popular. From the 1980s to the present, an artisan named Carlomagno Pedro Martínez has promoted items made this way with Barro negro sculptures which have been exhibited in a number of countries.
The designs of Barro negro objects are unique to this area. The pieces are then fired in underground pits or above ground kilns, using wood fires that heat the objects to between 700 and 800 °C. When they emerge, the polished pieces are a shiny black and the unpolished ones have a grey matte finish.
The origins of Barro negro pottery extend over centuries, with examples of it found at archeological sites, fashioned mostly into jars and other utilitarian items. It has remained a traditional craft of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs of the Central Valleys area to the present day.
Originally Barro negro pottery was matte and grayish. In this form, the pottery is very sturdy, allowing it to be hit without breaking.
In the 1950s, Doña Rosa Real discovered that she could change the color and shine of the pieces by polishing the clay pieces and firing them at a slightly lower temperature. Just before the formed clay piece is completely dry, it is polished with a quartz stone to compress the surface. After firing, the piece emerges a shiny black instead of a dull gray.