Amate and Cochineal

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Amate and Cochineal

Today we’re looking at two works by Alejandro Santiago.


The first piece we’ll look at is a very unusual work, a very complex work, and a very unusual medium. The medium is what we call, amate – amate laid down on canvas and then worked with oil paint and cochineal. To create this piece, Alejandro laid down amate on top of a canvas.

Amate is the oldest form of paper making there is – it’s tree bark which is stripped from the tree, boiled, and beaten flat. Amate comes in different colors, depending on what kind of tree the bark has been stripped from. On the piece you can see white, light brown, and dark brown amate. The texture is a result of amate in its more basic form - here, Alejandro uses strips of amate that other artists tend not to work with.

Ancient Techniques

The image is extremely primordial – tribal almost. Alejandro had the good fortune of working with his grandmother, an Indian healer – who taught Alejandro all the old traditional ways of working with plants and natural materials. A lot of these works on amate really deal with the pre-Columbian, healing process that he learned from his grandmother.


This for me is one of the really great works on amate by Alejandro Santiago – very complex, depicting beautiful images within images. Some of these images remind people of Jean-Michel Basquiat - although with Alejandro, all his imagery pulls from his immediate history as a Zapotec Indian from the state of Oaxaca.

Alejandro’s earlier paintings and works on amate for me were much better than Basquiat – Basquiat died too young to become a really great painter.


The second piece we’re looking at is also on amate, but incorporates charcoal as well as cochineal. All the red, purple and pink pigment is cochineal. Cochineal is an ancient form of working with pigments – the pigment is taken from a small beatle that is cultivated on cacti.

There are different shades of cochineal in this piece – and from what I remember Alejandro telling me, lime juice mixed with cochineal turns it pink and lemon juice bleaches it out.

So in this piece, Alejandro has also used all natural materials. There is the paper which is amate taken from tree bark, charcoal for the dark areas, and cochineal for the pinks, purples, and reds.