Zanzibar Home Page

Nicaraguan Pottery

Birds in relief on San Juan de Oriente, Nicaraguan pottery.

Sacramento Friends of the village of San Juan de Oriente

Zanzibar offers a wide and ever changing selection of hand thrown, low fire pottery from Nicaragua, especially from the famous pottery village San Juan de Oriente.

Meet our artisans

Nicaraguan Pottery

Pottery from San Juan de Oriente,

Other Cooperatives & Villages

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Nicaraguan pottery from the village of San Juan de Oriente in our Sacramento shop

Most of the beautiful pieces of Nicaraguan pottery that Zanzibar sells have been hand-crafted by artisans from the village of San Juan de Oriente, Nicaragua, a village with a long history of pottery making.   We also buy pottery from several other small, village-based cooperatives in Nicaragua.

The potters of today use more elaborate techniques and designs than 500 years ago, but each piece is still made by hand. Most of the artisans use a potter's wheel. After the piece dries for several days, each artisan uses his or her style of decoration. Some artisans prefer the traditional pre-Columbian designs, while others like the technical challenge of contemporary Escher-like designs.

Some pieces utilize a relief panel to accentuate the design. It is made by cutting out the design and then creating the texture in the background.

Mineral oxides are used most often for the colors and are lead free. The firing is at a low temperature, and the pottery is not glazed inside so it will not hold water and should not be used for food.

Enjoy your pottery purchase by displaying dry items such as dried flowers, grasses, or feathers, or just gaze upon their natural beauty.

It was during the 1970's that San Juan de Oriente experienced a revival of this traditional craft, due in part to Potters for Peace. Through this organization, potters around the globe interested in peace and justice issues volunteer their time and share expertise with local artisans.   Zanzibar began working with the artisans in Nicaragua in the late 90ís after Scott spent a bit of time in Central America.  Nicaragua has many exceptional artisans including potters, sculptors, painters and weavers. However, most of these artisans do not have adequate access to markets to provide a decent living for themselves and their families. The number of tourists who visit Nicaragua is low compared to its neighbors, and Nicaragua has not yet developed its international craft market to the level of other Latin American nations. We at Zanzibar decided to help in the expansion of their markets by becoming one outlet dedicated to bringing these beautiful Nicaraguan crafts to the American public.

In our working relationships with the artisans of Nicaragua we are dedicated to the principles of Fair Trade. Fair trade is a way of doing business in which low-income artisans and farmers gain access to needed markets and are empowered to become economically independent. For more information on fair trade please visit the Fair Trade Federation at www.fairtradefederation.org

assorted contemporary design vases from San Juan de Oriente, Nicaragua.

The pieces we offer come from women's collectives and small family businesses. One organization that has been a driving force behind the revival of pottery making among these groups is Potters for Peace. PFP was founded by US potters out of a desire to show solidarity with the potters of Nicaragua. They sponsor cross-cultural exchanges between potters from others countries and the potters of Nicaragua. In addition, they work to improve the lives of marginalized groups by introducing pottery-making as a micro enterprise. They hold workshops to introduce new techniques and skills, provide technical assistance, and help link artisans and buyers.   PFP seeks to build an independent, nonprofit, international network of potters concerned with peace and justice issues. We will maintain this concern principally through interchanges involving potters of the (overdeveloped) North and (underdeveloped) South. PFP aims to provide socially responsible assistance to pottery groups and individuals in their search for stability and improvement of ceramic production, and in the preservation of their cultural inheritance. Another cooperative that we work with is Friends of San Juan de Oriente, a Sacramento based faith group that through the sister city program (Sacramento is a sister city to San Juan de Oriente) imports and sells pottery from Nicaragua. 

Pottery-making has been a part of the culture since pre-Columbian times. Traditionally, it was the role of women in a community to hand build utilitarian pottery pieces for storing water and use in cooking. Today several of the groups that we work with are small womens' cooperatives that have modified these designs and incorporated modern techniques to reach a larger market. In addition, with the introduction of the wheel, men have entered this field as a way to supplement their agricultural work.

THE POTTERS OF SAN JUAN de ORIENTE

This small community of farmers began experimenting with the pottery several decades ago. Over the last 30 years, the pottery of this community has passed through several phases and has evolved into something quite eclectic. In the last decade many of the potters from this community have received worldwide recognition for their work. The pieces are inspired by traditional pre-Columbian designs, as well as, outside influences from the array of international potters that have participated in Potters for Peace exchanges. The potters use mineral oxides, mainly chrome, cobalt, and iron to color the vases. They fire them at low temperatures in brick kilns. Most the artisans in this village work in small family groups. Once a year San Juan de Oriente holds a pottery competition and the potters work long hours to produce a unique award-winning entry.

San Juan de Oriente is a sister city to Sacramento, California and we also purchase some pottery through a local Sacramento church cooperative that has ties to this tiny village. 

San Juan de Oriente, Nicaragua is comparable to the Mata Ortiz region of Mexico twenty or more years ago, in terms of its importance in the world of collectible pottery. A small village nestled in the hills between the volcanoes Masaya and Mombacho, San Juan de Oriente has been known for centuries for its beautiful pottery, its ceramic tradition dating back to 1,000 BC.

The village is still primarily inhabited by the indigenous descendants of the original Nahuatl (pronounced nah-whal) Indian tribes who settled the Pacific region of Nicaragua and Costa Rica some 5000 years ago. Though the Nahuatl were contemporaries of the Olmecs, Mexico's oldest culture, they developed their own unique styles and traditions. Around 1350 there is evidence of the development of trade and influence of the Mayan culture, including ceramic motifs depicting Quetzalcoatl, (pronounced ket-sal-ko-at-el) the feathered serpent god.

Legends tell of a female spirit who lived in the Masaya volcano who was consulted for prophecies and to resolve conflicts among the tribes. Depending on the circumstances, she was offered food (and sometimes human sacrifices) that was delivered on elaborate clay platters that were made in San Juan. At the time of the Spanish presence on the continent, in fact, the village became so well known for its clay pieces that the Spaniards called it San Juan de los Platos (the dishes). Centuries old tax records show the village even paying their tribute to the Spanish King with pottery. It was not until Nicaragua declared its independence from Spain in 1821 that the name was officially changed to San Juan de Oriente.

pottery vase from San Juan de Oriente, Nicaragua.

The ceramics of old were made by coil, decorated with locally found mineral oxides and then fired in pits in the ground. Today some of the pottery of San Juan is still made using the coil method, but most is done on a kick-wheel. The pieces are dried and decorated, then low-fired in beehive style adobe kilns using wood fires for fuel. Many of the pots are in the style of design they call "inciso", or incised, a traditional technique dating back more than 2500 years and many are still decorated with traditional Pre-Columbian designs. It is only recently that some of the potters have begun to supplement the traditional pre-Colombian motifs for more modern forms of expression.

There is also a long tradition of pottery manufacture for export and trade with other Indian tribes - in fact, Nicaraguan ceramics have been found at burial sites throughout Honduras and Costa Rica.   Some of today's potters have been taught in a chain passed from mother to daughter and father to son from the time before Europeans ever set foot in the New World; others learn through apprenticeship and plain hard work. Many are excellent potters; some are truly gifted and talented artists who are gaining national (and international) recognition for the quality of their work.

Making the Pottery

It is still common to see ox carts carrying clay in burlap sacks from the fields into the town of San Juan de Oriente. Once the clay arrives at a workshop the bags are emptied into a hole and water added to soften it. Usually the clay is workable after a day of "soaking" and at this point sand is added. Then, to soften and blend clay, it is placed on top of the empty sacks and stomped on. This can take hours. Once sufficiently pliable, the clay is "wedged" into handful size chunks so that rocks and roots can be cleaned out. Following this stage, the clay is once more stomped by foot, which can take one person up to two days before the clay is ready to place on the potter's wheel.

After the pieces have been molded or "thrown" on the wheel the outer surface is burnished to detect any small stones or roots that are still in the clay. The burnishing process calls for a hard, flat instrument, so usually stones found at the beach are used for this purpose. Once such imperfections are removed, the surface of the pot is burnished again.

The pots are then smoothed by hand and black, liquid clay (called slip, which comes from El Sauce near Leon in Northern Nicaragua) is painted onto the pot. Known locally as engove (engobe), it is mixed with water and strained repeatedly over a period of days, resulting in very fine and soft black clay. Some artisans say that the clay softens hands and makes an excellent facemask. Various layers of black clay are applied to each piece. The pieces are then put into bags to dry for up to seven days (depending on the season) and burnished yet again.

The ensuing layer is a bone white oxide of zinc called oxido. The white tint provides a base for further application of color. Each piece is again placed in a bag to dry, which can take anywhere from an hour or two in dry season to half a day in the rainy season. Once dry, the pots are burnished a final time.

The designs are made using colored oxides and applied with paintbrushes made from wood or, commonly, the recycled plastic shell of a ballpoint pen and hair left over from a child's haircut. Depending on the intricacy of the design, the painting can take hours, each applied color undergoing still another hand polishing process. When all the painting is complete, the pot is set out in the open air and can take anywhere from two days to a week to dry.

The outlines of the design are often carved, defined in a relief style by using a sharp instrument to delicately pick off only the top-most layer of clay, intentionally leaving the rough surface exposed. This tool can be made from the spokes of a bicycle wheel or the spines of a broken umbrella that have been sharpened by a stone. 

Finishing the pot requires baking it and, many artists have constructed their own kilns out of adobe bricks and other local materials to create a basic, wood-burning oven in the traditional bee hive configuration.  The process of "firing" the pots begins with two hours of low heat, followed by three hours of gradual increases in temperature. Once the maximum temperature is reached, it is maintained for an additional three to four hours, for a total firing time of about nine hours. After the kiln has cooled - usually a whole day later - the pots are removed and shined with a soft cloth.

It is an exhaustive process, but one that yields some of the world's most magnificent and collectible pottery.

About Our Products

Whether you are a collector of fine pottery or just developing an interest in the beautiful work that is beginning to come from Nicaragua, Zanzibar is dedicated to bringing you the finest pieces at the most reasonable prices. You can expect accurate information, clear descriptions and photos and the highest level of quality control. We work very closely with the artists and their families to insure that each pot conveys the spirit of excellence and pride in their native culture.

All pieces are new and are sold in new condition, however please be aware that each piece is produced one at a time by indigenous artisans using hand tools and processes. This makes each one very special and individual pieces may vary slightly from the photograph. Also the pottery is not water tight, but most pieces can be fitted with commercially available plastic liners for use with live flowers.

Zanzibar also buys from a variety of other small cooperatives and villages on our buying trips to Nicaragua, including:

THE COOPERATIVE OF DUCUALE GRANDE

The women that make up this cooperative have been working together for many years. They work jointly on the pieces, often with each woman taking a different phase in the process. They apply a slip and then re-fire or smoke the pieces to produce a final two-toned look.

THE WOMEN OF LOMA PANDA

The setting of Loma Panda is truly amazing. The workshop of this small group of women is perched on a hilltop overlooking a river and rolling hills. These half dozen women use the tri-color clay of their surrounding area to hand build truly adorable creations such as ceramic dolls, angels and make believe creatures.

THE COOPERATIVE OF CINCO PINOS

This cooperative is nestled among stands of pine trees in the northern mountains of Nicaragua. The women use this natural resource to weave amazing pine needle baskets. This cooperative was formed several years ago with the help of a European organization and continues to grow by inviting other women of the community to join in its success.

Zanzibar Tribal Art

1731 L Street   Sacramento CA 95814

(916) 443-2057  www.zanzibar-trading.com

 

ARTISAN PROFILES
Below are just a few of the dozens of artisans that Zanzibar supports
 

Juana Mercedez - artisan of San Juan de Oriente, Nicaragua.Juana Mercedez Oviedo Garcia

I was born in September of 1972. My parents are Maria de Jose Oviedo and Mario de Jesus Garcia Ampiez. In 1987 I married and moved to San Juan de Oriente. In 1994 I began learning the culture of pottery making and the beauty you can create out of clay. Thanks to God I have learned and today I work as a potter. I work in different pottery styles and designs. I have a small pottery workshop in my house and at the same time am mother of 6 children that God has given me. I live in the neighborhood David Salazar in San Juan de Oriente.


Jose Reyes. Jose Reyes Martinez

Jose Reyes Martinez was born in San Juan de Oriente. This village was once called San Juan of the Plates because of the utilitarian pottery made here such as cups, jugs, coffee pots and pots.

From a mother who was a potter who made utilitarian pieces, he learned to use the raw material that existed in this area, such as natural mineral oxides for coloring and the seed of the zapote used for polishing. His mother showed him how to carry out this work with determination and dedication in order to create brilliant pieces without defects.

For more than 10 years he has achieved a solid knowledge of painting and design in pre-Columbian styles that have been introduced in the international market and now additionally works in geometric and freestyles. He has 17 years of experience with the creative style specializing in nature designs that include butterflies, birds, turtles, dolphins, monkeys and flowers.

He is an artisan with no formal training but who has developed his talent through observing others and reading books that have helped him create new designs that have been widely received. He has participated in national fairs and his pieces have been widely accepted among Nicaraguans as well as people from abroad.

Isabel Nororis.

Isabell Nororis

My name is Isabell Nororis and I am 34 years old. At the age of 16 I began working with clay by watching my brother do it. My first types of pieces were cups, plates, coffee pots, and other utilitarian pieces.

I then learned new techniques of decorating such as making things in relief and applying different oxides. Because I am a widow, I rely on a small workshop formed by my children, a wheel and a kiln.


 


Victor Manuel Cano Barrios

 

I was born in San Juan de Oriente, Nicaragua, Department of Masaya in November, 1969. I am the son of potters and at 18 years old I participated in fairs in Masaya, Managua, and Granada on my own.

I am a member of the Quetzalcoalt Cooperative and have participated in different national competitions. My specialties are pre-Columbian designs and freestyle.


Jose D. Salazar - San Juan de Oriente potter. Jose D. Salazar L.

Born: March 1964 in San Juan de Oriente, Nicaragua
Married with 3 children
Address: Camino Mamey, In front of the Baseball field, San Juan de Oriente
I come from family of eight children and both my parents were potters. My mother is now deceased. I studied at a school of ceramics called COOPROC from 1987-88. I graduated with a satisfactory grade in the ceramic course and stayed working at the center for 5 years. Afterwards I decided to form my own small ceramic workshop and participated in national fairs. I am a member of the Quetzalcoalt Cooperative here is San Juan de Oriente, named after the plumed serpent. There are 20 members, both men and women. We hold a competition for pre-Columbian and creative designs. I won second place in the creative design category in 1999. Through the cooperative I export pottery to the US and Italy.


Jose Bladimir Nororis Cano

I was born in San Juan de Oriente, Nicaragua, Department of Masaya the 29th of October 1961. I am from a family of potters. I learned under the Spanish teacher Arturo Margallo in the old workshop School of Ceramica. I learned the technique of pre-Columbian art and the technique of modern ceramics. Due to a special talent, I turned into one of the most promising students. I am considered an innovator of designs in the pottery community of San Juan de Oriente and was the first to produce traditional forms decorated with modern designs. I introduced many new techniques to the community that now have become standard among potters here. I have also begun experimenting outside the traditional sizes and have begun making extra-large size vases.
(written by his wife)

Adrianna Lumbi - a pottery artisan.

Adriana Lucrecia Lumbi Solorzano

Adriana Lucrecia Lumbi Solorzano was born in San Juan de Oriente, Nicaragua in January of 1980, the third of four girls. From a very early age she was the only sibling that accompanied her father to fairs and events selling his pottery. At the age of 12 she began decorating her own vases, which were of the rustic style. In 1996 she began specializing in geometric designs on her pottery, and was the first woman working in these types of designs.

Today she works with her husband. Both are dedicated to perfecting the geometric design work and coming up with new and unique designs in that realm. For this young artisan, mother of two children, Lia Teresa, eight yr old and Armando Aldair 3 yr old, one of her dreams has been to be able to one day exhibit her pieces in the US.


 


Fanor Lopez Hernandez

My name is Fanor Lopez Hernandez and I am married to Candida Rosa Cano. We have 4 children.

This is how I began as a potter. When I was younger I would watch a friend of mine making the traditional ceramic jaguars. I would always admire his work but never would try it myself. One morning my friend asked if I would like to help him or learn to throw and I said yes. After learning to throw I learned to paint and decorate the pieces, fire them and do everything else needed to get them ready to sell.

After I learned how I taught my wife. She makes beautiful pieces, her specialty being butterflies, frogs, dragonflies, and turtles. We have learned to work in pre-Columbian designs, free style and contemporary designs. It has been 18 years now that I have been working in ceramics and thanks to God we have work.