Baltazar Castellano Melo is a tall handsome fellow with long curly hair. I asked to take his picture. He then picked up a number of magical items: a donkey’s jawbone and his bote, a musical instrument made of a jaguar skin stretched over a gourd. He donned a wooden mask decorated with goat horns, diamondback rattlesnake skin ears, and a horsetail beard. Only then, did he let me to take this picture.
Baltazar has a reputation for being a wild man, but the 30-year old artist has settled down a bit. A family man now, he lives with his lovely wife Karla and infant son, Yumael in a small house on the edge of Oaxaca City near the church of the Virgin of Juquila. Baltazar’s patio doubles as his open-air painting studio. He has a tabletop printing press to print miniature prints. He is also a popular musician. His music, like his artwork, is infused with his Afro-Mexican heritage.
Baltazar was born into a family of 6 children in the coastal village of Cuajinicuilapa, Guerrero near the border with Oaxaca state. The entire region, known as the Costa Chica, is very poor. Most of the people are of mixed heritage. Afro-Mexicano is the term Baltazar uses. His African roots come from his mother’s side. His father is mestizo, mixed Spanish and Indio heritage.
Life can be tough on the Costa Chica. For many years, Baltazar’s father, who never learned to read or write, journeyed north without documents to work heavy construction in the U.S. In 2011, Señor Castellano was left to die, stranded in a U.S. desert without food or water by an evil coyote. In the desert his father fell and fractured his kneecap. Miraculously, he managed to claw his way back to Mexico. After this near-death experience, he is not likely to return north again.
Baltazar’s artwork is lively and colorful. There are often pastel-toned boats and fish in his art. Growing up near the Pacific Ocean Baltazar learned to fish both from boats and from shore. He mastered the hook, line, and net. Sometimes he would simply dive into the surf with a homemade spear to bring home dinner.
Padre Glyn Jemmott, a Roman Catholic priest of Afro-Caribbean ancestry is stationed in the Costa Chica. He works to shed light on the Afro-Mexican culture and increase opportunities for his flock. One of the projects he sponsored was the Cimarrón (Freed Slave) Cultural Center. In 2002, Maestro Mario Guzman, later a founder of Oaxaca’s ASARO collective, taught printmaking at Cimarrón. Baltazar, a teenager at the time, became one of Cimarrón‘s most productive artists. He went on to study fine arts at Benito Juarez University in Oaxaca with Maestro Shinzaburo Takeda. He graduated with a major in printmaking in 2010.
Baltazar has developed a distinctive dreamlike imagery in his bold prints and colorful paintings. He is active in several Oaxacan artist’s collectives including ASARO and Colectivo Tutuma. Recently he has been traveling around Southern Mexico playing Afro-Mexican percussion with the Tapacamino Musiquero (Musical Roadblock) Band. Sometimes he earns more income from the music than his artwork. I asked if he thought of himself as more of a musician or visual artist. He put his hand on his heart and said, “Artista Visual!”
More of Baltazar’s artwork and a bio in Spanish can be found at www.pintoresmexicanos.com. Glad I found that site with Maricela Figuero’s photo of Baltazar unmasked. Not sure if that is a flower or a crab in his mouth. Baltazar remains a man of mystery. He can be contacted through the Pintores Mexicanos or via his Facebook page.