Pre-Columbian Art of Mexico, Art of the Gulf of Mexico-The Smiling Figurines

The impressive craftsmanship reflected in the clay figurines of the Remojadas culture is evident in these two examples. Left: A Xipe Totec Impersonator, ca. 600-900 AD. (Late Classic), (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland, United States). Right: Anthropomorphic figure from the Classic Period (450-650 AD.).

The so-called “Civilizations of the Gulf of Mexico” represent another of the most important cultural complexes of ancient Mexico beginning with the Olmec area located south of the Gulf where we saw in a previous essay the emergence, from the middle Pre-Classic period, of that mother culture whose role would be decisive in the development of Mesoamerican civilizations.

Indeed, there isn’t one of the great Mesoamerican classical cultures that hasn’t based its development on more or less direct Olmec roots. Next we will discuss the art produced in the central area of ​​Veracruz located immediately north of the Olmec zone.

This large astounding terracotta figure representing a young chieftain (300-600 AD.) is among the finest works of the Remojadas culture (Art Institute of Chicago). The jewelry he is wearing on his wrists and neck represents flowers, while the embroidery of the belt probably reflects his rank and status.


  1. The Smiling Figurines

The proximity of the Olmec area should have had a direct influence on the enormous impulse given to the production of statuettes and hollow figurines in clay that took place in this central area of Veracruz, an artistic production that goes back to the beginnings of the Pre-Classic period throughout all the Classic period, a total of more than 20 centuries of uninterrupted evolution. This long cultural sequence can be followed quite clearly in the archaeological findings from a place called Remojadas. The culture of Remojadas flourished on the Gulf coast of Veracruz (Mexico) between 100 BC.-800 AD. and is considered part of the much larger Classic Veracruz culture.

The archaeological site of El Zapotal (region of Mixtequilla, Ignacio de la Llave Municipality, Veracruz State, Mexico) kept grandiose pottery pieces, as well as sculptures accompanied by an ossuary with hundreds of ceramic figures. El Zapotal site is located on an ancient Totonac city in ruins that flourished between 600 to 900 AD. Left: This El Zapotal figure of a standing man carrying a jaguar on his back is unparalleled elsewhere in the Mesoamerican sculpture (Museum of Anthropology, Xalapa, Veracruz). Right: A jaguar-man transformation figure, ca. 600-900 AD. (Israel Museum, Jerusalem).

The figurines of Remojadas are distinguished by the naive grace of their attitudes, as well as by the use of asphalt or “chapopote*” as a black paint (characteristic of this region rich in oil deposits). As the Classical period progressed, the artistic technique of these statuettes was perfected to such a degree that large, natural-sized hollow figurines were produced, such as those discovered in El Zapotal. Within this rich range of hollow figurines, the effigies of divinities with expressive faces (whether serene or cheerful) were also abundant. In this artistic production stand out the so-called “Smiling Figurines” which are also an interesting exception in the midst of an artistic panorama more inclined to represent macabre contemplations than overflowing joy.

The “Sonrientes” (Smiling figurines) are the most well-known objects of the Remojadas art, they featured wide smiles on almost triangular faces. Their smile was rather formalized, usually showing teeth and the tongue sticking out between them. Left: Smiling figure, VII–VIII century (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Center: Smiling figure holding a rattle, VI-VIII centuries AD. (M. H. De Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, California). Right: Standing Smiling figure with a childlike body and outstretched arms displaying palms, VII–IX centuries AD., (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

With their characteristic appearance -wide and flattened foreheads, open arms or arms shaking “fertility rattles”- these smiling figurines captivate by the freshness of their smiles, whether they represent very young children or old people, and even skeletons beyond this life… Expression of some cult to fertility, joy, music and/or dance, these charming clay effigies were often adorned with zoomorphic motifs -herons, monkey tails, etc.- or with the “interlaced volutes” so characteristic of the art of this region.


Chapopote: (from the Nahuatl chapopotli, meaning “god of the trails”), a traditional term used as a synonym for what we currently know as asphalt.