Crafting Tradition

Crafting Tradition

MICHAEL CHIBNIK
Copyright Date: 2003
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7560/712478
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  • Book Info
    Crafting Tradition
    Book Description:

    Since the mid-1980s, whimsical, brightly colored wood carvings from the Mexican state of Oaxaca have found their way into gift shops and private homes across the United States and Europe, as Western consumers seek to connect with the authenticity and tradition represented by indigenous folk arts. Ironically, however, the Oaxacan wood carvings are not a traditional folk art. Invented in the mid-twentieth century by non-Indian Mexican artisans for the tourist market, their appeal flows as much from intercultural miscommunication as from their intrinsic artistic merit.

    In this beautifully illustrated book, Michael Chibnik offers the first in-depth look at the international trade in Oaxacan wood carvings, including their history, production, marketing, and cultural representations. Drawing on interviews he conducted in the carving communities and among wholesalers, retailers, and consumers, he follows the entire production and consumption cycle, from the harvesting of copal wood to the final purchase of the finished piece. Along the way, he describes how and why this "invented tradition" has been promoted as a "Zapotec Indian" craft and explores its similarities with other local crafts with longer histories. He also fully discusses the effects on local communities of participating in the global market, concluding that the trade in Oaxacan wood carvings is an almost paradigmatic case study of globalization.

    eISBN: 978-0-292-79775-8
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. PREFACE
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xvii-xxii)
  6. CHAPTER ONE INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-18)

    On January 1, 1998, Jimmy Carter visited the small Mexican town of San Martín Tilcajete to look at brightly painted wood carvings. The ex-president of the United States was vacationing in the state of Oaxaca with his wife, Roslynn, their four children, six grandchildren, and ten other relatives and friends. The group was accompanied by bodyguards, government officials, and guides on their excursions to the colonial churches, archaeological sites, craft villages, and markets of the Central Valleys of Oaxaca. They stayed in San Martín for half an hour, buying numerous pieces and chatting with artisans.

    The Carters had decided to...

  7. CHAPTER TWO HISTORY OF OAXACAN WOOD CARVING (1940–1985)
    (pp. 19-35)

    I had heard a lot about Manuel Jiménez before I first met him in August 1994. Jiménez was famous among buyers and sellers of Mexican crafts as the oldest and most successful Oaxacan wood-carver. The proud, opinionated maestro held court for visitors most days at his home in Arrazola, where he and two sons sold their colorful frogs, dogs, bears, deer, and rabbits for hundreds of U.S. dollars apiece. Jiménez, born in 1919, had been interviewed many times during his long career (e.g., Barbash 1993: 15–19; Peden 1991:67–69) and obviously was good copy for the journalists he talked...

  8. CHAPTER THREE CONTEMPORARY WOOD CARVING
    (pp. 36-59)

    In 1994 a new business called Arte y Tradición opened in an attractive blue and white building in the historic center of Oaxaca. Arte y Tradición included a restaurant, a travel agency, a bookstore, and four or five rooms devoted to various local crafts. One room, called “Fantasía de Madera” (fantasy from wood), was run by Saúl Aragón, a 23-year-old university student who commuted to his shop each day from his home in Arrazola. There were few customers, and Saúl spent most of his time painting carvings and studying for his courses in business and accounting. When Saúl was in...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR WOOD-CARVING COMMUNITIES
    (pp. 60-79)

    Casual visitors to wood-carving communities in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca often encounter scenes of pastoral tranquillity. Farmers slowly lead their ox-teams over corn and bean fields set against wooded hills. Carvers and painters talk quietly as they work on their pieces in outdoor courtyards on sunny days that are neither too hot nor too cool. Goats, chickens, turkeys, donkeys, and pigs cross dirt roads. Even the most oblivious tourists soon find out, however, that Arrazola, San Martín Tilcajete, and La Unión Tejalapan are very much part of the wider world. The artisans listen to rock music on the radio,...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE ECONOMIC STRATEGIES
    (pp. 80-93)

    Residents of Arrazola, San Martín, and La Unión farm, work in the city of Oaxaca, run stores, attend school, and migrate temporarily or permanently to Mexico City and the United States. The production and sale of wood carvings in Arrazola, San Martín Tilcajete, and La Unión Tejalapan therefore must be understood in the context of individual and household economic strategies that involve a mix of activities. The extent to which particular households are willing and able to participate in wood carving depends on their age-sex composition, the goals and skills of individual family members, and the relative profitability and risk...

  11. CHAPTER SIX MAKING WOOD CARVINGS
    (pp. 94-111)

    One day in March 1998 I accompanied three wood-carvers from La Unión on a copal-cutting expedition to some hilly land belonging to the municipio of San Felipe Tejalapan. Because La Unión is an agencia of San Felipe, the artisans—Aguilino García, Gabino Reyes, and Sergio Santos—did not have to ask for permission to cut on these hills, which are used for grazing but not for crops. The carvers chose their wood carefully. Each man gathered three to four branches of medium thickness. Thin branches were rejected because they broke too easily; thick branches were not needed for the artisans’...

  12. CHAPTER SEVEN GLOBAL MARKETS AND LOCAL WORK ORGANIZATION
    (pp. 112-123)

    Even the most casual tourist in Mexican states such as Oaxaca, Yucatán, and Michoacán can see that craft production is an integral part of the local economy. Few visitors to Mexico realize, however, that artisans’ direct sales to tourists are only a small part of the craft trade. The livelihoods of most potters, backstrap-loom weavers, and hammock makers depend primarily on sales to intermediaries from both Mexico and the United States. Anthropologists (e.g., Cook 1993; García Canclini 1993; Littlefield 1979) have shown that the profits from such sales often end up in the hands of a few local merchants and...

  13. CHAPTER EIGHT SPECIALIZATIONS
    (pp. 124-146)

    Over the past two decades Oaxacan wood-carvers have developed specialties in their efforts to appeal to a diverse clientele. Some artisans make expensive, laborintensive carvings for collectors; others churn out cheap pieces for gift shops in the United States and tourists seeking souvenirs. Artisans vary in their painting and carving styles and the size of their pieces. They make animals, human figures, devils, angels, frames, chairs, tables, and ox-carts. There are carvings of Benito Juárez, subcomandante Marcos (the Zapatista leader),chupacabras(imaginary beings that eat goats), “Martians,” mermaids, and helicopters. The diverse economic strategies that carvers have pursued in recent...

  14. CHAPTER NINE HOW ARTISANS ATTAIN SUCCESS
    (pp. 147-173)

    In a couple of thought-provoking articles, Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld (2001, 2002) observes that anthropologists, historians, and geographers have given two principal explanations for why certain artisans are especially successful in selling their pieces. Some writers (e.g., Annis 1987; Meisch 1998; Steiner 1994) note that the extraordinary talent, originality, energy, and business savvy of a few artisans enable them to gain advantage in a competitive marketplace. Others (e.g., Stephen 1991; Tice 1995) say instead that in some communities artisans’ differential success can be explained primarily in terms of access to and control of capital and labor. Colloredo-Mansfeld points out, however, that neither...

  15. CHAPTER TEN POPULAR JOURNALISM, ARTISTIC STYLES, AND ECONOMIC SUCCESS
    (pp. 174-183)

    In August 2000 I stopped by the gift shop at the Peabody Museum at Harvard University to look at crafts and books. Five Oaxacan wood carvings were for sale. The shop also had seven copies ofOaxacan Wood Carving: The Magic in the Trees,written by Shepard Barbash with photographs by Vicki Ragan. I was not surprised. In my previous searches for Oaxacan wood carvings in the United States and Mexico, I had often found pieces displayed alongside this book (Barbash 1993) or the couple’s earlierSmithsonianarticle (Barbash 1991).

    In recent years anthropologists interested in cultural politics, discourse, and...

  16. CHAPTER ELEVEN SALES IN OAXACA
    (pp. 184-205)

    The central square of the city of Oaxaca is said by some to be the most attractive zócalo in Mexico. This pleasant, green area is dotted with benches where people sit and listen to band concerts and itinerant musicians and watch an ever-changing panorama of craft vendors, balloons, food stalls, newspaper stands, enamored couples, relaxed tourists, and political protestors. The zócalo is ringed with cafes in which Oaxaqueños and tourists from Mexico City, the United States, and Europe sip coffee, drink beer, and eat tacos and local foods such asmoleandtlayudas(large, crisp corn tortillas). During major tourist...

  17. CHAPTER TWELVE SALES IN THE UNITED STATES
    (pp. 206-234)

    When I first learned that most Oaxacan wood carvings were sold to whole-salers and store owners from the United States, I wondered how the dealers marketed their pieces. In my subsequent travels around the United States, I therefore sought out ethnic arts stores in which carvings might be found. Despite my best efforts, I rarely saw more than a few carvings in any one store and often found none at all. Even in New York City, there seemed to be only one store (the now-closed Bazaar Sábado in Soho) with a large collection of high-quality pieces.

    There is a simple—...

  18. CHAPTER THIRTEEN CONCLUSION
    (pp. 235-244)

    The trade in Oaxacan wood carvings is an almost paradigmatic example of globalization. The wood-carving boom would not have been possible without large-scale tourism, air transport, a weakened peso, and multinational tariff agreements. Carvers travel to the United States to exhibit their craft in schools, museums, and shopping centers. Their pieces are advertised in websites and auctioned on eBay. Artisans and local intermediaries use cellular phones to take orders from U.S. wholesalers. The effects of globalization in impoverished areas of Africa, Asia, and Latin America have been debated endlessly. Some writers (e.g., Friedman 1999) note thats the rural and urban...

  19. EPILOGUE
    (pp. 245-248)

    In May 2002 I had an unsettling telephone conversation with Clive Kincaid, the large-scale Arizona dealer of wood carvings who employed Saúl Aragón as his intermediary in Oaxaca. Although I knew that Clive’s company, Designer Imports, was having some problems, I was surprised when he told me about a dramatic business decision that he had recently made. Designer Imports would no longer sell Oaxacan wood carvings.

    Throughout the 1990s potential customers had crowded around Designer Imports’ displays at gift shows. But at the beginning of the new millennium store owners and museum representatives were walking right past Clive’s booth. Oaxacan...

  20. REFERENCES CITED
    (pp. 249-258)
  21. INDEX
    (pp. 259-266)