Tag Archives: Mexico

Collecting Indigenous Art: From Oaxaca to New Mexico and Back

On June 16, 2022, the New York Times published a story about Native American artist Cannupa Hanska Luger focusing on the tension between what white collectors’ want and how the native artist responds. Titled Cannupa Hanska Luger is Turning the Tables on the Art World, the story digs deep into artistic expression, art as social commentary and political activism, and why art is made and for whom.

I read this story several times to digest the commentary and implications. I want to write about it because it relates to those of us who travel to Oaxaca to explore indigenous culture and collect.

These are the questions that came up for me that I’d like to share with you as a point of consideration and self-reflection as you read further:

  • What does it mean to be a collector?
  • When we buy something, does our relationship with the maker change?
  • Do we consider that we buy something of beauty and nothing more? What more is there for you?
  • If we are motivated by helping an artisan by making a purchase, does this put us in a power position?
  • How does it make us feel personally to buy indigenous art?
  • When we travel, are these souvenirs or something else?
  • What’s the difference between buying from a gallery and directly from the maker?

The western trading posts of the early 20th century, owned by white traders, drove the marketplace and shaped the type of art and craft that would be salable to tourists/collectors. Trading post owners (re)introduced techniques that had been lost during the forced migration of tribes onto reservations. Today, gallery owners fulfill much of that role, buying only what will sell to their particular clientele, encouraging artists and artisans to focus and shape their wares for the commercial market. Original utilitarian pieces made for personal use –cooking, clothing, and using during ceremonial festivals were adapted, and I would say embellished, to appeal to visitors coming west on the Santa Fe Railroad looking for a romantic ideal, a souvenir of Old Town. Oaxaca and Santa Fe are collector destination points, hubs for Native American art.

Cannupa Hanska Luger, the featured artist of the story, is based near Santa Fe, NM, about an hour and a half south of where I live part of the year in Taos. It is easy for me to make the translation between the American indigenous artist of the southwest and indigenous people of Oaxaca who are also makers of beautiful textiles, pottery, carved wooden figures, jewelry, tinwork, etc.

The article triggered my thinking about how creativity and innovation (which connotes change) is influenced, and whether the collector’s expectations serve to keep makers in their place doing production work rather than thinking about possibilities of what could come next. I also ask myself if, as collectors, we want what is traditional and what we consider to be authentic, which I have talked about before. I believe this is a form of colonialism. We must examine our own motivations to want to keep people as they were for our own vision and enjoyment of what is native. It is easy to stereotype. Are we locked into buying vintage pieces (or contemporary pieces made in the image of what was done before), that are representational of some ideal, or are we open in our own collecting to look at contemporary pieces that push the boundaries of self-expression?

Oaxaca is a mix of pre-Hispanic tradition and Colonial Spanish influences, as is New Mexico. Pre-conquest women used backstrap looms to weave native cotton and fiber garments. Sheep, wool and the European pedal loom were introduced around 1524 to provide warmth and comfort to Spanish settlers. They taught locals to use the technology. As the Spanish moved north into New Spain, they introduced the pedal loom and churra sheep wool to New Mexico. Navajos in NM and Zapotecs in Oaxaca took tapestry weaving to a new level.

Teotitlan del Valle tapestry rugs, churra wool, natural dyes–Galeria Fe y Lola

In the early 1970’s young travelers from the USA saw Zapotec-made wool horse blankets and sarapes and said, Wow, they can make rugs and I can export them to the American southwest, using Navajo designs and selling them for a fraction of the originals. Lots of white people made money. So did many Zapotec weavers from Teotitlan del Valle. Are all designs up for grabs? What is original or authentic?

San Marcos Tlapazola red clay pottery, pit fired

Today, some Oaxaca pottery from Santa Maria Atzompa and San Marcos Tlapazola is made in high-fire gas kilns or enclosed wood-fired kilns that bake the clay at even temperatures. Using these modern techniques, there is no longer the beautiful black flashing that gives wood-fired pottery its visual complexity and texture. This innovation, imported from the USA and Japan, is a way of improving the respiratory health of the makers (they are no longer breathing the toxic wood-fire in the outdoor pit). For those who want the traditional look, are we perpetuating respiratory disease in favor of our aesthetic desires?

Alebrijes, San Martin Tilcajete, Oaxaca

Alebrijes, the Oaxaca carved wood figures depicting anthropomorphic beings and scenes of daily life, were an adaptation of Mexico City’s Linares family papier-mache constructions, designed for tourism in the 1970’s. A very recent innovation, and a successful one at that.

Maria Martinez clay pot with slip decoration

I recently read that the famous San Ildefonso Pueblo potter Maria Montoya Martinez departed from making traditional simple black coiled pots to meet the demands of collectors in the 1960’s and 1970’s by adding slip-painting feather, snake and eagle designs on the stone-polished pieces. She collaborated with her son Popovi Da, doing the coil work while he did the painting. Her pieces are highly valued and collected. Why? Certainly, there are Rio Grande River Valley potters working today and making outstanding pieces for far less.

Let’s come around to why we collect and who determines what art should look like. Makers need to feed, clothe, educate, provide health care for their families. Often, they are responsible for the financial well-being of extended family members. There is no social security in Mexico. Everyone takes care of their own. By collecting traditional work, are we buying into Native stereotypes, as the Time article suggests? Are we confining artists to the world of crafts and keeping them out of the mainstream art market? Are we supporting artists/artisans who trade on traditional indigenous symbols of culture? Do we embrace a romantic vision of indigenous America? By collecting, are we attempting to absolve ourselves of collective guilt for the transgressions of the conquerors: Manifest Destiny, the taming of the west, annihilation, the hacienda system of servitude, land appropriation?

I often overhear our Oaxaca travelers talk about admiring the simple life of indigenous people. On the surface, we want to project that this life is simple — life in small, clustered communities of mutual support, ancient traditions. We must look more closely. People suffer from poverty, lack of health care and access to education, spousal and child abuse, substandard sanitation. Husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons migrate to the cities or to the United States for paying jobs, leaving women and families alone often for years at a time. Some never return. Subsistence farming provides little in economic support. It is understandable that art/craft adapts to what buyers want and what designers dictate. If a woman uses natural dyes to weave a cotton blouse over three months and she can sell this blouse for $350, those pesos will feed her children and elderly parents. Would you work for $115 a month?

Monica Hernandez huipil, Pinotepa de Don Luis, Oaxaca, $370 direct from maker. Indigo and purple snail dye. Contact Norma to purchase.

The conversation, then comes around to our role as collectors. Do we take a risk on a carving or a painting or a garment that is a departure from the usual? Is there enough income coming in for the artist to take a creative risk? And, what about bargaining or haggling on price? Never, I say, when buying. If you can’t pay the price, then walk away. Bargaining is NOT fun, it is not entertainment, and it is not appreciated by the maker/seller. If they offer, that’s another thing!

Cannupa Hanska Luger, Mirror Shield Project

Finally, the artist Luger posits that we as collectors are in search of meaning, belonging, something deep within us that yearns for connection to our own homeland from which we were uprooted as immigrants, often left to adapt to a hostile environment in a new land. I have read that as children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, we carry with us the emotional upheaval of our ancestors and are not immune from the deep memory of resettlement pain. Indigenous Oaxaca culture is rooted in 8,000+ years of history, of community, and reverence for the land. The same holds true in New Mexico, where native peoples have established communities on ancestral lands thousands of years old. We are migrants, moving, relocating, searching for home. Therefore, we want to embrace those who have what we don’t. Having something they made fulfills that.

In Oaxaca, there are painters, graphic artists and rug weavers taking steps beyond the traditional, pushing envelopes, experimenting, creating, innovating.  Seek them out and support them. One fine example is Teotitlan del Valle weaver Omar Chavez Santiago (IG: @omarchasan), who adapts traditional designs and contemporizes them. Others are painters Gabriel (Gabo) Mendoza (IG: @mendoza_gabo) and printmaker Alan Altamirano (IG: @grafica_mk_kabrito) at Taller La Chicharra (IG: @tgallerlachicharra)

Questions? Comments? email Norma Schafer mailto:norma.schafer@icloud.com

Seven Huipiles from Pinotepa de Don Luis, Oaxaca–Sale Direct From Maker

When I posted about the process of sewing the embroidered collar onto my blusa made in Pinotepa de Don Luis, weaver Monica Hernandez from Pinotepa de Don Luis contacted me via Facebook messenger. She asked if I would help her sell handwoven blouses (blusas) and dresses (huipiles) she and her sister made. Her husband is Rafael Avedaño, son of the famous Don Habucuc Avedaño, who learned to gather and milk the rare caracol purpura snail that yields the beautiful purple snail dye found in the rocky crevices along the north coast of Oaxaca. Rafa learned from his father and a lot has been written about how this indigenous group is preserving an ancient tradition that goes back centuries. The purple snail dye is used in all ceremonial dresses, including the wedding dress which women will be buried in when they die.

Rafa Avedano dyeing cotton with caracol pur

Most of these seven huipiles include threads dyed with caracol purpura, making them very collectible because this type of snail is on the cusp of extinction. It takes two-to-three months to make each piece.

Our Oaxaca Coast Textile Study Tour 2023 is SOLD OUT. (I am taking a waiting list.) This is the next best thing to owning a piece of history and a garment that you can wear with pride that it is completely handwoven on the back-strap loom and dyed with natural materials. You support indigenous weavers who live in remote areas where tourists rarely travel. You are supporting sustainable entrepreneurism — it is unusual for a weaver to reach out into the greater world without the help of a middleman who buys cheaply and makes a big profit. As soon as a piece sells, I send funds directly to Monica.

How to Buy:  mailto:norma.schafer@icloud.com Tell me the item you want by number. Send me your mailing address. Tell me how you want to pay. Choose one of three ways.

You can pay one of three ways: 1) with a Zelle transfer and no service fee; 2) with Venmo or 3) with PayPal. If you choose either #2 or #3, we add on a 3% service fee which is their charge to us, and we will send a Request for Funds to your email address. The request will include the cost of the garment + $14 mailing. If you want more than one piece, I’m happy to combine mailing. Tell me which payment method you prefer and I’ll send you more information. Buy now and I’ll bring your garment back with me on August 9 when I return from Oaxaca to New Mexico. If you want the piece sooner, I can mail via FedEx or UPS from Oaxaca at a cost of $60 USD.

Now for these breath-taking garments! Prices are lower than usual — as if you were there and buying directly.

SOLD #1. Pure White huipil with hand embroidered collar embellished with caracol purpura threads. 25” wide x 36” long $250.
SOLD 2. dyed with the pulp of the jicara gourd, this huipil features purple snail dye and indigo threads. 28” wide x 39” long. $365
SOLD #3. Black Huipil (commercial black thread) woven with purple snail dye and wild marigold. 32” wide x 33” long. $365
#4. Indigo huipil with purple snail dye and coyuchi native brown cotton. 30” wide x 33” long. $395
SOLD #5. Dyed with wild marigold and embellished with purple snail dye, this huipil is 26” wide x 32” long. $260
#6. Measuring 25” wide x 31” long, this is an indigo and caracol purpura masterpiece. It features the double-headed eagle and family motifs. $325
SOLD #7. huipil dyed with jicara gourd and embellished with snail dye and cochineal. 27” wide x 59” long. $345

Note: width is measured across the front — it is not the circumference. please take your measurements carefully and compare to your favorite garment. All sales final. Monica thanks you! so do I

Un Recuerdo: Weaving and Embroidery on the Oaxaca Coast

I’m looking out of my little rental house at a sea of sagebrush. In the distance are the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, part of the southern Rockies, somewhat obscured by the haze from wildfires. It is supposed to rain tomorrow. Our New Mexico native peoples are doing rain dances. So am I as I wait for my casita to be finished, waiting to see if I can get back to Oaxaca in July in time for our textile tour to the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains.

Tucked up into the crevices of this mountain range are vibrant textile villages where weavers cultivate silkworms that feed on mulberry trees to create loomed silk garments dyed with natural plants and cochineal. They are glorious.

A. Frontmor back?

Meanwhile, as I dream of Oaxaca, I’m also thinking of the rich textile traditions along the Costa Chica north of Puerto Escondido. In particular, today I’m focused on Pinotepa de Don Luis. During our last textile tour of the Oaxaca coast in January 2022 we were based in the regional coastal town of Pinotepa Nacional and did day trips up to this and other mountain weaving villages.

B. Front or back?

I like to include a market meander of the vast public market in Pinotepa Nacional. In addition to regional foods and an immersion into the Afro-Mexican culture, there are some extraordinary finds. I tell everyone in our group to look up, look down, look all around into every nook and cranny. Last winter, I found some rare hand-woven ixtle (agave fiber) woven market bags to sling over the shoulder or to wear as a cross body bolsa to carry fruit, veggies and textiles!

Surprise! There are also hand and machine embroidered collars that local women use to embellish the necklines of simple blouses and dresses. Usually, women who are produce sellers have these, too. You can miss them if you are only looking at mangoes and bananas. The collar I bought for about $25 has been waiting for me to do something with. Definitely a project.

I had something in mind. A simple, indigo-dyed huipil/blusa that would be the perfect garment to show off this amazing collar. Pinotepa de Don Luis master weaver Sebastiana Guzman made me one, but I wasn’t sure how well the collar would fit the neckline of this blusa so I procrastinated on starting to figure it out. Until yesterday. It’s too hot here to go outside (90 degrees) and the wind kicks up, making it hard to walk. Hiding from sun and wind, I decided to give this project a start.

My finished project

First, I needed to hem the inside and outside edges of the collar. Then, I needed to fit it to the blouse. A steam iron helped to get everything positioned properly. After five hours of hand-sewing and pressing, I’m very pleased with the results.

Now the big question is: Which is the front and which is the back? Perhaps you can help advise me!

Example of what you can find

By the way, we are sold out for the Oaxaca Coast Textile Tour 2023, but you can get on a wait list or come with us in 2024. Just send me an email.

Sea creatures, plants and wildlife, mythical beasts
Example: Double-headed turkey from Pinotepa Nacional

Life Update and All Things Mexico Spring Clearance

Here in Northern New Mexico the winds are gusting. While some of the early spring wildfires are contained, more are igniting, mostly from lightening strikes. Near Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu a new fire erupted in El Rito, a small mountain community about 30 miles from where I live. Scary stuff. Smoke obliterated the mountains and I had to wear a face mask in the car. The air smelled like a campfire. We are in severe drought conditions and global warming is taking its toll. A couple of weeks ago, an unusual early spring hurricane hit the Oaxaca coast hard. My friends reported lots of devastation. Climate change is wrecking havoc.

Meanwhile, I’m waiting for my small house to be completed on the Rio Grande Gorge. everything is delayed and costs have soared. It was supposed to be May, then amended to the end of June. I’m hoping for this so I can close, get my mortgage and return to Oaxaca in time for the Summer Textile Mountain Tour. Hoping this will happen, though not sure. (We can still register you — there are a few open spaces — register by June 20 and get 10% off!)

Celebrate summer with a colorful hand-embroidered shoulder bag. 9×10” with 42” strap, lined with zipper. Specify by color. Was $56 each. Discounted to $29 each.

I’m still culling my collection and will continue to do so as I prepare for another move. Here are some wonderful pieces to offer to you today.

To Buy: Please send me an email with your name, email address, mailing address and include the Item Number you wish to purchase. We add $14 flat rate to mail and we are happy to combine orders in one shipment. Tell me if you want to pay with a Zelle transfer (no service fee) or use PayPal or Venmo (with a 3% service fee). For PayPal or Venmo, I will send you a request for funds. Thanks very much. -Norma

#1 Las Sanjuaneras blusa. natural dyes, indigo and banana bark. 30” wide x 23” long. $225
SOLD #2 Las Sanjuaneras blusa. Índigo and mahogany. 30” wide x 27” long. $225.
SOLD #3 Tote/weekend bag, indigo and leather, lined, zipper, interior pockets. Wool tapestry hand-woven. $155.
SOLD #4 Coyuchi cotton huipil from Zacoalpan, Guerrero. 28” wide x 37” long. Deeply discounted $295.
#5 From Pinotepa de Don Luis, Oaxaca, gorgeous fuchsine huipil, handspun cotton. 31” wide x 46” long. sturdy fabric. $325
#6 Pinotepa de Don Luis blusa dye with gourd and rare purple snail. 29” wide x 29” long $290.
#7 from Cancuc, Chiapas, huipil, dyed with nanche fruit and cochineal. 20” wide x 35” long. $250.
SOLD #8 Xochistlahuaca backstrap loomed shoulder bag Bargain! $65
SOLD #9 Collector’s Huipil from Xochistlahuaca. 30” wide x 45” long Was $875 NOW $475.
#10 Size XL french knot embroidered blouse from Chiapas, spectacular workmanship. Was $145 Now $110.
#11. San Andres Larrainzar blusa. Backstrap loomed. 22-1/2” wide x 25” long. $68
SOLD #13. From the famous Palafox family of San Mateo del Mar, Oaxaca Size XL 35” wide x 33” long. cochineal, wild marigold, indigo. sea creature motifs woven into finest handwoven gauze cotton. You get this for what was paid for it. $375
#14. from Chiapas designer Alberto Lopez Gomez, the best quality huipil from the region. Size Medium. You get this for cost! $375
#15. And this one from Alberto Lopez Gomez. size Medium Also at cost $375

COMING UP — JEWELRY!

Oaxaca Whirlwind: Mezcal, Worms, Ants, Mole — What Happened to Culture?

It may have started 10 years ago when the New York Times travel section started featuring destinations you could dip into for a long weekend. Oaxaca was one of them. Arrive mid-afternoon Friday, bar hop Friday night, dip your toes into archeology with a quick trip to Monte Alban, try street tacos for lunch and fine dining for dinner, do a bit of market shopping, travel out to the Sunday Tlacolula market followed by a fast in-and-out weaving demonstration along the Teotitlan highway and get out of town by 4 p.m. Sunday. If you have 12 hours more, have another great dinner at El Catedral, Origen, Casa Oaxaca, or Los Danzantes. 36 Hours in Oaxaca. Isn’t that enough?

My Austin, TX cousin Norm sent me a text last week asking if I’d seen Somebody Feed Phil, Episode 1, Season 5, Oaxaca. (Netflix link: https://www.netflix.com/watch/81486397?trackId=253448517)

Norm wanted to know if I’d been to any of the places featured in the 55-minute segment. Curious, I logged on to discover, Yes, I know Casa Oaxaca, Origen, their famous chefs, the Abastos Market, the street taco corner, how to taste and understand mezcal, and the tapestry weaving cooperative featured. I’ve even written about eating chicatanas, gusanos, chicharrones and chapulines for Mexico Today. I know some of the fixers (the people who set up the visits). I don’t know everything. I defer to the experts for that. I also try to research for accurate reporting. The Oaxaca episode of Somebody Feed Phil had information errors and understandably, offered a sensational, brief overview for the foodies and fun-lovers among us. It could have done more. If nothing else grabs your attention, it’s going to be eating insects.

So, watching the visually stunning episode solidified my long-time desire to sit down to write about a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while: When you invite people to discover a place, it takes more than dipping your toe in the water. We must go beyond many of the more famous places featured. You need time to get out into the villages, talk to people, understand the history and the culture, ask questions. You need to discover how people survived over the centuries, sustained themselves, cultivated corn that was first hybridized 10 miles from where I live in the Tlacolula Valley 10,000 years ago. You need to know how the crafts developed out of necessity to clothe themselves and prepare food. You need to understand the political complexities of syncretism — the mix of indigenous religious spirituality and Spanish Catholicism. You need to do more than eat worms, ants and grasshoppers, make yourself up in costume mimicking the film Coco on Day of the Dead. You need to do more than sample mezcal — you need to know why it was used in ceremonial rituals.

Oaxaca is known for her sensational food and beverage. To be a responsible tourist, you need to take a deeper dive into over 8,000 years of Zapotec, Mixtec, Mixe, Ikoots, Amusgos, Chinantla, and the nine other indigenous language groups that comprise Oaxaca today. You may want to read Origin: The Genetic History of the Americas, as I am.

Yes, Oaxaca needs tourism. Our economy here depends on it. There is no other industry and it is how the formal and informal (cash) economy functions. Oaxaca lures people into the idea of coming to sample all that is offered because of its diversity in people and plant life. Of course, the lure is magical — the color, the light, the indigenous dress and the amazing food and beverage. What’s not to love? A five-day dip into the culture is an introduction where we can observe, ask questions, be respectful and discover more. Ultimately, we want you to return again and again. We also want you to learn rather than to judge or impose your own standards on a society that has thrived much longer than those of us whose origins are from Western cultures. Community runs deep here. Individualism not so much.

So when you come for Guelaguetza or Dia de los Muertos or Semana Santa or Navidad, please come with an open heart and mind. Don’t paint your face for the street party and think that you are participating like a local. Locals don’t do that. It is a Hollywood interpretation. Find the makers who are extraordinary but who have not yet achieved the fame bestowed on them by Anthony Bourdain or Phil Rosenthal or Conde Nast Traveler.

Go deeper. Take your time. Discover. There is still much to be discovered.

Tempted to visit? Go deep with us and participate in our one-day to week-long immersion visits that introduce you to the art and artisans of Oaxaca and other parts of Mexico. We still have some spaces open for our Summer Textile Mountain Tour, Day of the Dead Cultural Tour in 2022 and in Chiapas and Michoacan for 2023. See the right column of this site and click on the program that interests you.