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.
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?
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, 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.
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?
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!
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:firstname.lastname@example.org