i. Abstract:

This paper examines invented traditions and performed authenticity in contemporary craft. Alebrijes, a wood carving craft from Oaxaca, Mexico, is used as a case study to investigate how hybrid identities are devalued or erased completely in an effort to attract buyers and increase cultural value. Predominantly marketed online, sellers of alebrijes construct narratives that impose a timeless mono-narrative on the makers – that of the indigenous Zapotec “Indians”. 

In contrast, artisans engage with symbolism that represents a range of ethnicities and histories cutting across contemporary/historical and colonial/indigenous sources. The contradictory realities of the market and the artisans are discussed in conjunction with current theories and practices questioning the role of craft in the construction of identity. In my own work I responded to the following questions: How does the crafted object stand-in for cultural identity? How does performance present possibilities for trans-local systems of knowledge and image-making? How can hybridity survive through invention, innovation and sampling?

ii. Introduction: Invented Traditions 

Summer is the rainy season in Oaxaca, Mexico making the surrounding mountains lush and expansive. Last July, I had the opportunity to live on an organic farm and participate in an interdisciplinary design course called, Oaxifornia. The farm, appropriately named “Tierra del Sol” after Oaxaca’s verdant landscape, is located outside the main city of Oaxaca de Juarez. It is an incredible place complete with beautifully thatched huts, solar power and water-heating technology and a natural pool speckled by flowering lily pads. Tierra del Sol is also a learning center for sustainable living and frequently is host to groups of volunteers eager to learn from the knowledgeable co-founders Pablo Ruiz Lavalle and Adriana Guzman Salinas.

The course taught by Raul Cabra, a designer deeply invested in the connections between art and community, brings together local artisans and art students from the California College of the Arts. Described as an “experimental studio”, Oaxifornia provides an opportunity to have an immersive experience while investigating a slew of new materials, techniques and processes. Aside from the line “creativity as tools for social change and cultural engagement” there is no overtly political agenda listed here. However, it does not take long to realize the potential for serious critical positions to be developed at these tricky borderlands. It was during this trip that my eyes were opened to alebrijes, a popular wood carving craft from the Oaxaca Valley in the southern region of Mexico and a hotly contested “ethnic craft”. 

I had seen these small carvings a few times before while visiting my sister in Mexico City, peaking out of shiny storefront windows and on vendor carts. Bright and colorful, they often held me captive in intricate explosions of patterns. Still, I thought they might be tourist traps and probably overpriced. In fact, I never bought one. However, the more I researched the craft, the more transfixed I became on the inverted logic of the marketplace and their commercialized agency as “authentic crafts”. Online shops headlined convincing taglines about the authenticity of this craft, asserting that indigenous Zapotec “Indians” carved them. The complexity of ethnicity in the Oaxaca Valley region is never mentioned. There was a jarring difference between the way I experienced working with local artisans first-hand and how the spectacle of authenticity operated in the market. The consistent privileging of ethnic identity over the individual stories of the artisans revealed a complex layer to tourist arts and crafts. 

The recent popularity of alebrijes exposes both an increase in demand for ethnic crafts and the inventive survival strategies of contemporary artisans. Clearly, the market cannot survive without the continual inventive and creative efforts of the artisans who reflect a specific form of polycentrism – crossing between real and imagined spaces to fuse local and global elements together. Alebrijes express this visual cacophony beautifully as physical manifestations of the hybrid landscapes they inhabit in the globalized spectrum. 

iii. Dreamscapes and Parasites:

Simply defining the term alebrije is a difficult task. The word is used to describe an array of techniques and appearances. Some alebrijes are made of paper mache, while others are carved wood. Each painted surface is saturated and patterned, making even the most domestic figures, such as the popular dog and cat figurines, appear wild and alien. Painting techniques and symbolism differ between the artisans. They can be painted with natural tints following pre-Hispanic traditions (rústico) or be contemporary fusions painted with acidic acrylic colors. 

The majority of artisans develop their own painting and carving styles without any formal training. For Jesus Sosa Calvo, a wood carver from San Martín Tilcajete, a sudden onset of illness was the origination for his signature technique. While sick with an amoebic parasite, Calvo was shown magnified views of his internal attackers. At the time he had been working as an electrician, but upon leaving the hospital Calvo made the change to wood carving. Inspired and mesmerized by the detailed amoebas, Calvo went home to create dotted patterns in oblong shapes that look both celebratory and viral. 

Of course, when I was learning to carve from Calvo over the summer, I knew nothing about the history of alebrijes nor did I have any understanding of the complex life cycle of his carved objects. In a small group of four students, we traveled to his home in San Martín Tilcajete, located in the Central Valley. His town is one of three carving towns that produce the majority of alebrijes . The financial troubles of sustaining a carving practice make it difficult for other towns with less tourism to compete. By the end of the month-long class we called Calvo our maestro and successfully created a selection of new works of art constructed with our combined knowledge’s in the fields of wood carving, furniture making, ceramics, and painting. 

Before the class began, we were assigned a packet of readings that would bring us up to speed on the cultural, anthropological and marketplace significance of crafts from Oaxaca. One reading in particular caught my attention. It was a chapter titled, “Wood-Carving Communities”, from the book “Crafting Traditions: The Making and Marketing of Oaxacan Wood Carvings” by Michael Chibnik. Why “wood carving” has a hyphen sometimes and other times not is simply a reflection of the shifting territory that is ethnic and tourist craft. In this text, Chibnik fleshes out “the mix of modern and not-so-modern” characteristics that make contemporary Mexico. Focusing on the economic, cultural, ethnic makeup of wood carving families of the Central Valley, I became aware of the ambiguous territory these artisans inhabit. 

At once, the artisans have remained rural, Catholic, and in some cases retained pre-Columbian traditions and language (Zapotec and Mixtec) while simultaneously growing economically due to craft sales and increased migration to the States and Mexico City. Before 1999, San Martín Tilcajete, did not have access to a main highway. The town itself is ruled by a traditional system of local government whereby men from the community hold various political positions (from policemen to treasurers) rotating in and out of office called usos y costumbres. Only now do larger portions of households have phone lines, online access, cell phones, and cars. Buyers from the States, curious tourists, and students frequently visit the artisans all wanting a moment of their busy days. The artisans inhabit many localities and positions within the local and international community, employing contemporary practices as well as traditional ones.

The process of wood carving is arduous and one that requires hours of cutting wood with a simple machete, whittling the shape with a kitchen knife, sanding with various grits and laboriously painting. A typical work schedule stretches from 7am until dark. Often whole families will work well into the night to finish an order of carvings. The copal wood used for the carvings is grown in the surrounding mountainous areas and is then carted into the Valley and sold in the local markets. Many of the artisans participate in re-planting initiatives, in order to keep the population of trees stable. The copal wood has a smooth white flesh and is relatively easy to carve when wet. 

The smell of cutting off the first pieces of the cascara, or bark, yields a lovely scent that is spicy and refreshing. Once carved, the wood figure is laid out in the sun for 3 to 4 days and turns into a delightfully light and hard material. The figures are then painted with a saturated patterned and dotted surface, making even the most domestic figure such as the popular cat and dog figurines, appear wild and alien.

Returning to my experiences in the class, I was curious to see first hand how crafts marketed as “ethnic crafts” were being created, sold and how the artisans fit into this complex web of commodities. Most students in the class were assigned to local artisans with very little global or international presence. However, I was fortunate enough to be able to work with Calvo, who made a large part of his sales abroad. As an artisan working at the epicenter of the alebrije craft explosion, Calvo has an important position mediating the craft circuit. He was present in the media circus when alebrijes made the leap from small villages to city store fronts, personal collections and public exhibitions in the US, Mexico, Canada, and Europe over a short 20 – 30 year period. As a result, carvings created by Calvo appear in numerous publications from the early 90s onward. This includes museum catalogs, newspaper articles, and a variety of books featuring the local genius of the Oaxacan woodcarvings. 

Yet unfazed by his attained fame, Calvo is warm, charismatic, and talkative as he ushered us into his property set back from the town’s main dirt road. His home is comprised of a simple showroom, an outdoor workshop, a sustainable mini-tree farm (for the copal tree), a wood shed, a detached room for the children, and a main house where his wife, sons and other extended family members inhabit. Calvo, prior to being a wood carver, was a trained electrician and attributes his art as being the saving grace of his life. When I asked him to describe this change, Calvo responded by saying,

“When I began carving alebrijes, my life made a 360 degree turn, and it completely changed everything. Carving helped me economically, brought me personal satisfaction on many levels, and introduced me to people from the greater parts of the United States. Since then, I have visited the States many times, which is something that would have never entered my mind before wood carving. The smell of copal wood and paint is the best…second only to the smell of a woman, of course!” 

Such an enthusiastic opinion is to be expected from an alebrije artisan, as it is clear how greatly the money from craft sales has impacted the whole community. Artisan families are able to afford such luxuries as indoor plumbing, satellite dishes, radios, and plane tickets to the States. Additionally, the sudden economic makeover brought on by the popularity of this colorful craft encouraged the Mexican government to construct large highways leading from the main city of Oaxaca de Juarez into the surrounding Oaxaca Valley in the late 70s. Houses also changed from constructions of bamboo or adobe into concrete and cement ones to provide longer lasting structures . 

Despite these advances, when my group arrived in San Martín Tilcajete, we found it still resonated with rural village life. Winding paths of dirt roads lead us into the town, past cinderblock buildings and pastoral farmland. The simple construction of houses and buildings gave them a quaint rustic quality. The occasional hand painted sign casually tied to a pole or a tree indicated the names of wood carving families, including the name “Calvo”. Looking towards the cloudless sky of the Valley, we could see large-scale dragons and colorful beasts affixed to rooftops catching the eye and flashing their shiny bodies against the beige monochrome of cinderblock walls. The mere 1,600 inhabitants are not much to suggest the cultural significance of this town. However, all that is required to realize the significance is to pick up a tourist guide or enter any store in Oaxaca. 

Although wood carving in general has a long indigenous history, this particular style of craft arrived on the international market in the 1980s and is representative of what Chibnik describes as an “invented tradition” brought on by the high demand for “exotic” and “ethnic crafts” . In this manner, alebrije wood carvings differ from other ethnic crafts in that they did not exist in their current form during pre-colonial times nor do solely indigenous groups such as the Zapotec or Mixtec make them. The founders of alebrijes from the 1930s until the present are mestizos of hybrid heritages. The majority of present day working artisans did not learn their craft as children, but rather cultivated it later in life. What I mean by this is that alebrijes are not a re-appropriated form of indigenous carving, but rather a hybrid and stylized craft generated by multiple cultures, localities and time frames. 

Known as the poorest state in Mexico, alebrijes were created in part to fill an economic demand in Oaxaca and to fill a demand for ethnic craft by increasing levels of tourism. This unique set of circumstances, make alebrijes an important case study of the current conditions of art and identity in the 21st century. As a case study, the alebrije phenomenon speaks to the current desires of the first world, specifically the motivations of the tourist amateur collector, and the survival techniques of the “fourth world” . The fourth world refers to trans-cultural individuals whose identities are often usurped by the other dominant identities (i.e. the indigenous groups or elite Mexicans). This category is further taxed in Mexico due to the strong presence of inidgenismo, or that, which is indigenous and not European – setting up a specific power duality that leaves no room for other permutations. Being an “invented tradition” alebrijes present an interesting interplay with indigenous identities and traditions, while revealing many of the commodity driven obsessions of the Western world. This, however, does not mean that the work is any less valuable or interesting simply because it has been created so recently. I simply point this out because I want to make the distinction between how and when alebrijes came about and the way they are portrayed in the marketplace.

Founders Pedro Linares and Manuel Jimenez capitalized on their strategic position as being neither “insiders” nor “outsiders” by weaving the best of both worlds into a unique style and charisma. There are multiplicities of origin stories that assign alebrijes to the Zapotec people. The fact that most of the artisans can “pass” as full “Indian”, due to darker skin tones and working fingers makes it difficult for any press articles to avoid improper labeling. Additionally, contemporary life for Oaxacans is steeped in indigenous history, folklore and traditions making them impossible to separate. 

It is unclear how ethnicity affects the lives of individuals living in the Central Valleys, since both indigenous people and mestizos often follow the same cultural rules and traditions. Before the Spanish arrived, locations such as Monte Alban and Mitla were the urban centers for the Zapotec and Mixtec civilizations. After the Spanish conquest, indigenous populations were spread out in the Valley and were allowed to retain the control of much of the land. The indigenous people continued to farm and make crafts that they sold and exchanged in the city . While some of these crafting traditions have remained the same since pre-Columbian or colonial times, others are amalgam arts utilizing the expertise and materials brought in by colonial influences. 

Contrary to other craft forms, such as black pottery and weaving, alebrijes have received relatively little state and governmental support since the 1970s. This is in part due to the uncomfortable stance that alebrijes have in regards to Mexico’s post-revolutionary dialog surrounding the promotion of indigenous culture and the development of a mestizaje identity, one which merges the artistic technologies of both Spanish and indigenous groups to unite across language, ethnic, and political borders. This is the story of the modern Mexican, born from the loin of the defeated and the defeaters (colonized and colonizer). However, this mission is one that makes the creation of alebrijes even more compelling and one that puts the concepts of stable ethnic or cultural identity at risk. Here is where I believe the agency of alebrijes lie to identify the ways in which 1) indigenous narratives are exploited and invented on the global market 2) artisans can utilize craft as a survival strategy by implementing both modern and traditional influences 3) and myths about authenticity and fantasy are highlighted and implicated together. Additionally, alebrijes allow for an open discussion that is not overly dependent on the hierarchies of image making or power flows. I wish to redefine the vague and confusing term, globalization, to include a multi-local, rhizomatic structure rather than regarding it as a one-way system linking subordinate regions with the mainstream. In the case of alebrijes, they are just as popular with Mexicans, both rich and poor, as they are with American and European foreigners. 

This international leveling effect can be seen on a large-scale during the Desfile de Alebrijes Monumentales (Monumental Alebrije Parade) hosted by the Museo de Arte Popular (Museum of Popular Arts) where both locals and tourists gather for the boisterous parade. Larger than life sculptures ranging from the whimsical to the monstrous are paraded on floats driven by the makers and their friends. Each one is visually intense with hordes of colors, shapes, and patterns dominating every space on the figure to overwhelm the senses with awe, disgust, and curiosity. These are done mostly in paper mache and then hand painted. The annual spectacle draws tightly packed crowds. State sponsored wood carving contests also provide a public forum for wood carvers to show off their specialized skills. However, the hidden requirements are that if an artist is chosen as the winner, then he must give up that piece to the State in exchange for his prize money. The difficulty with this is that often times the prize money is worth much less than its sale value on the market. Many artisans choose to forgo the honor of winning such competitions and go straight to the buyers instead. 

iv. Dead or Alive? The Role of Ethnic Craft and the Fetish of the Authentic

“The analysis of this hybrid nature [of crafts] must travel a road between two precipices: the folklorist temptation to see only the ethnic aspect and consider crafts as merely fading remnants of dying cultures; or, as a backlash, the danger of isolating an economic interpretation and studying them as one would any other item ruled by the logic of the market.” 

Although sometimes recognized as art, ethnic crafts are frequently dismissed as primitive expressions of dying cultures or pumped uncritically and en-masse into the public for immediate consumption. Mired by over-determined definitions and essentialist assumptions, both the makers and their objects are reduced to mono-narratives that exploit their “mystic”, “ethnic” or “nature-friendly” aesthetics in the marketplace. Essentialism, much like stereotyping, defines a set group of principles to any entity . Therefore, if one is told, “this is a craft made by Zapotec Indians”, one might assume a list of parameters that would apply to the artisan and the environment in which it was made. However, if the person who said, “this is a craft made by Zapotec Indians” was stretching the truth, then misinformation is an additional outcome of the exchange of goods. This is particularly a sensitive topic when artisans are from poor backgrounds are entering the marketplace. In order for artisans to be viable, many choose to accentuate their ethnicity in order to emphasize the authentic nature of the work they have produced. This phenomenon is exponentially re-produced on the Internet by sellers and often museums and specialty galleries follow suit. A majority of the 20+ websites that I reviewed mention 1) a connection to Zapotec heritage, 2) the obsession of the western collector and 3) the unique or hand-made qualities of the carvings. All three aspects indicate the global success of alebrijes and reinforce their authenticity. To illustrate this, I offer three excerpts from websites describing alebrijes:

“Crafting Alebrijes is a relatively new art-form, but has its roots in pre-Hispanic times, with the native's penchant for color and love for the fantastic, even the macabre…His own unique alebrijes came out of a dream, depicting his death and rebirth in a mountainous setting inhabited by these fierce creatures. With the paste of the judas running through his veins, Don Pedro gave life to his vision and the art of making alebrijes was born. These figures are prized here and in countries around the world. 

“Oaxacan Wood Carvings are a magnificent expression of Mexican Folk Art. The talented carvers of Oaxaca create, entirely by hand, wonderful sculptures made from copal wood and their ingenious shapes with amazing patterns and colors have captivated collectors worldwide…For centuries the inhabitants of the Valley of Oaxaca and in particular the Zapotec civilization carved splendid wooden sculptures that are now in museums or adorning colonial churches.” 

“Combine a centuries old tradition of wood carving with a fanciful sense of form and add the Mexican flair for bright, surprising color schemes and you get the famous "alebrijes," or animal carvings of Oaxaca. Found in museums and galleries throughout the United States and other countries, these works are recognized as a supreme expression of the best of Mexican folk art.” 

One explanation for the repeated emphasis on the native identity and the western collector is the tourist demand for the “real thing”. Artisans act as living conduits for lost practices and serve as the story-tellers and connectors to a simpler time in society. Utilizing techniques that have become obsolete in the modern world, crafting can be an active means of retaining identity, especially for indigenous populations, who wish to continue practicing their own identity. On the contrary, it can also serve as a spectacle of the authentic, such as in colonial re-enactment towns, or as a sales pitch to expectant buyers of traditional or folk crafts. 

Artist Allison Smith explores the duality of contemporary craft in both utopian and critical sensibilities at the intersection of war and craft practices . Maintaining Glenn Adamson’s assertion that “craft is mainly a matter of persuasiveness, a technique for grabbing attention and holding it” , Smith’s work requires incites controversial discussions along “lines of conflict” cutting across time, ethnicity, and culture. Making the crafted object a vessel for the past, as in her large-scale rocking horse, Smith asks us to see how craft has become the surrogate “other” by providing the visual manifestation for a universal desire to return to purity, childhood and nature (a time without technology). But where do we locate this purity? Is it reflected in the craft practitioners and their personal histories? Or in the materials they use? Perhaps we can find it in the symbolism, technique or colors? For Oaxacan wood carvers, the question of authenticity is one complicated from its inception. Believed by many foreigners to represent a traditional wood carving craft, alebrijes have a deviant history. 

v. A Brief History of Alebrijes

The development of alebrijes and their story is one that is more about encountering experiences across disciplines, people, and locations than a single narrative. It cannot be easily understood from one place or one perspective and certainly cannot be explained solely by either the market place or a history book. How these moments come together, clash and interconnect in a local and global manner is where the interest lies for me. The artisans have one view, and so do the collectors, museum curators, Internet wholesalers, educators, and artists – all telling one facet of the whole conflicting and bizarre story. We can begin by examining how artisans have been re-integrating Zapotec designs within contemporary images of fantasy – critically engaging with the concept of the “native” as being the apparition of an alien/outsider. I see them as reweaving the stories of their ancestors as both a way to engage with stories that might otherwise be lost and as a way to comment on the spectacle of consumerism artisans purposefully put twists and change stories to please the market and by doing so reveal the underlying mechanism of buying power. 

Alebrije founder Pedro Linares, a mestizo, must have been aware of the two worlds he was straddling – the ancestral indigenous world of the Zapotecs and the modernized colonial world of Catholicism all shrouded by a veil of poverty. Working closely with discarded and found materials, such as cardboard boxes, Linares created religious spectacles for the colonial churches. He was a poor man living in Mexico City and selling his paper mache sculptures during the huge Catholic festivals. A heavy drinker, Linares became extremely ill with a stomach condition at age 30. Due to the lack of medicines readily available to the poor in Mexico City, Linares eventually had a brush with death. His son, Felipe Sr. explained, “His condition was very grave. Eventually he lost his recognition of us, his family members. He said he thought he would die very soon” . He did not die, but eventually recovered to recount his nightmarish dreams to his sons, saying that he had seen monsters in the sky. Felipe Sr. remembers his father talking about "clouds that transformed into very ugly, frightening creatures….He vowed to us that he would recapture the monsters in his art, even though they'd be so ugly that no one would buy them.' He constructed a figure somewhat human with a head resembling a cow. 'It is called an alebrije,' he announced". This first alebrije was bought by a gallery owner in Cuernavaca, Mexico and was consequently commissioned for more. Soon after, Linares’s trademark one-of-a-kind pieces were shown in museum institutions across Latin America, the United States and Europe . Although Pedro Linares died in 1992, his sons have continued to develop the now popular look of alebrijes, adding in animal and insect body parts and expanding on the brightly colored painting techniques.

The Linares family was very well known for making the cartonería for all the local festivals . Described in an exhibit at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, cartonería is explained as “a papier maché technique for making three-dimensional sculptures that has evolved into a traditional and highly-prized Mexican art. Introduced by the Spanish as a way to make objects for churches, the sculptures may take the form of mythological beasts, demons, angels, dragons, or even political figures. Artists use many different kinds of paper to create their sculptures, which are then brightly and intricately painted” . What is revealed here is that the practice of the cartonero includes an active consideration of the Catholic religion and has little to do with pre-colonial ethnic beliefs or traditions. Linares, was a devout observer and although he was a mestizo, he did not follow any indigenous customs. Linares is typically considered the father of alebrijes, and he considers his own work the only truly “authentic” alebrije. 

Another origin story takes place in the 1960s when artisan Don Manuel Jiménez claims that he is the sole creator and truly authentic maker of the alebrijes. Jiménez had been working in his town for many years as a mask carver, and seeing the popularity of some of his pieces with the tourists in the area created a new type of wood carving. The inspiration from Linares is undeniable, but Jiménez has never admitted as much. Without a doubt the alebrije craft, as it is known on the market, could not have happened without Jiménez serving as the catalyst for a collector frenzy of his interpretation of the alebrije style. Using his influence from other wood carvers and Pedro Linares’s fantastical animal sculptures, Jiménez came up with what is globally recognized as “alebrijes”, even though this is a borrowed term and not accurate to Linares’s intentions. Despite this, Jiménez was quoted in 1993 as saying

“Mine is a sacred history…I am not just anybody. I am a real tiger. I was born intelligent. Everyone here is living off my initiative. If I hadn’t started carving, no one would be doing anything. I invented the whole tradition. They should make a statue for me in the plaza, with an arrow pointing to the house, and rename this street Jiménez Street” . 

These are the words of an artist, a proud maestro. Jiménez, rightfully confident about his work, certainly was not the first adept wood carver in the Oaxaca Valley region. In fact, it is difficult to talk about his innovations without accounting for the ways in which he sampled both the stylistic choices of Linares and the carving techniques of local artists. It was only with the arrival of international tourists that Jiménez began to expand his repertoire and include the fantastical animals that are now his main focus. Additionally, Jiménez signs every piece, even though it is mostly his sons who produce the actual pieces. Much like the Warholian Factory, Jiménez figured out how to create a market for himself, become an excellent story-teller while saying nothing specific, maintain himself as a figure of entertainment, and take sole credit for the work of many individuals. One might consider, where did he learn all of these specialized skills? And what is he modeling his practice after?

Yet another version equates alebrijes to the pre-Hispanic carvings of the Zapotec. During an interview about the origination of alebrijes with Calvo he asserted that they do have Zapotec beginnings. In his response, he said, 

“Yes, this craft was created by the ancient Zapotecs, except that they were not called alebrijes nor were they envisioned as a handicraft. They began carving masks that were used during festivals or during the “danza de la pluma” [dance of the feather], which is a dance of remembrance of the conquest of Mexico [by the Spanish conquistadors]”. 

A few questions came to mind when I read his response (since we communicate via the ancient mode of “internetting”). The first being how would ancient Zapotecs interpret their own conquest? Especially, if they haven’t been conquered yet? This conflation of time is very normal in Mexico as the past is just as vibrant as the present. Today, alebrijes are spoken of as a highly marketable and global product: one that benefits small villages economically. Many regard this craft as a success for rural villages and anthropological studies have been conducted on the effects of this craft on the family structure and economic earnings of these artisans. There has also been extensive discussion regarding the environmental impact on the copal tree population, as wood carvers must cut and ship them to different parts of the valley. However, these economic, environmental, and anthropological conversations are not the final word on the phenomenon of alebrijes. I believe that because the artisans are generally poor, and living in rural areas, that a more contemporary mode of discourse around them has been avoided or neglected. Unlike the privileged position of artists like Allison Smith, the “alebrije” artisans currently have only two positions of viability from the mainstream perspective: through the sales of their products and through the sale of their village identity.

vi. Standing In, Standing Up: Representation in Crafts

The colorful exterior of the alebrije is often disarmingly simple, bright and at first glance, un-intellectual, in fact, anti-intellectual. So why would or what would a group of art students from the prestigious colleges of fine arts institutions serve to gain from an exchange with such a type of work? I am interested in how the crafted object serves as a stand-in for the cultural identity of entire races. I don’t mean this in the strict sense of artisanal crafts, but rather I am referencing a larger plane that includes symbolic objects. Whether it is a hamburger, a baseball, or a wooden figurine, these items are imbued with a certain mythical power to narrate the story of large groups of people. Normally, this is not detrimental to people who are otherwise well represented in media, as they are given a large pool of symbolic imagery to be referenced. However, for underrepresented groups or hybrid populations the power of the crafted object can become overwhelmingly the point of entrance for dominant cultures, and the focus of any investment into their narrative. In extreme cases, crafted objects validate entire populations, particularly women all over the world, and become a survival mechanism in the face of erasure from the mainstream. 

Alebrije wood carvings are ultimately an example of how the crafted object fails to accurately represent the artisans making them. Consistently, alebrijes are seen as the work of Zapotecs and reiterate a colonial history about the distinction of races and classes, between the Spaniard and the “Indian”. What is not told is the necessity of craft as a valuable part of a dialog that reaches beyond the confines of canonical discussions of art and identity. What is most contemporary about alebrijes are the modes of operation and production of an entire market that seeks to change the lives of individual artists locally while engaging with an international system. This type of work serves to open a critical discourse with not only wood carvers, but other craft economies as well. I would like to provide a discussion about craft economies that offer a successful model for critically engaging with the art world politically, economically, and ecologically. Alebrijes reveal key survival techniques for the artists straddling multiple worlds – traditional, contemporary, rich, and poor – and how this transnational identity finds a foothold here to resist total assimilation into the global economy. We can see also how this work becomes a form of negotiation between the local identity and the global engagement. Actually this touches on the inadequacy of art in general.

Donna Haraway asks us in her text, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective” to become responsible for not only what we see but also how we know what we see. She argues for a feminist perspective on embodied objectivity as a horizontal “on the ground” approach for making responsible claims about knowledge. Rather than implementing a universalizing (Essentializing) and disembodied “god-trick”, Haraway presents knowledge that is narrated through an embodied location – a particular corporeal place. Issues of positionality, ethics, and particular histories are pushed to the forefront, while master narratives are more easily disassembled. This brings a field of polycentric objects that may be closer, further, obscured, or readily visible from your perspective – spatially and conceptually. Haraway asks us not only to make a change in the world – that is how to take responsibility for our actions in the world economically, historically, environmentally – but to make an epistemological change. Looking at the realm of the arts we can readily see inequities across the board, who is invited into the inner cultural circles of museum institutions and galleries is very different than the individuals we expect to see at the Tijuana border selling piñatas. 

However, my intention with this paper is not only to highlight the obvious, but to add perhaps a more nuanced perspective – one that is not entirely cynical, but one that embraces the messy, the uncomfortable, the hybrid, and the perpetually reinvented land of inequity. If we move the border slightly to the left, we do not necessarily decrease the amount of people fighting to get across it. In other words, what can we do with an already grim and complicated situation? I return again to Haraway’s text because here she celebrates the grey area of the cyborg – an individual living across corporeal boundaries in both the human, animal, and machine worlds. In many ways we can equate the third world artisan to this hybrid being – someone living in the local conditions of the village and yet interfacing with the global market to make sales and to assess the success of certain “traditional” or “ethnic” motifs. 

As someone who is sensitive to this realm of the hybrid, I myself growing up in a household of two languages and a multitude of cultures, religions, and voices – I feel compelled to look at the artisans and ask myself what can they tell me about operating at the border? I look to them to gain insight into my own practice and to broaden my perspective of what is art and how people make a living off of their craft. Right now my only models are a bizarre combination of people living from residency to residency, grant to grant who never hold down a real job and those living in at least two worlds working during the day and then painting at night. Artisans are examples in my mind of some of the more successful models of making work, however, the type of work is what is in question. Their practice is one of consistent output, in relatively predictable models – in fact they share more in common with factories many times, than individual artists. They also have the unique burden of representing their culture. I feel that they are an extreme example of what many fine artists go through in attempting to define their own art counter to the dominant sphere of white, male painters. 

There are many pitfalls in trying to define one’s self against something else, as nothing is consistent and so constantly shifting. The problem is that oftentimes people who wish to define themselves for themselves are not allowed to because of frequent stereotyping and lack of knowledge. I don’t want to pretend that this does not come into play when I discuss anything that is considered specific cultural information. In other countries there is a great amount of awareness of what Americans are doing, and I reciprocate by finding out what is going on in the rest of the world. However, most Americans simply do not ask these challenging questions and instead rely on popular media sources (such as Fox News or No News to get their information). I understand that this is not the typical audience that attends galleries or museums and so this paper is perhaps not aimed at them, but at a much broader population of non-specialized individuals who come into contact with cultural objects everyday. On one hand I am talking to them, people not in the arts community. Where I am talking to the arts community is when I am looking for support to bring these groups of people together – the artists, the non-artists, and the artisans. All three groups have entirely different perspectives on the concepts of market value, artistic merit, historical/cultural value, and purpose / definition of art. But by generating a discourse between these groups think we can begin to have a much clearer picture of the way in which culture functions and the role of the artists across high and low class. 

On the lowest end, crafts often serve as decoration, but on the highest end, crafts can serve as the political mouthpiece for an individual or ethnic group. An example of this are the Persian or Afghan War Rugs that began flooding the market in the 1990’s which integrated tanks, planes, grenades, and other weapons into traditional patterns. The phenomenon does not appear to be from one source, but from a multitude of weavers who allowed their contemporary situation to inform their craft. Alebrijes have much of the same tendency, but at a more abstract level. Alebrijes are fusions of animals, colors, and include patterns discovered from x-rays of diseases with Internet image sources. I am always amazed how contemporary alebrijes are looked over because of the dotting and vaguely ethnic look, whereas the Persian Rugs are unmistakably modern because they have such a high contrast to them. The Chinese replication factories too are incredibly complex places with a high degree of discomfort when thinking about whom is mostly commissioning the works.

vii. Possibly, Probably, Attributed: A Discussion of Recent Work

Navigating these questions about hybridity and identity in the face of the market and popular culture, I have made a series of videos, installations, and digital collages that deal with making things and making places – manufacturing narrative. My central question probes into our visual reliance on objects to tell a story. This latest series of work utilizes the construction of irreverent museum environments; sets, props, actors and lighting framed into vignettes where the complexities of the museum as a site of cultural tourism take place. 

Multiple projects interconnect and overlap here: 1) short videos of imagined characters interacting with the space, 2) artifacts harvested for “anthropological” display, 3) digital collages that play with imagination and fantasy. Particular couplings are present in all of these manifestations: handmade objects crafted with mass produced materials, dramatic nature scenes and alien creatures, bizarre characters performing inexplicable activities. I am using the museum as a site of critique but also a place for fabrication of new stories and characters that might inhabit a diorama at an intergalactic Natural History Museum. Questioning the role of the authentic maker in a museum setting, I will be delving into current constructions of “native” and “invader”. My studio practice over the last few months has been comprised of re-making diorama scenes, photographing the work and making videos with imagined characters. I am sticking closely to the themes of authenticity, craft/materiality, and value (monetary and cultural).

In the video series, I have created four characters: 1) the vendor 2) the wrestler 3) the curator and 4) the storyteller. Each represent one aspect in the life cycle of a crafted object, and in each video the mood and attitude reflects those changes. The vendor dances pirouettes with his objects ready to sell to the next person who says “maybe”. The wrestlers put on a “collector’s fantasy” show, revealing alluring dance moves and encouraging the viewer to “Hurry Up and Buy!” The curator and the storyteller may appear to have similar roles, but one is decidedly more prone to exaggeration than the other. In the storyteller video, presents a slow monotone voice detailing a fantastical explanation of alebrijes. This is a cut up version sampled from various Internet retail sources. The storyteller video also integrates images of the popular wrestler named Alebrije and his small side-kick, Cuije – juxtaposing pop culture against the “ethnic craft”.

For my final MFA show I am creating “Hybrid House” - a life-size diorama installation, which explores the interior of the modern bourgeoisie home – envisioning the intimate living quarters as a display for exotic exploits and cultural discoveries. The hand-painted wall painting is a contemporary take on the visually stunning panoramic wallpaper, “Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique”. The wallpaper was manufactured in the French town of Mâcon during the early 19th century and was inspired by voyages to the Pacific by explorers such as Jean François Galaup de la Pérouse and James Cook. The panoramic view surrounds the viewer with “the vision of distant and exotic lands… depicting people from diverse places, all unified within a lush landscape” . Inside the house will be an installation of invented postcards from “far-away” and exotic places, as well as a collection of memorabilia. On these walls palm trees grow side by side with Christmas and cherry blossom trees, while favelas from Rio are nestled next to a car jumping across the Grand Canyon. Here time and space is compressed into a flowing panorama of excitement.

Appendix A:
Interview with Jesus Sosa Calvo
Spanish Version
Natalia Nakazawa January 21 at 5:21pm

Hola Jesús!

¿Cómo está? Todavía estoy tan excitada por todo lo que aprendí durante el verano. Ahora estoy tratando de hacer algo de trabajo relacionado con la talla en madera. Me pregunto si me puede ayudar con la identificación de los diferentes tipos de símbolos queutiliza en su trabajo.

Al investigar la historia de los alebrijes, descubrí que muchas personas creen que los indígenas zapotecas crearon estas artesanías. ¿Es esto cierto desde su perspectiva? Y si es así, ¿utiliza algún simbolismo indígena zapoteca en su trabajo? O si no, ¿cuáles son las influencias que tiene para crear sus animales y diseños pictóricos? Estoy tratando de averiguar qué tipo de arte se consideran estas obras. ¿Cree que se tratan de artesanías populares o que son más un trabajo que se puede presentar en un museo de bellas artes?

En Estados Unidos las obras de arte son más apreciadas si se consideran auténticas, y me pregunto si en términos generales usted cree que esta es una manera justa de vender la obra. ¿Cuál es su forma favorita de vender su trabajo? ¿Suele vender directamente a clientes o usa a un mayorista, como la mujer de Berkeley? ¿Se siente también bien representado por otras personas que venden su trabajo?

Tengo problemas similares y estoy tratando de vender mis cuadros a través de galerías, por lo que tengo curiosidad de saber cómo encarar la distribución y venta de mi trabajo. Una pregunta más, ¿cómo cree que su vida ha cambiado desde que comenzó a hacer alebrijes?

Sé que tengo un montón de preguntas, pero cualquier respuesta que me pueda dar sería de gran ayuda!



Jesus Sosa Calvo January 24 at 12:37am

Hola Natalia! disculpa que hasta hoy te contesto voy a contestarte deacuerdo al orden de las preguntas. Si esta artesania fue creada por los antiguos zapotecas solo que no se le llamaba alebrijes ni se tenia la vision de artesania, se comenzo haciendo mascaras que se ocupaban para las fiesta de carnaval o para la danza de la pluma, esta danza es una representacion acerca de la conquista de Mexico y bailan dos personajes que los conocemos como negritos o hipocanpos estos bailan con mascaras, tambien haciendo jugetes. En algunos casos si utilizo simbolos indigenas zapotecos o nahualt para decorar mis figuras. 

Influecia mucho los animales reales de la region y del mundo y las embellesco con colores fuertes , me gustan los colores fuertes por que me siento alegre y el estado de animo tambien influye mucho. Trabajo figuras que las considero artesanias, populares, pero que no dejan de ser obras de arte y que se exiben y venden en galerias y trabajo tambien obras de arte para museos y colecionistas. en conclucion las considero piezas de arte. En cualquier parte de mundo son apreciadas las obras de arte que tengan autenticidad, por eso yo busque mi estilo de trabajo en la forma de tallar como para pintar. Por lo regualr vendo a mayorista y en ocacionnes directamente, las dos formas, me gusta mas cuando vendo directamente y si me siento bien ser representado por otras personas por que de cualquier manera aprecian mi trabajo y tengo la oportunidad de venderlo. Tienes que hacer lo mismo con tus cuadros tienes que buscar galerias que te representen y cuando tengas la oportunidad de vender dicrectamente lo tendras que hacer, es safisfactorio ser representado por una galeria, bueno yo asi siento. 

Cuando comenze a trabajar la madera, hacer alebrijes le di un giro de 360 grados a mi vida, un cambio total, me ha ayudado en mi economia, me ha traido muchas satisfaciones, he conocido mucha gente del mundo la mayor parte de los Estados Unidos, he visitado los Estados muchas veces, algo que nunca antes habia pasado por mi mente. es lo mejor que me ha sucedido entres tantas cosa, el olor de madera y pintura es el mejor olor que he percibido. Despues de perfume de una linda mujer, claro jajajajajaja!. 

Cuando tengas mas preguntas escribeme con confianza. Me dio gusto saludarte, saludame a Hanna si las ves, a Joy y Jay. No me creas! pero yo he tenido muchos cursos, pero con ustedes senti un curso especial y tambien todavia estoy estuciasmado, vi a Samantha hace poco y los recorde. Algun dia en algun lugar nos volveremos a ver. 

Saludos. Jesus. 

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Making Things, Making Places:
Invented Meaning in the Crafted Object
by Natalia Nakazawa

A Project
Presented to
The Graduate Faculty
California College of the Arts

In Partial Fulfillment
of the Requirements for the Degree
Master of Fine Arts

{Jovi Schnell – Main Advisor}

{Glen Helfand – Thesis Advisor}

{Ted Purves – Grad Program Representative}