Ancient Traditions — New Hands
By Marianne Carlson
Many Mexican artisan families have had to face the difficult challenge of their next generation not wishing to continue in the family’s folk art tradition. The new generation can see the difficult life ahead with all the new challenges Mexican folk art has had to adapt to in the world marketplace. Feria Maestros del Arte’s 2019 theme, Ancient Traditions — New Hands, honors those families who have succeeded in preserving their culture and traditions for yet another generation.
In Mexico today, Mexican artesanía is exported and is one of the reasons why tourists are attracted to the country. Here, both crafts created for a utilitarian purposes and folk art are collectively known as artesanía, both having a similar history and both being a valued part of Mexico’s national identity. Many organizations and government programs exist to help craftspeople and promote the production of artsanía. However, Feria Maestros del Arte believes that when we look deeper into what is said about preserving folk art and the reality of it, many governmental organizations fall short in their attempts to preserve this vital part of Mexico’s history.
In Japan, certain artworks, structures, craft techniques and performing arts are considered by the Japanese government to be a precious legacy of the Japanese people, and are protected under the Japanese Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties. This law also identifies people skilled at traditional arts as “National Living Treasures“, and encourages the preservation of their craft.
Folk artists are proud individuals. For them, creating their art is not only a way to generate income, but it is also a way of life, a legacy they want to leave to their children. This folk art is at risk of becoming an endangered species! Industrialization and urbanization — not to mention cheap Chinese knock-offs — are driving artisans or their offspring to leave their villages and forsake their craft for work in the cities. The preservation and promotion of the rich folk art traditions of Mexico are being threatened by economic challenges that significantly impact the folk art community. This trend has intensified and picked up its pace in recent decades.
The search for prosperity has driven global businesses to expand beyond their borders and consumers to buy what they consider the “best” at an affordable price. Examples of Mexican pottery have been sent to the Far East to be duplicated at a fraction of the cost a middleman would pay the Mexican artisan for the same “original” piece. But, there is a huge difference in “the bang you get for your buck!”
I overheard a shopper in my former gallery who was telling his friends with much aplomb that the incredibly intricate designs on the Mata Ortiz pottery they were admiring, were actually decals and that the pots are thrown on a potter’s wheel and not actually hand-coiled as they, in fact, are. Quick to set the potential buyers straight, I explained to the man how he could easily be misinformed about the pottery because this is actually happening to Mexican pottery — samples are copied and decals are applied and merged with the clay through the firing process. There have even been cases where the Mexican artist’s signature has also been duplicated on the pot.
So how does a buyer know what they are buying? The price should start the bells going off — if the price seems too good to be true, it probably is. Also, if you look closely you can see for example, that the piece is not actually hand-painted, or the textile is made using synthetic thread — it doesn’t take a practiced eye to know quality when you see it. Each of us must ask ourselves, “Is the Mexican folk art culture worth saving?” and further, to ask ourselves, “Are we willing to pay slightly more to ensure that this culture survives?” Modern times tend to downgrade the value of the beautiful and overstress the value of the useful. Because the value of art can be sensed through emotions and requires no intellectual examination, appreciation of art is ultimately in the eye of the beholder and its value is whatever you will pay for it. The job of the artist is to awaken that eye, to offer you something you cannot make yourself, something that moves and stirs your imagination and love for beauty. It is worrying that random tourism development often excludes information on Mexico’s vanishing culture.
Each generation of artists puts their own spin on the art form they practice, while preserving the methods, techniques and materials passed on to them by their forefathers. In this way, the legacy of Mexican folk art lives on. Folk art has been a pillar of the economy in many homes and is an important and non-replaceable part of Mexico’s history.
Feria Maestros del Arte’s mission is to bring awareness to the plight of Mexican folk art. This year, we are sharing with the public two unique artisans that totally exemplify the theme “Ancient Traditions — New Hands.” Adriana Yamilet López Villacente, six years old and Brisa Janet López Villacente, seven years old, have been invited to this year’s Feria to illustrate the age at which many artisans begin learning their parent’s craft. Already weaving and selling their work, these two children will be demonstrating their abilities at the Feria and promoting “ancient traditions” having moved into “new hands”.