Each year on March 19, Mexico celebrates Artisan Day (Día de Artesano), with just about every museum and cultural institution related to handcrafts and folk art having one event or another, often extending over a week or even longer.
The day is important here both because of artesanía‘s economic and culutral importance. According the the National Fund for the Development of Arts and Crafts (FONART), there are over 10 million people in the country who work at one kind of handcraft or another, mostly in conjunction with other economic activities. The vast majority of these live in rural areas and are indigenous, not ot mention that about 70% are women. However, 600,000 of these people live below Mexico’s poverty line.
The major handcraft producing areas are in the center and south of the country, especially the states of Oaxaca, Michoacán and Chiapas, with important activities in the State of Mexico, Puebla and Jalisco.
In English, there is a dividing line between “art” and “handcrafts,” albeit a blurry one. In some cases the distinction is clear when the piece has a function, such as a chair, no matter how artistically it is decorated. A number of others are far less so, such as the amate paper paintings done by the Nahuas in Guerrero. While they are paintings, the designs are derived from traditional decorations from pottery, and so generally classified as handcraft. However, decorative designs have been changing rapidly such that this link to handcraft is far less clear. For example, artisan Angelica Morales makes pottery much the way that others in Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán do, but the designs she paints on them are unique, and she has since begun to paint her images of female figures onto paper and canvas, undoubtedly moving into the realm of art.
In Spanish, the distinction is three-fold, arte (art), artesanía and manualidad. The distinction between artesanía and manualidad is as important as it is difficult to define. Both words would translate roughly to “handcrafts/folk art” in English, but the distinction has more to do with whether the handcrafted item has a link to a community and/or cultural tradition. For some, it is not artesanía, unless the items being made have a generational link, meaning that it has been taught in families for several generations at least. For others, it is sufficient if the artesanía requires a certain level of skill or creativity. The main idea is that “artesanía” has something more to it than just having been made by hand. An obvious example of a manualidad would be something put together from a kit bought at a store. Beyond that, and whole treatises have been written by experts to distingush between the two.
While just about all of Mexico’s artesanía traditions have their origins in the making of items for local use, today almost all are now made for tourist and foreign markets. Indeed, Mexican handcrafts and folk art nearly disappeared by the mid 20th century, but two developments saved it from oblivion. The promotion of a “new,” “Mexican” identity after the Mexican Revolution by the country’s intellectual and artistic elite, and perhaps more importantly, the development of Mexico’s tourism industry. Artists like Diego Rivera and government officials have promoted handcrafts in-country, but their association with the poor and indigenous still stigmatizes the products among Mexicans who could afford to buy and collect them. Such stigmatization is not an issue among foreigners, who look to bring back something “authentically Mexican” from their visits, which has over the decades spawned a collectors’ market.
This market sees products of all kinds shipped abroad, especially to the United States, which has a number of organizations dedicated to the promotion of Mexican handcrafts and folk art. While it has helped to preserve a number of traditions, it has ironically prompted many of them to change in order to produce products that meet the tastes of these new clients, and to adapt new techniques and materials to make more products, often more cheaply. The most commonly exported handcrafts are the lacquered boxes of Olinalá, Guerrero and the silver jewelry of Taxco, Mexico City and Zacatecas. The most common items sold to tourists include Talavera pottery, Barro Negro pottery, silver jewelry and Huichol beadwork.
One other caveat should be mentioned, especially to tourists. Many of the “handcrafts” sold in places like Acapulco, especially for very cheap on the streets, is most likely not authentic. Two examples are Talavera pottery and Chiapas ambar jewelry. Basically, if you are getting it cheap, you are not getting it. If you are serious about collecting the real thing, it is always best to do your homework. Otherwise you are simply buying a souvenir, and there is a good chance it came from China.
All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia, unless otherwise indicated)
(Featured image, Mata Ortiz pottery by Olivia Dominguez Renteria.)