Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Art and Craft in Oaxaca Mexico

In February I traveled with an artist friend to the colonial city of Oaxaca, Mexico in the state of Oaxaca. We traveled around the city, shopped and visited the pyramids at Monte Alban. Not only did I get a chance to practice Spanish and explore, I was able to visit with local artists.

Located in the south of Mexico, this capitol city is in the mountains at about 6,000 feet elevation. The geography looks a lot like San Diego County in the U.S. did during the 1970's. It's dry and hilly with farms. The city is many centuries old and is the home to about 600,000 people. The presence of indigenous people from any of the 16 formally registered indigenous communities gives the city a unique flavor that I found especially interesting.

We stayed at Casa Colonial, a Bed & Breakfast type of funky/charming hotel about 6 blocks from the city center (a city center is called the "Zocalo" in Mexico.) In the Zocalo, the markets (mercados) and surrounding villages are many artists and artisans selling items the area is famous for: Woodcarvings of fanciful creatures, black-clay pottery, green-glazed terra cotta pottery, and woven goods like shawls and rugs.

Some of the handwork is what I call production-work. Production-work is obvious when you see many of the same thing made almost exactly same way. Other work was much more artistic. This was especially true of the much more expensive pieces, where an artist took the risk to invest a lot of time into the work in the hope that the piece would sell. After a week of looking at so much handwork I realized that often the difference between art and craft can be purely economic. Without supporting sales the artist can't take the risk to invest time into involved pieces, therefore they'll put more time into creating small (and predictable) tourist trinkets.

With that in mind I bought a rug, a wood carving, etc., etc., to support the local artists. Shopping isn't usually my thing, but in Oaxaca I really got into it. Calling the process "collecting" instead of "shopping" seems to be my magic spin. Happy travels!

Photos: Rugs - This vendor makes and sells the rugs produced by his entire family. He had a binder of press clips and an artist resume.
Woodworker: The man in the center owns the business. The men in the family carve the figures from copal wood. The women do the painting.
Textile Dyes: This woman is the wife of a famous weaver and a wonderful weaver in her own right. Here she is demonstrating crushing the natural plant materials to make powdered dye. Note the skeins of wool hanging behind her.

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