Posts Tagged ‘Maya’

The Hit Parade #8: Tourist Pottery from San Juan de Oriente, Nicaragua

March 8, 2015

Adventures in cross-cultural sampling.

San Juan de Oriente Alan Gallegos was a dear friend.  He came from the village of San Juan de Oriente, Nicaragua, known for it’s many “Pre-Columbian” style potters.  I worked with Alan during my time in Nicaragua with Potters for Peace (PFP).  The burnished, slab molded, 6″d. plate shown  here is from San Juan de Oriente.  But it isn’t Alan’s.   Sadly, I don’t own any of his work.

Alan was large, gentle, and quiet.  He was an extremely talented potter, and a valued member of PFP’s team.  One day Alan’s body was discovered along a roadside.  Did he accidentally fall off a truck while hitch hiking?  Was he robbed and killed?  Nobody knows.

I had left Nicaragua before Alan’s death.  The town I was living in just became a Sister City to a community of repatriated refugees in El Salvador, from that country’s civil war.  Many Salvadorans had fled to Nicaragua during the war.  I knew a group of those refugees who lived next to a PFP pottery project.  Kids from this little group painted the pottery’s seconds to sell for extra cash.  Ironically, their new community was my town’s Sister City.

So there I was, struggling to work on an Empty Bowls fund raiser for the Sister City effort.  That night, after hearing of Alan’ death, I began decorating: a jagged border around the rims (Central America’s many volcanoes) above five panels (the five original Central American countries) blocked out by vertical rows of circles (the Mayan counting system).  Each panel contained a pre-Columbian phoenix.

The thought of using pre-Columbian designs in my own work always felt problematic (due largely to Central America’s history and my European ancestry).  But I had the distinct feeling Alan was beside me as I worked.  I wouldn’t have blinked if he reached over, picked up a bowl, and began talking.

Something then occurred to me that I hadn’t thought about for ages.  Years earlier I apprenticed to Richard Bresnahan, who told me he felt he was communicating with ancient potters of southern Japan (where he had done his own apprenticeship) whenever he applied Japanese-style “mishima” inlay to his pots.  “Neat idea,” I thought at the time, before getting on with the day…

Cultural ‘mining’ can leave a long, painful trail.  Communication that transcends that tale requires healthy doses of respect and empathy.  Now I know how powerful this communication can be.

Mayan Lily Problems

July 4, 2014

Specialists are like librarians.  They know everything.  At least they handle information well.  The rest of us can only keep our eyes open and hope for the best.  Mayan Drinking Cup

Example: a visit to the Library of Congress in Washington DC.  The LOC’s small collection of pottery in their  “Exploring the Early Americas” exhibit included an 8” straight sided vessel from the Guatemalan lowland Maya circa 600 ad.  This slab-made earthenware pot has a base coat of burnished white slip.  A black swath runs at an angle up the side, encompassing two lilies daubed in red.  The swath ends near the top below an encircling inscription, or “primary standard sequence glyph band.”  The rim is also banded in black.

European fleur-de-lis, symbol of royal prerogative, closely echo the ancient flowers depicted on this pot.  Did Mayan lilies also imply noble aspirations?  Lilies regularly appeared on lowland Mayan pottery.  And much surviving Mayan pottery suggests commemorative usage, particularly suitable for the high-born who could afford such niceties.  But nobody knows what – if anything – lilies represented.

The ‘glyph band’ inscription says the pot was a drinking cup.  While the inscription is also a dedication, it oddly names no specific individual or event.  Maybe the cup was just something a typical Mayan ‘chicha bar’ kept on hand for whatever toast a drunken patron might shout out.  Or perhaps was it a generic ‘gift’ mug, somewhat like a blank greeting card.  Or a tourist-trade item for folks visiting the big city.

Several other Mayan pots in the exhibit had clear but totally meaningless glyphs.  They seemed to offer just the ‘idea’ of writing.  Why?  So illiterate customers could feel a little more highbrow?  Could the potter then charge more, explaining a deeper meaning?  Did the potter also not understand what glyphs meant?

In this context the lily cup  reminds me of certain modern marketing practices.  I’m not sure how to feel about that notion.  Is it a comforting example of how the more things change the more they stay the same?  Is it ironic?  Or is it somehow just disappointing?

Valentin Lopez Visits the United States

January 6, 2013

(Adventures in Community Development)

In early 1994 Valentin Lopez made his first, and probably only, trip to the United States.  His voyage from his home in San Juan de Oriente, Nicaragua (sponsored by Potters for Peace) was part educational effort for Americans to learn about Nicaragua,  part fund raiser for PFP, and part marketing opportunity for Valentin.  Valentin is an incredibly talented traditional Pre-Columbian Maya style potter.  He can eloquently describe his work, his inspirations, and his community.  He is also very much what Nicaraguans call an “indio;” very Mayan in appearance, with little Spanish influence. 

I was asked to show Valentin around when some free time opened up in his schedule.  Maybe get him into a classroom.  Maybe introduce him to a collector. 

We visited the wealthy collector first.  He owned a walk-through history of Pre-Columbian pottery; Aztec to Maya; Inca to Oaxaca.  Mind boggling.  But the jerk didn’t buy anything.  Was Valentin’s work not “real” enough?  As we drove away, I wondered what Valentin thought of the encounter.

The only teacher I knew then worked in a kindergarten.  So off we went to visit a bunch of 6 year olds.  (Great trip so far, Steve!)  We immediately noticed that the classroom was divided.  “Anglo” kids sat up front.  Hispanic kids in the back.  The teachers seemed resigned to riding shotgun around the Hispanic kids, one girl in particular, to keep them focused on the day’s activities.

The girl giggled when I began translating.  She knew what Valentin was saying better than I did.  We let her  translate.  The change was electric.  Suddenly Spanish was a benefit, not a stigma.  This ‘problem kid’ was now a valued leader, showing others the way. 

I had brought some coloring books on Pre-Columbian pottery designs PFP made for an education  project in Nicaragua where books of any kind were scarce.  The kids dove into the books after the presentation.  It was the most productive day the teachers had seen.

I think of that girl.  Where is she now?  Did that day impart any notion that her abilities were strengths?  Did she grow up to be a potter?  Will she be the first Hispanic female President?  Or maybe, reflecting on the worlds of potters and presidential campaigns, she just grew up to be a decent person.  That’s my hope.

Reading:
Dibujos de las Tatara Tatarabuelas.  Ron Rivera and Barbara Donachy.  Ceramistas Por La Paz/Managua, Nicaragua.  1993.