Posts Tagged ‘Oaxaca’

Cowboys and Indians

September 8, 2013

First time visitors to the US often travel with (somewhat) irrational fears.  Will gangsters shoot it out while de-boarding the plane?  Our global cultural projection of carnage, sex and twisted history runs deep.  In 1991 a group of Nicaraguan women working in the Matagalpa black pottery tradition traveled with some of this baggage to visit Tewa black pottery descendants of Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso, NM. 

The Potters for Peace facilitated trip was predicated on a question: What would happen if women from very different rural backgrounds who work in a similar style were left alone together for a week?  PFP’s Ron Rivera served as translator and guide. 

Hand-built “black pottery” is burnished to a high gloss, pit fired, and smoked until jet black.  Women throughout the Americas and parts of Africa have made black pottery for hundreds, maybe thousands of years.  Modern North American black pottery tends to be much more polished and lower fired (thus blacker) than originally.  It’s now considered primarily a decorative art.  

Black potters are intensely proud of their work.  Maria Martinez is perhaps the most famous North American practitioner.  Mexicans might counter that Doña Rosa Real who revived the Oaxaca black pottery tradition in the 1950’s  holds the ‘most famous’ title.  Maria Martinez resuscitated the almost forgotten Pueblo style while working with archeologist Dr. Edgar Lee Hewett at the Frijoles Canyon excavation in 1908.  Maria’s pottery even made Bernard Leach eat crow “…it belonged to America.  North America – it was arresting.”  (An irrelevant point, but I couldn’t resist.)

But women of the northern mountainous coffee growing region of Matagalpa, Nicaragua say their black pottery making reaches back, unbroken from mother to daughter for over a millennium.  Their work occupies a highly regarded position in the Nicaraguan ceramic world.  Like other black potters  they tend to stick together.  And like other rural Nicaraguan’s they rarely travel far from home.

The New Mexico trip was an eye opener for everyone involved.  The Tewa’s were blown away at the delicacy of form and the superior mirror black polish of the Matagalpan pottery.  The Nica’s were astonished at the Tewas’ playful variations of form and gloss, and at their astronomical prices. 

But another thing perplexed the Nica’s.  One of them took Ron aside.  If these women they had come to visit were real “American Indians,” where were the feathers and tomahawks?

Readings
The Living Tradition of Maria Martinez.  Susan Peterson.  Kodansha International/New York.  1977.

 

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.