SMU in Oaxaca

During winter term 2009-10, seven students will earn Art History/CF credit studying ancient archaeological sites, Colonial art and architecture, folk art and religious fiestas in the Valley of Oaxaca, the Sierra Norte, Sierra Madre del Sur and on the Pacific Coast as part of SMU-in-Oaxaca.

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Traditional yet modern

An update from Anne, a graduate student in history with a focus on the U.S. Southwest and Mexico who is doing research on Indian history:

Our first full day as a group was an ideal way to begin a class focusing on ancient and modern Oaxaca cultural history.

Dec28-1.JPG First, we traveled to San Bartolo Coyotepec to the home/work studio of Valente Nieto Reale (photo, right), the son of the famous potter Dona Rosa. Working in the same style and manner as his mother, Balente Nieto Reale maintains a strong sense of belonging and purpose. He carries on the tradition of creating black pottery like those preceding him prior to the creation of New Spain, but like his mother, he is careful to pay attention to the demands of the market.

His mother was strongly encouraged to make her black pottery glossier due to the particular demands from patrons from the United States, such as the Rockefeller family. It was interesting to learn that it took outsiders to see and promote the artistic quality of Zapotec potter Dona Rosa before others within Mexico afforded this family proper acknowledgement of their remarkable and inspirational work with clay.

We later learned that Valente continues to work in the same tradition as his mother, whose style and legacy he carries on with deep affection, always remembering to inject the love and energy she put into each piece she created. This workshop allowed us to see the artisan’s relationship with the clay and to appreciate all that goes into creating pottery molded without the aid of a wheel or processed materials. Valente used his environment to find the materials needed to create his pottery, such as gathering stones to polish the clay in order to give it the black shine consumers have grown to know and desire.

Not only did we watch him at work and ask questions, but we, too, created pieces, such as birds, pots and turtles. What I loved best about this workshop and interaction with the artist was witnessing firsthand the history behind an ancient practice, while understanding that artisans such as Valente are part of a larger regional and world market. Cultures are fluid, and a class set in Oaxaca aptly illustrates this point.

Dec28-2.JPG Toward the latter part of the day, we tested our painting abilities in San Martin Tilcajete (21 miles south of Oaxaca City) with a family that specializes in animal wood carving and painting. Although this folk art is relatively new, there are ancient elements that are incorporated into the craft as well.

Dec28-3.JPG While consumers can purchase wooden characters and pieces with vibrant colors (which can be found in any local paint store), others interested in buying something that resembles a more traditional piece can opt for work painted with colors driven completely by organic materials. Palms literally become palettes here. We were shown how to get colors of all sorts from local nuts, plants, and other materials. This method allowed these artisans to continue in the footsteps of their ancestors in creating natural colors, while simultaneously carving out something entirely new for people from around the world to appreciate. (In photo, Drew cleaning up after the workshop.)

Cultures are not static, nor should we expect them to be. There is always room to continue traditions and to create something new and representative of current times.

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