Crafting Tradition

Crafting Tradition
The Making and Marketing of Oaxacan Wood Carvings 
by Michael Chibnik 
University of Texas Press, 2003

Curious about the origins of the brightly colored Oaxacan wood carvings that have become enormously popular among collectors of indigenous folk art in the United States and Europe, the author of this penetrating enthnography of the wood-carving trade examines the impacts of economic globalization on the Mexican artisans who produce and sell the carvings.

Incredibly, the brightly-painted animals, people, and alebrijes (imaginary creatures) are not the traditional Zapotec Indian artform that some artists and dealers claim. Rather, as the author points out, they were invented by non-Indian Mexican artisans for the tourist market only a few decades ago. The carvings are certainly interesting and many are finely crafted works of art, but they are not the deeply rooted cultural tradition some buyers may believe. Instead, they are the product of a group of enterprising and creative villagers who have found a way to work globalization to their advantage.

"In 1985 there were perhaps ten artisans in the state of Oaxaca who supported their families primarily from the sale of painted wood carvings," author Michael Chibnik explains. "In the next five years most households in Arrazola and San Martin began selling brightly painted wooden animals to tourists, shop owners and wholesalers. Carving became an activity carried out in family workshops, in which adult men contributed much less than half the total labor. Some families found that they could not fill large orders using only household labor and hired one or two workers to carve, sand, and paint."

Both a in-depth socioeconomic study and profile of an artform, this book details the economics of Oaxacan wood carvings from source materials and labor to marketing and the final sale to buyers in U.S. galleries. It offers a classic example of successful small-scale bootstrapping initiated by local entrepreneurs. 

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Chapter Nine:
How Artisans Attain Success
    Diverse skills enable artisans to charge dealers and collectors high prices for their pieces. The most important and obvious of these is artistic talent. Buyers of high-priced carvings demand imaginative, original pieces that are carved and painted skillfully. But artistic talent alone is not enough to ensure that carvers will consistently be able to sell expensive pieces.

    Successful carvers must make accurate guesses about what kinds of pieces will appeal to different dealers in Mexico and purchasers in the United States. They also need to assess when the market for particular types of pieces is improving and when the demand for other, formerly successful, pieces is dropping.

    Dealers prefer to buy from carvers who deliver orders on time at agreed upon prices. Some highly skilled carvers earn less than they might because of well-deserved reputations for being unreliable or otherwise difficult.

    There are a few artisans who have all the characteristics required to make and sell expensive pieces. Jesus Sosa, Jacobo Angeles, and Epifanio Fuentes are artistically talented, personable, reliable, and market savvy.

    All artistically respected, financially successful wood-carvers make unique pieces that enable them to establish a profitable niche in the market.

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