Report: Folk Art and Craft in Latin America, 1950-2000

The three formal presentations—one of them included the projection of a short documentary—followed by an additional brief lecture and roundtable with commentary by Francesco Pellizzi offered an introduction to a couple of linked subjects that are rarely discussed in Latin American academic circles: twentieth-century folk art and studio craft.

The papers, and the film, presented how craft traditions—in some cases dating back to pre-Columbian or colonial times¬—have survived, and even thrived, amidst the dramatic social and economic changes that took place in the region during the second half of the twentieth century. They also analyzed the way those handmade artifacts were created and commercialized and how they were linked to local economies and to regional identities. Some questions considered included:

- How are craft objects made and what makes them different from other local manufacture?
- What is the role of those objects in modern Latin American society—are they just collectibles?
- How can be they placed in a wider “Arts of the Americas” context?
- How do objects and their manufacture and commerce evolve (continuity or innovation)?
- What is the future of those traditions?
- How to record the life and work of craft-makers?
- How to write the history of that production and in what context?

The blurry boundaries of Latin American folk art and craft as a design history subject seems to affect the way in which these themes are studied; and the variety of methodological approaches reflected the difficulties contemporary scholars have in approaching the field.

Themes included the use of the biography (or autobiography) as a study model; the interaction between traditional craft communities and aid entities—government and private—as well as the role of national or local identity in craft production.

A couple of presentations were framed as micro biographies. The personal memoirs of nearly two decades (1950s and 1960s) of activities of the Latin American craft council in Mexico and Peru (Smith), served to present how, in both Latin America and the U.S., mid-twentieth century Latin American craft was created and consumed. Using a completely different approach, by rethinking—three decades after its release—the difficulties in detaching himself while recording a biographical documentary on Juan Felix Sanchez, the most important Venezuelan folk artist of the twentieth century, a filmmaker (Salvo) discussed how he managed the challenge of depicting a personal universe for future generations.

Because crafts have had a great deal of public exposure in Latin America since the late 1950s, with consumers and collectors alike taking a lively interest, the whole question of craft “authenticity,” identity, and the need to sell products to support craft communities and artists is fraught with controversy and it was the theme of two lectures. The role of aid agencies in helping artisans to hold fast to ancient craft traditions and record these achievements (Fernández de Calderón) was opposed to the portrait of changing craft communities immersed in an often involuntary product renewal process as craftsmen are adapting to new technologies, materials, as well as design forms, patterns, and motifs (Pellizzi). In both cases a microhistorical approach served as a basis for the presentations.

Regional and National narratives of folk art and craft, and how they can be woven as part of a wider Latin American—or even Pan-American—discussion on the subject, emerged as an important issue. How the history of things in Latin America should be studied and recorded has special significance today due the paucity of specialized studies. Identity, and how it is linked to craft practices, emerged as well as the common ground of the four papers. Folk art usually has strong cultural and historical connections with past eras and this fact may certainly influence the way the subject had been approached by local researchers, and by our speakers.