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Crafting Tradition

The Making and Marketing of Oaxacan Wood Carvings

By Michael Chibnik

Publication Year: 2003

Since the mid-1980s, whimsical, brightly colored wood carvings from the Mexican state of Oaxaca have found their way into gift shops and private homes across the United States and Europe, as Western consumers seek to connect with the authenticity and tradition represented by indigenous folk arts. Ironically, however, the Oaxacan wood carvings are not a traditional folk art. Invented in the mid-twentieth century by non-Indian Mexican artisans for the tourist market, their appeal flows as much from intercultural miscommunication as from their intrinsic artistic merit. In this beautifully illustrated book, Michael Chibnik offers the first in-depth look at the international trade in Oaxacan wood carvings, including their history, production, marketing, and cultural representations. Drawing on interviews he conducted in the carving communities and among wholesalers, retailers, and consumers, he follows the entire production and consumption cycle, from the harvesting of copal wood to the final purchase of the finished piece. Along the way, he describes how and why this "invented tradition" has been promoted as a "Zapotec Indian" craft and explores its similarities with other local crafts with longer histories. He also fully discusses the effects on local communities of participating in the global market, concluding that the trade in Oaxacan wood carvings is an almost paradigmatic case study of globalization.

Published by: University of Texas Press

Series: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Series in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture


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p. v


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pp. vii-x

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pp. xi-xix

The first time I saw a wood carving from the Mexican state of Oaxaca was in September 1987 in the living room of a friend’s house in Iowa City. This large, roughly formed sculpture of an unfamiliar animal was dully painted in a sickly green shade. Despite (or perhaps because of) its simplicity and weirdness...


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p. xvii

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CHAPTER ONE: Introduction

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pp. 1-18

On January 1, 1998, Jimmy Carter visited the small Mexican town of San Mart

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CHAPTER TWO: History of Oaxacan Wood Carving (1940-1985)

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pp. 19-35

I had heard a lot about Manuel Jim

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CHAPTER THREE: Contemporary Wood Carving

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pp. 36-59

In 1994 a new business called Arte y Tradición opened in an attractive blue and white building in the historic center of Oaxaca. Arte y Tradición included a restaurant, a travel agency, a bookstore, and four or five rooms devoted to various local crafts. One room, called “Fantasía de Madera” (fantasy from wood), was run by Saúl Aragón...

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CHAPTER FOUR: Wood-Carving Communities

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pp. 60-79

Casual visitors to wood-carving communities in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca often encounter scenes of pastoral tranquillity. Farmers slowly lead their ox-teams over corn and bean fields set against wooded hills. Carvers and painters talk quietly as they work on their pieces in outdoor courtyards on sunny days that are neither too hot nor too cool...

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CHAPTER FIVE: Economic Strategies

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pp. 80-93

Residents of Arrazola, San Mart

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CHAPTER SIX: Making Wood Carvings

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pp. 94-111

One day in March 1998 I accompanied three wood-carvers from La Unión on a copal-cutting expedition to some hilly land belonging to the municipio of San Felipe Tejalapan. Because La Unión is an agencia of San Felipe, the artisans—Aguilino García, Gabino Reyes, and Sergio Santos—did not have to ask for permission to cut...

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CHAPTER SEVEN: Global Markets and Local Work Organizaton

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pp. 112-123

Even the most casual tourist in Mexican states such as Oaxaca, Yucatán, and Michoacán can see that craft production is an integral part of the local economy. Few visitors to Mexico realize, however, that artisans’ direct sales to tourists are only a small part of the craft trade. The livelihoods of most potters, backstrap-loom weavers...

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CHAPTER EIGHT: Specializations

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pp. 124-146

Over the past two decades Oaxacan wood-carvers have developed specialties in their efforts to appeal to a diverse clientele. Some artisans make expensive, laborintensive carvings for collectors; others churn out cheap pieces for gift shops in the United States and tourists seeking souvenirs. Artisans vary in their painting...

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CHAPTER NINE: How Artisans Attain Success

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pp. 147-173

In a couple of thought-provoking articles, Rudi Colloredo- Mansfeld (2001, 2002) observes that anthropologists, historians, and geographers have given two principal explanations for why certain artisans are especially successful in selling their pieces. Some writers (e.g., Annis 1987; Meisch 1998; Steiner 1994) note that the extraordinary talent...

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CHAPTER TEN: Popular Journalism, Artistic Styles, and Economic Success

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pp. 174-183

In August 2000 I stopped by the gift shop at the Peabody Museum at Harvard University to look at crafts and books. Five Oaxacan wood carvings were for sale. The shop also had seven copies of Oaxacan Wood Carving: The Magic in the Trees, written by Shepard Barbash with photographs by Vicki Ragan...

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CHAPTER ELEVEN: Sales in Oaxaca

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pp. 184-205

The central square of the city of Oaxaca is said by some to be the most attractive z

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CHAPTER TWELVE: Sales in the United States

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pp. 206-234

When I first learned that most Oaxacan wood carvings were sold to wholesalers and store owners from the United States, I wondered how the dealers marketed their pieces. In my subsequent travels around the United States, I therefore sought out ethnic arts stores in which carvings might be found. Despite my best efforts, I rarely saw more than a few carvings...

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pp. 235-244

The trade in Oaxacan wood carvings is an almost paradigmatic example of globalization. The wood-carving boom would not have been possible without large-scale tourism, air transport, a weakened peso, and multinational tariff agreements. Carvers travel to the United States to exhibit their craft in schools, museums, and shopping centers...

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pp. 245-248

In May 2002 I had an unsettling telephone conversation with Clive Kincaid, the large-scale Arizona dealer of wood carvings who employed Saúl Aragón as his intermediary in Oaxaca. Although I knew that Clive’s company, Designer Imports, was having some problems, I was surprised when he told me about a dramatic business decision...


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pp. 249-258


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pp. 259-266

E-ISBN-13: 9780292797758
E-ISBN-10: 0292797753
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292712478
Print-ISBN-10: 0292712472

Page Count: 304
Illustrations: 24 color and 53 b&w photos, 3 maps, 3 tables
Publication Year: 2003

Series Title: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Series in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture
See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 60336377
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Crafting Tradition

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Marketing -- Mexico -- Oaxaca Valley.
  • Indian business enterprises -- Mexico -- Oaxaca Valley.
  • Culture and tourism -- Mexico -- Oaxaca Valley.
  • Folk art -- Mexico -- Oaxaca Valley.
  • Indian wood-carving -- Mexico -- Oaxaca Valley.
  • Oaxaca Valley (Mexico) -- Social conditions.
  • Oaxaca Valley (Mexico) -- Economic conditions.
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