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Reviewed by:
  • Crafting Gender: Women and Folk Art in Latin America and the Caribbean
  • Suzanne MacAulay
Crafting Gender: Women and Folk Art in Latin America and the Caribbean. Ed. Eli Bartra. (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003. Pp. v + 244, introduction, black-and-white illustrations, notes, bibliography, contributors, index.)

Books on folk art and gender in sociocultural contexts are rare. In her commendable effort to address lacunae in the literature on gender, folk art, and ethnoaesthetics (aesthetic criteria from the artists' perspectives), Eli Bartra, a Mexican feminist scholar with expertise in women's studies and the history of arte popular, has compiled a series of essays that combine aesthetically focused descriptive analyses with critiques of the "complex web of social relations that in turn help shape and are determined by relations of production, distribution, and consumption" (p. 10). Unlike comparable past anthologies, Bartra includes several authors outside the North American academy, thus privileging Latina voices and tempering the prevalent Eurocentric tone often found in much of this writing. The inclusion of Betty La Duke, an academic and an artist, is particularly refreshing—especially La Duke's account of arriving in Atzompa, Mexico, for another round of fieldwork with postcard reproductions of her paintings to establish rapport and (in her words) "wanting them to know I was not an anthropologist but an artist" (p. 208).

"The changing same," a phrase coined by Amiri Baraka (a.k.a. LeRoi Jones) to characterize black music in the sixties, is also at the heart of these essays and pertains equally to mutable folk art traditions and to gender relations. In the first essay, on trends in Suriname Maroon stitchery and carving, Sally Price cites Baraka's quote as a reminder that making art is not static replication, but a lively dynamic process subject to innovation and aesthetic appetite (p. 18). This realization underpins most of the essays in this book.

By and large, folklorists will agree with the authors' approach to folk art, interpreted here as a process subject to the dynamics of creativity [End Page 477] and analyzed as the transformative power of artistic action in cultural contexts. Folklorists will also appreciate the essays that introduce aspects of belief systems that are fundamental to a critique of gender relations and also underlie the spiritual relationship of artists to their material and imagery. For example, in his essay on the ceramics community of La Chamba, Colombia, Ronald Duncan cites a common belief in the ancient humoral theory of cold versus hot elements (female/male, moist/dry, water/fire) that is combined with localized herbal lore. In La Chamba this theory is applied to the division of labor between the sexes, where women who are "cold" fashion damp clay into figures and bowls while men who are "hot" dig the dry earth and fire pottery kilns. In terms of spiritual relationships and creativity, Norma Valle alludes to the customary pact between artist and saint when she quotes a Puerto Rican santera explaining inspiration and possession once she starts carving a figure: "the saint leads your hands" (p. 41).

Many themes in this book suggest new directions for folk art scholarship in the twenty-first century. Ethnoaesthetics and indigenous cultural and intellectual property rights contribute to collaborations among native artists, museum curators, and scholars in the documentation and interpretation of historical artifacts. This topic is explored in Mari Lyn Salvador's explication of Kuna women's interactions with staff at the Smithsonian and the National Museum of the American Indian. Duncan's description of the "safety zone" of village folk art production in the midst of a Colombian culture of violence is especially interesting, suggesting other lines of inquiry into analogous global situations of art making vis-à-vis armed conflicts and atrocities.

The absence of maps is frustrating, however, and the illustrations would have been more effective on a larger scale. Betty La Duke's cover painting is the only color reproduction, which is lamentable in a book about art. On occasion, words or passages translated from Spanish seemed to lack the vitality and accuracy that were presumably in the original. Bartra's initial claim that "each essay considers folk art as art [original emphasis...


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pp. 477-478
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