- Women in Mexican Folk Art: Of Promises, Betrayals, Monsters and Celebrities by Eli Bartra
Eli Bartra proposes to examine manifestations of Mexican folk art from a gendered perspective because, although gender and feminism are frequent topics in art history scholarship, they have been neglected in folk-art studies. Bartra’s book aims to fill this gap from an unequivocally Mexican position, although she recognizes the inevitable links with Latin American folk art, a topic she has explored extensively in other publications. The first chapter lays down her approach, describing the differences between and intersections of folk, populist, and elite art. Bartra refuses to discount folk art by labeling it as primitive or poor art, and she rejects devaluing it in comparison to elite art. She also discards common misconceptions about folk art, for example, that it always serves a utilitarian purpose or is solely made by and for the common man. The author takes into account the market for these objects, explaining that consumers influence folk art in expected and unexpected ways. Although some folk-art scholars are concerned about the “contamination” of folk traditions, Bartra celebrates the ever-changing nature of folk art and its capacity to evolve. Her perception of the interaction between folk and elite art, similarly, is that they mutually enrich each other. Finally, she defines her views on feminism as nonessentialist and heterogeneous, claiming that each artist’s private life and perspective on gender equality is important for understanding gender in Mexican folk art.
Bartra’s primary contribution is that she takes gender into account as she contextualizes, identifies, and documents the most important manifestations of Mexican folk art both by women and anonymous. The author believes that folk-art production can be understood only within its particular social context, and she seeks to make gender a central part of her discussion. For each type of folk art that Bartra describes, she traces the historical origins of the folk object and provides as much information as is known [End Page 201] about its production and the artists, when relevant. For instance, the Mexican cardboard Judas figures seem to have originated from Judas figures in Valencia and Mallorca, while the novel ideas for the Zapatista dolls and ex-voto embroideries were suggested by foreigners. When possible, Bartra highlights female artists as masters of their handicraft to reveal how they attempt to break stereotypes and traditional gender roles in their studios and private lives. In some cases, the artists are very aware of the subversive nature of transgressing, for example, when they create objects that are traditionally considered exclusively male crafts (and therefore superior).
Also notable is the intersection the author identifies between high and folk art in the objects she studies. For example, Josefina Aguilar from Ocotlán has made a career from clay sculptures that interpret Frida Kahlo’s paintings. The global popularity of Kahlo as a result of global feminist movements was her inspiration. Bartra notes the irony that Kahlo’s elite art, often inspired by popular art (i.e., ex-votos), has in turn inspired a new form of folk art. Bartra observes the conflicted value that folk art has in Mexico in this chapter and also in her discussion of the ocumicho figures’ depictions of famous paintings and codices from colonial times, of serapes that reinterpret famous elite paintings, and of embroideries that reproduce the popularized ex-voto tradition. The socioeconomic classes that produce folk art devalue it even as it is in great demand in Europe and the United States. In a parallel manner, some folk-art objects are created by women and thus are traditionally undervalued because they are seen as women’s work, like the Zapatista dolls. However, Bartra shows the women’s ingenuity in transforming traditional dolls into marketable items, even as they are not necessarily interested in the Zapatista movement.
In her examinations, the author seems acutely aware that her attempts to discover the gendered revelations in these objects are...