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  • Feminism and Folk Art: Case Studies in Mexico, New Zealand, Japan, and Brazil by Eli Bartra
  • Jessica Stites Mor
Feminism and Folk Art: Case Studies in Mexico, New Zealand, Japan, and Brazil. By Eli Bartra. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2019. Pp. x, 141. Illustrations. Bibliography. Appendix. Index. $85.00 cloth; $80.50 ebook.

Translated from the 2013 Spanish publication, Eli Bartra’s new book is an invitation to readers in English to consider the folk art of women producers in four countries through the lens of feminine creativity. Contributing to the work of anthropologists and cultural historians who have traced circuits of production and consumption in order to understand dimensions of power and meanings of exchange, Bartra offers a unique study of the intimacies of four very specific forms of folk art. Bartra embeds the study of each within a context of economic and class relations, but the work’s primary focus is the exploration of the gender-based relationships that guide production within families and markets.

In the first chapter, Bartra lays out the production of polychrome clay figures in Izúcar de Matamoros, Mexico, highlighting the role of families in creating what would be later deemed a form of cultural heritage by Puebla’s state governor. She argues that the collective efforts of families to sustain the industry and to support themselves creates what she terms “familism” (15), which masks forms of sexism and labor exploitation. Examining the ways that women’s artistic creativity is appraised by family members and the market, this chapter reveals means by which traditions within families affect women artisans and sometimes limit their agency. Detailed studies of particular families allow Bartra to demonstrate intergenerational innovations and adaptations to changing consumer preferences.

This first study of clay figures in Mexico is cast against studies of Maori bag weavers from New Zealand, Japanese Hagoita lacquer producers, and the collectives that make Abayomi rag dolls in Brazil. Each of these additional chapters adds fascinating contrasts and comparisons to the Mexican case, charting the means by which women have taken different approaches to carving out space for creative production of folk art. Each chapter considers spaces within which folk art pieces are presented [End Page 505] and valued as market-based objects and how they have been considered and displayed within intellectual spaces such as university workshops at the University of Auckland, collections of the Lacquer Museum in Takayama, and the Palace of Catete’s Museu de Folclore Edison Carneiro with a special room to host temporary exhibitions. In each chapter, an effort is made to connect the artisanal traditions with the history and other traditional cultural production that might occupy similar spaces, and to draw conclusions about the limitations of imagination of both collectors and historians so as to understand the full range of relationships that formed the creative process of production of these works.

Central to this study is understanding the world of women through the process of creating folk art. In each chapter, specific producers are given voice, sharing their techniques, creative challenges, family dynamics, and struggles for recognition. One of the most interesting insights of the work is in its discussion of the changes brought to folk art production through legislation in Brazil, the 1971 National Cooperative Law, which facilitated a boom in cooperative folk art production, particularly among women. Bartra reveals the impact of state sponsorship and support in allowing marginalized communities to recover important traditions, such as Yoruba traditions of bonecas negras, black rag dolls, that brought with them political and social projects, such as the revaluation of Afro-Brazilian identities, Yoruba mythologies, and the international black consciousness movement.

Bartra’s work emphasizes the need to historicize and theorize women’s artisanal production as an important space of crafting gender identity, of challenging political inequalities, and of fashioning authentic and local forms of femininity. Although the work uses a fairly open theoretical frame, it signals the beginning of several productive questions that could lead to further theorization of creativity and feminist practice. Revaluing folk art in this way should yield important discoveries about the means by which women participate in community, family, and cultural heritage.

Jessica Stites Mor


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pp. 505-506
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