Circle of Identities
Last weekend, I went with a friend to visit her cousin and other members of her family who live in Uruapan, a very typical Mexican city in Michoacan, about 260kms east of where I live. Uruapan is usually known as the principal region in Mexico where avocados are grown and exported, though it achieved notoriety in September 2006, when armed men burst into a night club in the town, and rolled five severed heads on to the dance floor. This was the first major incident of beheadings which has subsequently become more common in the wars between the different drug cartels.
My friend’s cousin, Salvador, and his wife, Aline, run a delightful, small (only four guest rooms) bed and breakfast in the heart of the city, called the Casa Chikita.
Salvador is an artist. His profile, and examples of his art, can be seen on the Saatchi gallery site. He spent six years in Barcelona, before returning to his home town in 2006 to set up his former family home as a bed and breakfast, and to run a gallery in Uruapan called “EspacioIrreversible”. One of the delights of the Casa Chikita, in addition to the warm informal family atmosphere, is the placing of his own artworks and handicrafts of the region throughout the house and around the central patio.
On Saturday morning, whilst sitting drinking coffee on the patio, Salvador told me about an artwork he had recently completed called “Círculo de Identidades” (Circle of Identities), which had been shown in July 2007 in an exhibition in Morelia, the capital of the state of Michoacan, and later that year in an arts festival in Assilah in Morocco (as shown in the photo at the beginning of this post). This conversation especially interested me because I heard echoes of themes in relation to development issues that I had been thinking and writing about in an earlier post on this blog on January 13th, titled “Another possible success story?”
In creating this artwork, Salvador had worked with 24 local artisans. The area surrounding Uruapan is known for the quality of its traditional handcrafts. The indigenous people in this area, the P’urhepecha, have always had a strong artisanal tradition. Before the Spaniards arrived here, they were one of the few native groups in Central Mexico not to have been subjugated by the Aztecs, and, by maintaining strong trade relationships, they lived in coexistence with them. When the Spaniards became the next empire builders in the region, the P’urhepecha, who had never been a warrior tribe, found ways to accommodate to them, whilst retaining their strong indigenous traditions, and developed trading relations with the Spaniards.
A Spanish bishop, Don Vasco de Quiroga, arrived in Michoacan in 1533. He was a strong believer in Thomas Moore’s Utopia, and wanted to apply its principles to the governance of the native population, especially as a counter-balance to the cruelty and savagery of the former Spanish rulers. To this end, he set about creating each village as a small cottage industry, with a unique specialisation in a particular craft and its associated techniques, that was partly shaped by the existing traditions that each town had already developed. Such was his success, that the villages in this area of Mexico continue to this day specialising in particular crafts, using designs and methods that have not changed for over 500 years.
Salvador’s interest was to use the diverse handicrafts of this region – working in clay, iron, wood, copper and vegetable fiber, (all the craft traditions of this area except textiles) – to create an art exhibit that would illustrate themes of diversity and unity. To this end, he asked each of 24 artisans to fabricate an identical shape for him of two large hemi-spheres joined together at their base, created using the material and techniques they traditionally used. Their reaction to this request was very varied. Some refused. Others accepted the challenge with alacrity. Some were initially suspicious. Salvador then linked the different objects together in a necklace to make 24 spheres composed of different hemispheres.
Thus was initiated a process of Salvador asking the artisans to create different designs for him. He would bring them a mold and ask them to create a small number of objects based on this design which he then sold as exclusive artworks. In doing this, he was always careful to respect the essential techniques of the craft process. So, an artisan from San José de Garcia, who produced the ceramic pineapples that are famous in this part of Mexico……..
…………was asked to produce vases that could hang on walls. (The contents of the vases are another example of a craft tradition, using maize leafs to make flowers).
In this way, the artisans began to innovate. Some of their companions in the same village would see them working on different designs, and, more importantly, successfully selling them, and so would then copy the same design. Other artisans began to experiment with their own new designs.
In this process of working with both innovation and tradition, I see resonances with the theme broached in my earlier post of 13th January about the economic development of Ciudad Guzmán as a city. How can the city encourage the development of new Hi-Tech businesses, without destroying the traditional character of the city and the quality of life, which is one of the principal reasons that these businesses want to locate in Ciudad Guzmán?
It seems to me that what Salvador has managed to achieve in his work with the local artisans is to find a way of reconciling tradition and innovation, in a similar way that his artwork “Circle of Identities” looks to reconcile diversity and unity.