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Duke University Press Books
Crafting Gender: Women and Folk Art in Latin America and the Caribbean

Crafting Gender: Women and Folk Art in Latin America and the Caribbean

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822331704
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 10/01/2003
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.13(w) x 8.75(h) x (d)

About the Author

Eli Bartra is a Professor in the Department of Politics and Culture at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana-Xochimilco in Mexico City. She is the author of numerous books in Spanish.

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Crafting gender

Women and folk art in Latin America and the Caribbean
By Eli Bartra

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3170-5

Chapter One


Always Something New

Changing Fashions in a "Traditional Culture"

The hard part-for me as much as for other students of African diaspora arts-is to fully grasp the pace and persistence of innovations. Even after arguing in countless books and articles for the dynamism of art in the Suriname Maroon society where I've done my most long-term fieldwork, I was inclined to view the women's cross-stitch craze of the 1970s-introduced by European missionaries, learned in mission-run schools, and slavishly copied from diagrams in foreign women's magazines-as the end of the (authentically Maroon) road. A decline of artistic creativity. An irreversible sellout to the West.

So when, in 1997, I happened on Norma Amania putting the finishing touches on a brilliantly colored shoulder cape in a flowing pattern of reverse applique, something in the style of a Panamanian mola (fig. 1), I expressed surprise. Never had I seen anything like it. Norma looked up from her sewing, furrowed her brow, and set me straight. "Hey," she said, "you're supposed to know us better than that! You can't expect to go away for a matter of years and come back to find us just doing the same old thing!"

Of course she was right: I shouldn't have been surprised that cross-stitch embroidery had passed from theheight of fashion to a kind of second-best leftover during my several-year absence-nor that new crazes had taken its place. Nothing I had learned about Maroon art and attitudes toward change suggested that a given fashion, no matter how popular, would settle in for the long term. Maroon art tended to lean more in the direction of what Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka), writing in 1967 about black music in the United States, called "the changing same." The overall aesthetic of Norma's composition seemed comfortably in line with Maroon preferences that I was familiar with concerning color, form, and balance, but the cloth on her lap was a completely new one in the specifics of its materials, layout, and technique of execution. "We call it abena kamisa koosu," she told me. The sewing style known as abena kamisa koosu was first executed by a woman from the village of Abena [sitonu] who incorporated it in the cloth (koosu) she used to make a loincloth (kamisa) for her husband.

I'll attempt in this essay to follow up on Norma's wisdom, updating the picture of Maroon women and their arts as reported in my 1984 book, Co-wives and Calabashes. It has, after all, been almost twenty years, and as Norma reminded me, a lot can happen, artwise, in that amount of time. As I write this article in 2001, even the reverse applique of the late 1990s has been upstaged by a new art, which I will discuss below. I start with a baseline sketch of the arts in question and their place within the society of their makers, descendants of Africans who escaped from slavery in the Dutch colony of Suriname (on the northeastern shoulder of South America), fought a century-long war of liberation, and have maintained relatively independent societies since the conclusion of peace treaties in the 1760s. The Maroon population divides into six groups, of which the Saramaka-Norma's people-are one. Readers unfamiliar with the history and culture of the Suriname Maroons are referred to Sally and Richard Price, Maroon Arts, for general background, and to Richard and Sally Price, Maroons under Assault, for a picture of current threats to the group's culture and society.

Maroon Women as Artists

Western visitors to the interior of Suriname, from eighteenth-century explorers and colonial officers to twentieth-century anthropologists and missionaries, have rarely failed to include descriptions of Maroon men's wood carving in their accounts, but women's artistic efforts are often passed over with barely a mention. And while the living room of nearly every tourist to Suriname boasts some piece of carved wood fashioned by a Maroon (most commonly a comb, a coffee table, or a folding stool), women's textiles and calabashes are not generally considered marketable items. In the context of the culture they're made for, however, women's arts play crucial aesthetic and social roles. During the 1960s and 1970s, Saramaka women and men helped me piece together the history of these less well-known arts, and later I was able to complement the information and insights they provided by working in museums, libraries, and archives elsewhere-principally in Suriname and the Netherlands, but also in France, Germany, and the United States. I must begin, then, by expressing gratitude to all the Saramakas, Norma included, who shared their artistic knowledge with me.

Saramaka daily life is strongly shaped by cultural ideas about men and women. Almost every social or religious role, every subsistence activity, every ritual involvement is more strongly associated with (in many cases assigned to) one rather than the other. It seems more "natural," from a Saramaka perspective, for men to be the ones to fell trees, make combs and canoes, drive outboard motors, live in their natal village, work on the coast, learn foreign languages, earn money, interrogate oracles, maintain historical knowledge, run council meetings, dig graves, and play drums. Similarly, it seems more "natural" for the gathering of firewood, the sewing of clothes, the planting and harvesting of rice, the cooking of meals, and the maintenance of dual residences (in natal and conjugal villages) to be the stuff of a woman's life. In the realm of artistic expression, Saramakas generally consider it more "natural" for men to produce geometric designs with well-executed symmetry and for women to produce free-form designs with imperfectly realized symmetry; for men to work with manufactured tools and for women to execute their carvings with pieces of broken glass and their crochet work with recycled umbrella spokes.

In the literature on Maroon culture, the word tembe has often been translated as "woodcarving," effectively limiting most discussions of art to the male domain. But tembe also functions as an adjective, a compliment for any kind of artistic production or even a person's overall giftedness as an artist. The kinds of objects that are complimented by this term are most frequently intended for use in the ongoing courtships that figure so prominently in Saramaka life, both between spouses and between lovers. I therefore start my exploration of the dynamics of Saramaka creativity by sketching in the main lines of the gendered division of labor and cultural notions about the material interdependence of men and women. Although women assume primary responsibility for supplying and processing food from gardens (rice, tubers, bananas, peanuts, okra, etc.) and the forest (most importantly, the palm nuts used to make cooking oil), it is the men who do the hunting and fishing, purchase imported goods (including pots and pans, cloth and soap, sugar and salt, guns and machetes, radios and tape recorders) with their earnings from wage labor, and who fashion wooden objects such as houses, canoes, paddles, stools, combs, and cooking utensils. With marriage serving as the main institution through which these foods and goods pass from male to female hands, a woman without a husband is at a significant disadvantage in terms of material comfort. For various demographic reasons, including earlier first marriages for women and, since the 1870s, heavy out-migration by men, there have been, for about the past hundred years, many more women of marriageable age than men. Both because and in spite of the fact that most men have more than one wife, there is vigorous competition among women for the available pool of husbands. These (and a number of other) demographic and economic factors come together to produce a cultural environment in which women spend a great deal of energy trying to please men. In this setting, their artistic production plays an important role.

In terms of textile arts, the great bulk of patchwork and decorative sewing has, until very recently, appeared on the vibrantly designed shoulder capes that represent the most prominent item of men's formal dress; second in importance have been men's breechcloths. Even when women decorate their own skirts and capes, there has been (again, until very recently) a general understanding that it would be inappropriate to devote as much aesthetic attention to this kind of sewing as to that on a man's garment. In the 1970s, for example, when narrow-strip patchwork capes were declining in popularity but women still had large accumulations of strips (edge pieces trimmed from the cloths they had hemmed to make their own wrap skirts), they sometimes used the strips to make patchwork skirts for themselves. They were quick to explain, however, that they simply threw together, with an explicit avoidance of preplanning, whatever scraps they had on hand.

Similarly, while the handsomely carved calabash bowls that women produce belong to them and not to the men, the most important use of these bowls is at men's meals, a highly charged site for competition among each man's several wives. The calabash forms destined for men's meals (water-drinking and hand-washing bowls) are embellished with more elaborate and carefully executed designs than those destined for use by women (spoons, spatulas, ladles, and rice-rinsing bowls), where the carvings are sparse and simple. (Calabashes intended for use in rituals remain completely undecorated.)

Textile Arts

The earliest mentions of Suriname Maroon clothing and textiles are frustratingly sparse in their descriptive detail. Missionaries who lived for many years among the Saramaka during the second half of the eighteenth century, for example, wrote that their hosts had "no clothing except a small covering over the abdomen," and a drawing in one of their books supports this description. John Gabriel Stedman described the clothing and accessories of two Maroons he encountered in eastern Suriname in the 1770s, but he neither mentioned nor illustrated any kind of patchwork or decorative sewing. Although other early accounts go into some detail about costume, including both ritual accessories and coastal imports such as shirts and trousers, they do not document Maroon patchwork or decorative sewing. Indeed, despite clear evidence that earlier Maroons had women's wrap skirts, two styles of men's loincloths (wider and narrower), an impressive range of jewelry and accessories (much of it intended for ritual protection), and Western-style clothing purchased in coastal Suriname, shoulder capes (a standard item of men's dress throughout the twentieth century) are notable for their absence from accounts from before the second half of the nineteenth century. An eighteenth-century Saramaka dictionary gives no word for cape; an observer reports in 1866 that among the Maroons of eastern Suriname, both men and women wear multiple cloths over the shoulders, but his illustration-which shows eight men in loincloths, chest sashes, neckerchiefs, hats, leg bands, jewelry, and more-does not depict capes; another observer's description and numerous illustrations of Aluku Maroons ten years later confirms this picture; and a book on the Ndyukas and Saramakas brought to Amsterdam for the colonial exposition of 1883, systematically photographed in native garb, shows all of them barechested.

It seems likely that men's capes and decorative sewing made their first appearance in Maroon costume at roughly the same time. It is in the late nineteenth century that both of them began appearing in museum collections and written documentation. And Maroon ideas about dress might well reflect their simultaneous introduction since, as we will see below, men's shoulder capes have traditionally been the most consistently and most elaborately decorated of any type of garment.

The oldest type of textile art that present-day Maroons remember, and that photographs and museum collections document, consists of embroidered figures on a monochrome or subtly striped cotton backing. The shapes tend to be curvilinear, their placement roughly symmetrical around a vertical axis, and they are executed as linear outlines, often filled in with dense stitching in a contrastive color. The absence of vibrantly colorful patchwork textiles during this early period does not mean, however, that Maroons would not already have developed both the aesthetic principles and the cutting-and-piecing technique that were to go into its creation. Not only is color contrast already present in the nineteenth-century embroidery designs but many other domains of daily life attest to its importance as a central feature of Maroon aesthetics. Gardens are laid out in patchworklike alternations of "red" and "white" rice varieties, even though the different kinds look and taste the same once they get to the cooking pot. Dress reflects an explicit preference for wearing colors that contrast rather than blend with each other (for example, a red waistkerchief on top of a yellow-and-green wrap skirt). Ideals of physical beauty include admiration for bright white teeth against jet-black skin and dark ("green") cicatrizations on an albino woman. And the inlays of men's woodcarving introduce tonal contrast into an otherwise monochrome art.

In terms of the technical dimension, there exist Maroon garments made by cutting cloth into pieces, repositioning them, and seaming them back together without incorporating any of the vibrant color contrasts that later came to dominate the art of patchwork. In a cape construction popular in the 1920s, for example, a length of striped cloth was cut into five pieces that were then repositioned and sewn back together in three vertical panels. Here, no pattern of contrastive colors or cross-cutting stripes results; both the initial cloth and its pieced-together follow-up are characterized by uniform stripes running in a single direction. But while a cape made from the uncut cloth either would have displayed horizontal stripes (which Saramakas say they don't like on capes) or would have been too long and narrow, the cut-and-pieced version forms a cape of the preferred orientation and appropriate proportions. Similarly, close examination of clothing often reveals seams discreetly joining two pieces of a single color, reflecting the fact that the seamstress did not have a single piece of cloth large enough for the garment.

A cape in the early embroidery style, made for the late Agbago Aboikoni, paramount chief of the Saramakas, illustrates both this type of patching and other characteristic features of Maroon textile arts (fig. 2). First, the design spread over its center serves as an excellent illustration of a very common color scheme in which the basic threesome of red, white, and navy or black predominates but is complemented by yellow, blue, and orange. Second, it displays the imperfectly realized bilateral symmetry that characterizes the bulk of women's art-calabashes as much as textiles. Saramakas explicitly esteem symmetry more than off-balance visual effects, but are quite unanimous in the belief that women are less skilled at producing it than men. A layout of motifs such as the one on this cape seems almost designed to prove their point, since it is clearly conceptualized in terms of a vertical axis but has been executed with its elements a bit off center. Third, the central embroidered composition is framed on the sides and bottom by an entirely different technique of decorative sewing-strips of red, white, and black patchwork appliqued onto the white cloth.


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Table of Contents

Illustrations vii

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction / Eli Bartra 1

Always Something New: Changing Fashions in a "Traditional Culture" (Suriname) / Sally Price 17

The Emergence of the Santeras: Renewed Strength for Traditional Puerto Rican Art (Puerto Rico) / Norma Valle 35

Kuna Women's Art: Molas, Meaning, and Markets (Panama) / Mari Lyn Salvador 47

Connections: Creative Expressions of Canelos Quichua women (Ecuador) / Dorothea Scott Whitten 73

Engendering Clay: Las Ceramistas of Mata Ortiz (Mexico) / Eli Bartra 98

Women's Folk Art in La Chamba, Colombia (Colombia) / Ronald J. Duncan 126

The Mapuche Craftswomen (Argentina) / Dolores Juliano 155

Women's Prayers: The Aesthetics and Meaning of Female Votive Paintings in Chalma (Mexico) / María J. Rodríguez-Shadow 169

Earth Magic: The Legacy of Teodora Blanco (Mexico) / Betty LaDuke 197

Tastes, Colors, and Techniques in Embroidered Mayan Female Costumes (Mexico) / Lourdes Rejón Patrón 220

Contributors 237

Index 241

What People are Saying About This

Lucy R. Lippard

"Crafting Gender deftly fills a gaping hole in gender studies by providing a rich body of information on women's traditional arts. Exploring the distinctions between art, 'folk art,' and just plain work in a great variety of cultures, the authors illuminate social context, belief systems, aesthetics, and technique, expanding the field to areas not well known outside of academia and Latin America. Feminists, artists, and scholars will find much material in Eli Bartra's book with which to mold and weave their own forms."
author of The Pink Glass Swan: Selected Feminist Essays on Art

Marysa Navarro

"Crafting Gender is an original collection that presents in one volume several subjects generally treated separately, integrates them with a gender perspective, and offers an approach that is truly innovative."
coauthor of Women in Latin America and the Caribbean: Restoring Women to History

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