Later this week, one of the American astronauts aboard the International Space Station will return…
NOTE: This article was originally published in the November 2014 issue of Vrai Magazine
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“I leave the good stuff at home,” the man said to me. “It doesn’t sell.”
“What do you mean it doesn’t sell?” I asked him.
Just last June I was at Zuni Pueblo in western New Mexico. On a ridiculously windy and hot afternoon I stood inside Murphy’s Trading Post out of the stinging swirls of red dust that raced between the layered mesas of the tribal lands. In the back of the store a few artists were haggling over blankets and bowls of turquoise while I watched in awe as massive chunks of pork ribs dangled from a rotisserie dripping glorious fat. I was literally drooling. Three girls came in and asked for ice-cream. Oh yes, I thought. Ice-cream, that’s why I’m here.
One of the artists came from the back of the store and asked if I’d like to buy some of his hand-made traditional Zuni fetishes. He was a large man with absurdly gigantic hands. He wore a Zuni Fire Crew baseball cap and his shirt sat high on his belly so that his navel stuck out.
“Well, I make real art for me but visitors, they don’t want real art, they want traditional stuff, you know? So I make fetishes to get by.” Zuni fetishes are small animal carvings that customarily served a ceremonial purpose for their owner. “Come to see.”
I drove through the bellowing sand storm behind the man’s little Toyota to his house. There he showed me his paintings: colorful, modernistic abstracts of, perhaps, the Zuni landscape. His walls were covered with them. His back room was also filled with them. His tight garage was stuffed with them. “These were made by an Indian,” he said and pointed at his chest, smiling. Still, off in the corner was a small table where he made the fetishes.
“It is hard being a native artist,” he said, “Because you can’t really be an artist. You can’t really be creative. You have to make what the market dictates.”
“What does the market dictate?”
“That I act like an Indian.”
It is that time of year again. We are all out purchasing gifts for our loved ones. It is also a time for travel and vacation. More often than not, travel and gift-buying go hand in hand. BUT WAIT! Before you put down your money for that little souvenir, consider the impact of that purchase. I’m not saying STOP. I’m just saying THINK.
Our society is chock full of people desperate to find an “authentic experience”. Instead of seeking it in their own lives they look outward, appropriating experiences from other people and cultures; particularly if those other people and cultures are poorer and seemingly simpler in lifestyle; which for the seeker of authenticity more often than not translates as “purer”. Author Frances Pohl termed this “Imperialist nostalgia”.
“Cultural tourism” and “cultural immersions” are à la mode for the “traveler” set. I’ve even heard this termed “aboriginal tourism”. It gives me a chuckle.
As ironic as it may seem, the very search for authenticity by the tourist creates an in-authentic experience. The supposedly authentic art that these tourists expect to see or obtain while on their travels are in fact greatly influenced by every preceding visitor. Unless you are the first outside person to walk into that Amazonian village to collect your authentic trinkets, you’re getting what the tourism market has already dictated the artist make available. Authenticity is not the choice of the artist when it comes to cultural tourism and the purchase of so-called traditional art. Rather what constitutes authenticity is decided by the market: the tourists who come to purchase the art.
Don’t Worry, You Didn’t Start It
This isn’t a new thing.
Young, wealthy Romans weren’t considered fully rounded members of society until they had taken what amounted to a First Century version of the Grand Tour. Egyptian and Greek artists churned out souvenirs based on what the Romans were expected to bring home as remembrances of their time abroad. It was much the same in medieval times as European pilgrims flocked to the Near East to see the Holy Sites. It wasn’t really until the last 200 years however that tourism became such a powerful economic force that it dramatically changed the artwork of various cultures.
Spider Woman, one of the creators of the world in Navajo mythology, came to teach the Navajo people of the American Southwest how to weave using a loom constructed of sun rays and bolts of lightning, but it was the railroad that made them the money. By the latter part of the 19th Century Euro-American traders in the region sought both to boost their own income and that of the Navajos by altering Navajo weaving traditions to make them more marketable. The traders brought in new types of fabrics and encouraged them to completely alter the rug designs to an enclosed border with a central motif. This “bordered style” met the desires of American tourists and markets than did traditional designs. Most Navajo weavers never looked back.
By the 1890s rugs from Turkey, Iran and the Caucasus had become all the rage among the upper classes on the East Coast and so traders like Moore, Cotton and Hubbell brought examples of these to the Navajo weavers who then further moved away from the traditional forms to the style of fewer designs and colors seen in the Asian designs. At Santo Domingo Pueblo south of Santa Fe, New Mexico, jewelers turned away from traditional forms around the time of the First World War and began to create the now famous thunderbird pendant necklaces tourists loved and continue to seek.
This kind of immense tourist influence on art forms was not limited to the American southwest by any means, it was and remains common all over the world.
In Colombia and Panama, Kuna women traditionally created molas as part of their clothing. These designs were imbued with a cosmology that reflected their cultures’ views of nature, family, the universe. But the mola became a market item sought by nearly every foreigner who visited the region. It is now a commodity with designs chosen and shaped to fit the desires of the tourist. Tribal elders point out that Kuna women can no longer accurately interpret the designs for their spiritual meaning – because they no longer hold a spiritual meaning. In the South Pacific, Researcher Raymond Firth says “the greatest influence for change in exotic art has, of course, been the impact of industrial society from the West…” Meanwhile in Iceland Rósa Rut Þórisdóttir has documented the way tourism has influenced traditional creations.
The Art You Want is the Art You Were Told to Want
But while tourism may be the main force influencing art forms around the world today, it wasn’t the only historical force impacting what we define as “traditional art”. Ethnographic and museum collectors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries chose art and cultural pieces based on how THEY sought to portray a certain culture of the time period.
“Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, Native American culture was defined for non-Natives through a variety of cultural sites. The art and culture of Native Americans was framed (and remains framed) as primitive in cultural hierarchies still found in museums like the American Museum of Natural History. Other public forums classified Native Americans and their cultural production through Indian road shows and world’s fairs….the ethnographic museums that collected Native American art were just as influential if not more so in framing Native American cultural objects in Europe and America.”
In other words, your desires for a certain type of indigenous art that you may think is authentic or traditional has in fact also been shaped for you by the cultural imperialism of colonial days.
Creativity and Cultures
Of course, a lot of this simply makes sense.
“Tourists want souvenirs, arts, crafts, and cultural manifestations, and in many tourist destinations, craftsmen have responded to the growing demand, and have made changes in design of their products to bring them more in line with the new customers’ tastes.”
As an artist myself I take note of which of my photography prints are more likely to sell and often times they are not the ones that I think are the most creative, inspired and beautiful. I constantly grapple with the question of how to stay true to my vision while at the same time making a living by selling my creations.
Tourism purchases more often than not constrains the local artist because the artists fit their creations into what is expected to be on sale by a tourist market obsessed with supposedly authentic experiences. The artistic process is so constrained that nothing considered “authentic” is actually produced. Then there is the impact on the culture as a whole:
“Tourism can turn local cultures into commodities when religious rituals, traditional ethnic rites and festivals are reduced and sanitized to conform to tourist expectations, resulting in what has been called “reconstructed ethnicity.” Once a destination is sold as a tourism product, and the tourism demand for souvenirs, arts, entertainment and other commodities begins to exert influence, basic changes in human values may occur. Sacred sites and objects may not be respected when they are perceived as goods to trade.”
Like it or not, tourism is a major part of cultural transformation. Tourism can at once destroy a certain part of a culture, promote another part of that culture and change both the practices and meanings of a part of that culture.
Like it or not…
Of course we need to be careful here not to fall into the simple binary of good vs bad or authentic vs in-authentic. After all, my point is not necessarily to judge how tourism impacts art but to point out a truism. Indigenous peoples are not simply victims of the tourist trade but rather active participants in that industry. Culture is not a thing. Culture is a process. Cultural tourism is not preserving culture but rather creating a whole new culture in the communities that are engaging in that form of tourism. Like it or not, tourism has become a massive industry. International arrivals skyrocketed from about 25 million in 1950 to almost one billion in 2011. There is not a country on the planet that is not heavily impacted by tourism and nearly every country on the planet is looking to tourism as a way to either solve or help to solve important economic problems. As a result, many culture groups or locations, eager for a piece of that multi-billion dollar tourist economy have set up galleries, shops and museums to offer their art. It is important to ask if a community is attracting tourists and developing or augmenting a culture in order to attract tourists by choice? Or is it that a poverty ridden community feels that is has no choice and is exploited for its poverty? And poverty often associated with authenticity.
Perennially, I’m ambivalent about the travel industry. Cultural tourism is just another fad within that massive racket. While I see definite positives in cultural and eco tourism and have discussed those positives in the past (see here and here for examples), I also see a massive amount of negatives and agree with the general thrust of articles such as this. While the tourism economy injects a massive amount of money into local communities, might it actually keep those communities from economically thriving in a more robust and stable way by boxing them into preconceived notions of what they are supposed to be for the tourist trade?
An Indian Made That
Back among the Zuni of New Mexico and other Native North American friends, I’ve had several people tell me that “being Indian” for the tourists has caused a sort of cultural stagnation, that the “natural process” of culture has been inhibited by the need to “be Indian” for the tourists – particularly when it comes to art.
I drove east from Zuni into a cooling rain after purchasing a pile of traditional bread from Jimmy Paywa. On the passenger seat was a small cardboard box. Inside were two hand-carved fetishes and a blue gourd hand rattle topped with a fluffy white feather. I had no illusion that these were some sort of one of a kind originals and I was simply happy that I’d contributed to someone’s livelihood.
Also on the seat was a small abstract painting flush with greens and reds and yellows. It was Kandinsky-esque with strong influences from German expressionism
The only thing authentically traditional about it was that it was made by an Indian.
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