When I arrived in Oaxaca for a residency at the Pocoapoco residency program in 2022, I had a general idea of what I wanted to do, but was also aware that my goals would change the longer I stayed there. As a color material researcher I knew I was in the right place. Oaxaca is known for traditional use of natural materials - particularly within the practices of natural dyeing, weaving, paper making, and ceramics. I had been addressing these practices in my teaching work for years, however I wanted to go to Oaxaca to witness the use of these materials directly. In addition, I wanted to keep working on a project I started while pursuing my masters in arts education from the Harvard School of Education in 2020. For this project, I conducted interviews with teachers, makers, knowledge keepers, and artists who are based in Oaxaca about how they feel when outsiders come to learn and bring home their ancestral knowledge. I wanted to listen to how they position themselves in the role of an educator, and if they felt a sense of having to protect themselves and their cultural legacies from tourists and artists who come to Oaxaca (people not unlike myself) who might appropriate this knowledge - even those outsiders with the best intentions at heart.
Overall I left with more questions than answers. The artists who generously shared their practices and their thoughts with me opened up a vast world of inquiry in how creative processes travel, adapt, and oftentimes are extracted from sites of origin. In my conversations with traditional weavers and contemporary artists, I learned that there really isn’t such a thing as a “traditional” practice, and even before the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico, the techniques used in making ancestral objects had evolved from something or someone else. For many outsiders, especially those from North America and Europe, there is a tendency to keep the “traditional” Indigenous practices locked in the past - behind the glass case in the natural history museum, etc. However there are artists who culturally identify as native to Oaxaca who push the concept of the traditional - whether they are a weaver, or natural dyer, from Teotitlán del Valle, or an artist who shows in contemporary galleries and museums at home and internationally.
In addition to the consideration of these art practices, I was also interested in the standing of local materials in the tourist trade market. These include materials such as the cochineal insect, añil (the Mexican plant version of indigo), or cantera - a local pastel green, pink, or yellow stone, that I learned was currently being mined from the mountains by Canadian companies and affecting the displacement of people and a sacred material for outside profit. As I listened to the stories of these materials, some of which I had never heard of before or seen used, I began to feel uncomfortable about my continued use of natural materials from around the world. I questioned: How can I consider the local importance of these materials, yet still work with them back home guilt-free? How is the process of material extraction and trade from outsiders a continuation of colonialism? These questions circulated around the undoubtedly enticing draw I felt to their material beauty. I was curious: How could I reconcile these feelings, yet still incorporate the use of these or similarly extracted materials into my artwork and research?
What ended up happening was instead of making physical artwork while in residence at Pocoapoco (although I did make a small series of collages) my practice centered continued questioning, listening, and learning which takeaways I could pay forward when I teach about these practices and materials: How I could and should center voices that are not my own, but rather from the viewpoints of the local artists whom I met along the way. After a month's duration in residence, what I created for my final presentation at Pocoapoco was an installation featuring a collection of synthetically colored red bowls, each with a material or an object that I encountered in my journey. I aimed to be careful how I collected these objects. While I did buy artwork from the artists I encountered, I did not buy raw materials from suppliers (with the exception of the añil). I experimented with how I could collect these things by obtaining them through exchanges or foraging for them “ethically”. In my interpretation, “ethically” meant either picking them up from the trash, receiving them as gifts, or exchanging them for something else of equivalent value. I collected green cantera by picking up rubble from the colonial architecture around the city, from those buildings of a colonizer design that had been constructed with the material. I also collected yellow soil from a construction heap in Monte Alban, rather than by disturbing the soil in a sacred Zapotec ruin. I collected red earth from rain runoff near the landscaped site of Santo Domingo church in the heart of the city. As gifts I received huizache (a native plant, known in the U.S. as sweet acacia) dyed leather from the Oaxacan contemporary artist Adriana Monterubbio, as well as different colored cantera from her collection. I received clay from sculptor Mujer Barro (a.k.a. Martha Alicia Jimenez Sanchez), in exchange for an artwork I made using the clay transformed into a pigment.
In the installation, these objects - within their red synthetic vessels - were each labeled with their contents and the information about where they were found and how they were obtained. My intention was for the red synthetic dye used to color the bowls to stand out in stark contrast with the natural materials they held, carrying an additional symbolism that synthetic red dye is the most toxic of all synthetic colorants. Each vessel was laid out in a grid with each label, visitors were able to consider this collection, and were invited to tell their own stories, share connections, and pose questions based upon what they observed. In addition to this display, I provided paints I made from the pigments I collected for visitors to play with - a gesture of paying it forward for others to take home an artwork of their own with the materials that found their way to me.
The distinction between the words “exchange” or “extract” is of particular interest to me. How might an interchange between folks of different cultural origins and/or locations be explored as a greater practice of anti-colonialism? Or this might invite further questioning about how we extract many outside materials as a trade oriented, capitalist society. Are these processes ethical or generous? Where and when can the harvesting of these materials be as poisonous as it is generative and profitable? Does the essentialist ideal of “traditional” cultural practices need to be locked in the past? Or can the outside perception of ancestral materials and processes continue to evolve and grow with the given space to do so. And within a realm of mindfulness of commerce and art making both at home and abroad. Through this project, I hope to continue a longstanding process of questioning, listening, and learning wherever I go in my practice as well as my research.