Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Changing Dreams: Shepard Barbash and Vicki Ragan at Mingei

Shepard Barbash and Vicki Ragan are signing their new book at Mingei in Decatur on February 17, which is why I searched for the post that appears below, and discovered I never actually posted it (because I had been posting three and four times a day on joculum, as I have been lately).

This appears in somewhat more concealed form on, but it's there.

Here it is:

Changing Dreams: Oaxaca and the Barbash/Ragan Effect

or, a Tale of Woodcarvers, Photographers, Anthropologists, and Art Critics

One of the films that has stayed with me is The Perfumed Nightmare, an allegory about a Filipino woodcarver whose wooden saints are so admired by foreigners that he gets a commission to produce thousands upon thousands of mascot figures for the 1972 Munich Olympics. As in so many other small-business allegories, a low profit margin type of success ruins him physically, mentally, and if I recall rightly, ultimately economically as styles change and interest moves on.

Sometimes a sudden failure of interest is ultimately good for a community, as when the cancellation of special-order commercial contracts thirty-some years ago left the quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, Alabama to their own isolated creative devices once more, abandoned by the programs meant to lift them out of poverty. Enter the art and museum worlds courtesy of the controversial Bill Arnett and his Tinwood Enterprises partners including Jane Fonda and filmmaker daughter Vanessa Vadim, and the now elderly women who were making quilts for Sears in the seventies are being escorted to museum openings of “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” and taken to parts of the world they had scarcely so much as dreamed of.

More often, folk artists of all sorts have fulfilled one-off commissions for particular patrons, sometimes violating their usual styles and subject matter to produce pornography, rather as Courbet painted the now-famous The Origin of the World as an unusually well-imagined piece of erotica meant to hang in a patron’s private bedroom.

So I was pleased to learn in 1993 from Shepard Barbash and Vicki Ragan that the Oaxacan woodcarvers they were doing their best to publicize had come up with this strange, untraditional, by turns whimsical and disturbing imagery on their own, provoked only by the prospect of outdoing one another and finding visitors and others who would pay them to create these extravagant visions.

I was pleased to the point of trying to contextualize their Chronicle Books volume on the topic in terms of global art and greater issues of folk and ethnic arts (though I am not going to look up my review in Art Papers lest it prove less ambitious and scholarly than my retelling would have it be).

I was further pleased to see Oaxacan woodcarving become as popular as it subsequently became, to the point that eventually the oversupply was being marketed as a loss leader in curio shops all over the country (or at least the few parts of the country I tend to get to).

I learn from a story by Catherine Fox in the January 20 ’08 Atlanta Journal Constitution that economic anthropologist Michael Chibnik christened this upswell of interest “the Barbash/Ragan effect.” According to his analysis in Crafting a Tradition, it was their Smithsonian article in 1991 coupled with their Oaxacan Wood Carving two years later that sparked the explosion of popular interest and subsequent massive importation of the work of specific well-known carvers at first, and of vast quantities of Oaxacan work later.

I went on to other topics, including following Vicki Ragan’s separate photographic career, though I encountered the subject of Oaxacan carvers in other contexts.

Most recently, as I may have written in joculum.livejournal or in counterforces.blogspot, I encountered a whole family of them in Mingei World Arts in Decatur, Georgia (I am spelling all these things out in case this piece migrates without my knowledge to worlds and websites yet unknown). They were celebrating the birthday of one of the children, and trying to locate suitable replacement wood for the Oaxacan product that couldn’t be imported at that moment because of the political troubles in Oaxaca.

That family, and sorry, I didn’t write down the names, eventually returned to Oaxaca, and were in metro Atlanta for reasons of their own.

This new tale of the wages of globalization has now been told by Barbash and Ragan in Changing Dreams, a photo book about the carver families that updates their lives as of 2004.

The story is not what you might expect. For all of the explosion of creativity, the carvers considered their art one more way of making a living, not a creative pursuit to be followed at all costs, and some of the most talented have gone back to truck driving or migrated north to the United States to earn money in unrelated occupations. Some few who were brought to the U.S. as celebrated folk artists have continued to be recognized as valued representatives of a creative tradition, but there is no guarantee of a sympathetic dealer or, as in the case of Mingei, a basically grassroots business interested in meeting émigré families as unique human beings.

Much the same can be said of art-school-educated artists in the United States, of course, of whom more can be found tending bar or making lattes than making etchings or installations.

Barbash and Ragan, though, have given us a version of a global story that is worthy of the attention of more than folk-art aficionados. One of its points is that a degree of prosperity did come to the Oaxacan villages; and, once there, it has made it impossible to lapse back into the assumptions of a few decades ago. The artists have dreamed larger dreams, and if their creative imaginations have led them in career directions that seem tragic to us, they may be less so to the individuals involved. (Again, it is possible to cite U.S.-artist parallels without making false assumptions about people being the same everywhere. Cultures and cultural pressures are different, but the underlying physical and psychological substrate makes for structurally similar solutions. He said, alliteratively.)

2007’s Changing Dreams is properly a book from a university press rather than a coffee-table-book publisher. Its more biographical focus won’t produce a second Barbash/Ragan effect. But its parallel portraits of Oaxacan woodcarvers from 1988 and 2004, combined with solidly thoughtful text, should have an impact on a completely different market for ideas about the world we live in. (Footnote: the 1993 publisher declined to use Ragan’s black-and-whtie documentation of the men and women who actually made the art; this was what led to the idea of updating the 1988 photography on a new extended visit.)

No comments: