Between Art and Artifact

[ Latin American Studies ]

Between Art and Artifact

Archaeological Replicas and Cultural Production in Oaxaca, Mexico

By Ronda L. Brulotte

An innovative ethnographic study of tourist art markets in Oaxaca, Mexico, where making and selling replicas of pre-Hispanic archaeological pieces is sometimes met with disdain, despite the artisanal quality and rich heritage associated with the practice



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6 x 9 | 235 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-75426-3

Oaxaca is internationally renowned for its marketplaces and archaeological sites where tourists can buy inexpensive folk art, including replicas of archaeological treasures. Archaeologists, art historians, and museum professionals sometimes discredit this trade in “fakes” that occasionally make their way to the auction block as antiquities. Others argue that these souvenirs represent a long cultural tradition of woodcarving or clay sculpting and are “genuine” artifacts of artisanal practices that have been passed from generation to generation, allowing community members to preserve their cultural practices and make a living. Exploring the intriguing question of authenticity and its relationship to cultural forms in Oaxaca and throughout southern Mexico, Between Art and Artifact confronts an important issue that has implications well beyond the commercial realm.

Demonstrating that identity politics lies at the heart of the controversy, Ronda Brulotte provides a nuanced inquiry into what it means to present “authentic” cultural production in a state where indigenous ethnicity is part of an awkward social and racial classification system. Emphasizing the world-famous woodcarvers of Arrazola and the replica purveyors who come from the same community, Brulotte presents the ironies of an ideology that extols regional identity but shuns its artifacts as “forgeries.” Her work makes us question the authority of archaeological discourse in the face of local communities who may often see things differently. A departure from the dialogue that seeks to prove or disprove “authenticity,” Between Art and Artifact reveals itself as a commentary on the arguments themselves, and what the controversy can teach us about our shifting definitions of authority and authorship.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Introduction: Between Art and Artifact, The Skull of Benito Juárez
  • Chapter 2. A Wood-Carving Community, Family Photo
  • Chapter 3. Arrazola's Other Craft, To the Top of Monte Albán
  • Chapter 4. Crafting the Past in the Present, Views from the Pyramid
  • Chapter 5. Replicating Authenticity, Authenticating Replicas, Discriminating Tastes
  • Chapter 6. Replicas and the Ambiguity of Race and Indigeneity
  • Chapter 7. Why Fake Jaguar Gods Matter
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Today in the parking lot at Monte Albán vendors sell junky little vases, like pencil holders, with bat and jaguar effigy faces sometimes molded from original pieces. These may be too simple and common to show up in museum collections 100 years from now, but who knows?
—Marcus Winter, Another Fake on Genuine

When Marcus Winter, a prominent archaeologist with the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (known by its Spanish acronym, INAH), penned the above observation more than two decades ago, he gave voice to a concern shared by archaeologists, art historians, and museum professionals alike: that "fake" pre-Hispanic artifacts periodically would slip past experts only to later surface in museum collections around the world. As a professional archaeologist, Winter had spent much of his career working at Monte Albán, a well-known Mesoamerican archaeology site in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, where he was apparently troubled by the public circulation of "fake" Oaxacan artifacts.

For instance, he draws the reader's attention to the specific case of a fake Zapotec "Jaguar God" urn that unwittingly appeared in Frank H. Boos's now-classic book, The Ceramic Sculptures of Ancient Oaxaca. According to the text, the piece was in the collection of the Leipzig Museum in what was at the time East Germany. The image was disseminated en masse again in 1971, thanks to an East German postage stamp featuring the piece. With an archaeologist's trained eye, Winter assessed the stylistic elements of the Jaguar God urns in question (the piece illustrated in both the book and the postage stamp was one of a set of six) and declared that the repetitive "juxtaposition of incongruous and sometimes ridiculous attributes render their authenticity impossible". He concluded that "if, in the future, some countries decide to commemorate ancient Oaxacan cultures on stamps, it certainly would be preferable if they selected designs based on pieces from known archeological contexts that had some genuine pre-Hispanic significance."

For Winter, the recent fabrication (i.e., not in pre-Hispanic antiquity) of these pieces stripped them of the perceived value that once made their image worthy of serialization.

As will become immediately apparent in the text, my concern is far more with the field of archaeology’s interest in authenticity and claim to authority than it is with any arbitration of "real" or "fake" artifacts. My intention is to demonstrate that such arguments have effects other than their authors intend and often spin out in fraught and generative ways. I contend that within replicas resides a potent critique of the inner workings of power in the production of cultural and heritage landscapes not only in Oaxaca but throughout Mexico and the world. Replicas demand our attention--better yet, our own self-reflection--as cultural brokers and consumers.

Returning to Winter's cautionary, albeit brief, note concerning the "junky little vases" with bat and jaguar faces sold in the Monte Albán parking lot circa 1986, I suspect that the purveyors of such pieces may have included individuals from the community that is, in large measure, the subject of this book. For over thirty years, residents of San Antonio Arrazola have participated in the archaeological replica trade by making and selling pieces to tourists at Monte Albán. In 1986, before INAH officials enacted tighter restrictions and surveillance at the site, replicas sellers moved around the archaeological zone, including the parking lot, in a less restricted fashion than they do today. The objects they sell, whether as authentic pieces to unsuspecting customers or (more commonly) transparently as replicas, are intended to mimic or evoke "genuine" pre-Hispanic artifacts of the type found at the site. Nevertheless, Winter's comment indicates that he judged the replicas of that time as falling short of that goal; the ubiquity of fake objects and their allegedly simple designs seemed to preclude the chance that they would be mistaken for genuine archaeological artifacts. Yet he rhetorically posits that someday the replicas sold to tourists at Monte Albán might, in fact, pass as the real thing, eluding future generations of historical experts.

At the time of my research nearly twenty years later, the sale of unsanctioned copies of archaeological artifacts remained a critical issue for those affiliated with INAH. But despite the prevalence of replica crafts at Monte Albán (and throughout archaeological sites in Mexico), by and large they remain an unexamined form of material culture. This is notable given that Oaxacan handicrafts and archaeological remains have been intensely studied by professional folklorists, cultural anthropologists, and archaeologists since the early twentieth century. Those seeking to document local folk expressions perhaps have found little inspiration in objects that, while handcrafted, lack the supposed authenticity and historical context of the original archaeological objects they mimic. Thus, while a worldwide phenomenon not limited to Oaxaca, replicas are rarely the subject of contemporary cultural analysis.

Similarly, when archaeologists and art historians have written about Oaxacan archaeological replicas, such as the piece by Winter cited above, the objects are "exposed" as fakes and described in relation to corresponding original artifacts--an authoritative move that simultaneously reasserts the authenticity and value of the latter (e.g., Monge 1987, 2000; Sellen 2002, 2004). Nancy Kelker and Karen Bruhns's Faking Ancient Mesoamerica (2010) points to the continuity of this discourse of exposure as it operates within both art history and archaeology. Enlisting war as a metaphor, the authors write in the book's introduction:

Although we are not terribly concerned with the slings, arrows, and curses that might be hurled at us by art aficionados angry about the debunking of their favorite faux works, we see the problem of fakes and forgeries of Pre-columbian art as a serious danger to scholarship, and it is for scholarship that we are willing to strap on our armor, take up shields and swords, and do battle in the name of truth and justice--even if we must, like Joan of Arc, dance in the flames. Forgery is a nasty business and debunking fakes is even nastier, but someone has to do it or all scholastic integrity will be lost.

Winter, too, acknowledges the usefulness in studying replicas, but even so, his endorsement contains a warning to would-be investigators. He writes:

Someday perhaps someone will undertake a careful study of the fakes from Oaxaca. This might be an interesting exercise and expose many of the fakes in museums, but it could also have the negative effect of providing a guide for the careful artisan, instructing him on obvious errors to avoid.

His observations hint at the possibility that replicas might compete with, and even displace, the rightful objects of archaeological research, a concern well founded within particular scientific and historical epistemologies.

Yet this criticism does not address the broader aesthetic and sociopolitical dimensions of replica crafts. It negates them as legitimate items of material culture that have, to borrow Arjun Appadurai's oft-used term, a "social life" of their own. These objects circulate alongside other objects of Oaxacan material culture, indexing multiple regimes of social and economic value created on one hand by the tourist art market, and on the other through the practice of archaeological science. In what follows, I take up Winter's challenge of studying contemporary Oaxacan archaeological "fakes," although perhaps not for the reason he had in mind.

In her study of Mayan archaeological sites in Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, anthropologist Lisa Breglia (2006) cautions against understanding archaeological heritage as a material assemblage whose various meanings and significance are squarely locked in a distant historical past; such a paradigm inherently privileges archaeologists and other technical experts as the rightful interpreters and guardians of cultural materials. Her "heritage-as-practice" approach instead considers archaeological sites and other forms of heritage as "renewable resources". That is to say, they are actively (re)produced and reinscribed with social meaning in the present through particular, ongoing social relationships among all kinds of users of heritage.

Taking this as a point of departure, I show that just as archaeological artifacts enshrined in museums provide clues about the social, political, and economic organization of pre-Hispanic Oaxaca, replica pieces illuminate these same issues as they pertain to Oaxaca today. In particular, this book is concerned with what archaeological replicas tell us about Oaxaca's development into a world-class cultural tourism destination and the restructuring of many local Oaxacans' lives that this has entailed. It turns out that replicas, and the people who make and sell them, offer an astute account of this transformation, one perhaps unanticipated by their critics.

Ronda L. Brulotte is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and faculty affiliate with the Latin American and Iberian Institute at the University of New Mexico.