In Mexico, handcrafts and folk art have shaped society for centuries. Often referred to as artesanía—a blend of indigenous and European designs—the country’s rich history of artisanal techniques has generated some of the most celebrated handmade objects, from the decorative to the utilitarian. Today, while crafts products enjoy a resurgence in popularity, inequalities persist, posing a number of obstacles in sustaining centuries-old traditions.
Since 2009, the Oaxaca-based organization Innovando la Tradición has been invested in rethinking the imperatives of clay-based crafts, while promoting sustainable practices. Besides running educational activities across potters’ communities in the region, the group’s commercial branch, Colectivo 1050°, identifies opportunities for the distribution of handmade objects to contemporary and high-end markets. AN Interior contributor Benoît Loiseau speaks with cofounder Diego Mier y Terán about the organization’s challenges and hopes.
AN INTERIOR: You’ve spoken extensively about the risks of seeing Oaxacan pottery disappear. Are you noticing any progress?
COLECTIVO: It’s likely that 40 percent of the villages will stop producing pottery within our lifetime. That said, I think there’s hope, and we have seen villages revive their craft traditions. There’s currently a trend in the market for crafts and handmade products, and we are witnessing an increased interest in traditional pottery and ceramics. It is one of our missions to elevate the economic value of traditional pottery, but also its cultural and symbolic value. Ultimately, though, our goal is to change the narrative around how artisans are perceived and presented in the dominant discourse of institutions—one based on the exoticization of otherness—from museums, NGOs, designers, chefs, and government.
AN: Do you find that younger generations are interested in taking up the craft? Is there an issue of perception?
C: For young people, to see their parents struggling financially in the profession is clearly not an incentive. Earth is seen as something dirty, not elegant, cool, or modern. For that generation it often feels more dignified to build cars or computers. But we have seen changes when communities start earning more, with increased sales. The whole relationship within the family then changes, with children looking to take part in the workshops. We just had an exhibition at the Franz Mayer Museum [Mexico City], where we showed traditional pieces, made in the present day. It’s a big change; it’s really saying that the craft is alive. Clay is so ingrained in the history of Mexico—and of humankind—if given a little window, people will engage.
AN: A number of contemporary designers in Mexican cities work closely with artisans and craftsmen. How do you envisage best practice?
C: Best practice is in the making, but I don’t see a critical discussion taking place around design in Mexico at the moment, particularly in terms of colonizing practices. Designers are fixed on the fetishization of crafts, with little consideration for social change. It’s a dangerous and harmful situation for artisanal communities because designers are reproducing inequalities.
AN: In August you curated the IV Encuentro Nacional Alfarero Independiente, the fourth edition of the national gathering of potters and artisans from 12 states and 25 different villages, which gathered over 85 participants this year. What was the focus of the event?
C: The main focus was on sharing knowledge. It is very rare for artisans, particularly potters, to share knowledge and techniques with other villages, even less so other states. On the one hand, because the work demands to be in a closed environment, but also because there’s a certain level of competition—they’re nervous their work would be copied.
AN: Can you tell me about one of your most significant pieces?
C: The Tonaltepec Bowl is made with a very unique technique. Archaeologists have found examples in the area dating from as far back as 4,000 years. Still 30 years ago, most of the women in that remote village worked with clay, selling their products at the local market. When we visited in 2012, only five ladies were working with clay, and two years later, they had basically stopped, because the market had disappeared. So we started a series of workshops with the children in the village and other members of the community. Altogether, this generated somewhat of a revival, and production resumed. The bowl made it to Noma’s pop-up restaurant in Tulum last year.
AN: How do you redistribute profit, and ensure that your activities are sustainable?
C: Most of the products we sell are continuous. We test them, to see if the market responds to them. Forty to 50 percent of the retail price of the product goes back to the artisans. The rest goes to operations—maintaining shops, administration, packaging—then there’s a marginal 10 percent profit that pays for the activities of Innovando la Tradición.