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Fighting Mexican Cultural Appropriation – Making the Invisible, Visible

By December 11, 2019 No Comments
Mexican Huichol artist working on a variety of traditional beaded Mexican crafts

On November 28, 2019 with 411 votes in favor and one against, the Mexican Chamber of Deputies approved the Protection of Cultural Heritage project submitted by the Committee on Culture to protect Mexican artistic and craft works. This legislation under the Federal Copyright Law will protect literary, artistic, folk and art works that are part of the culture and identity of the original peoples. This motion will assist in preserving these works against cultural appropriation without authorization in writing of the original artist or cultural group. Milenio News

Any party interested in using a piece of work for their own purpose will be required to submit a written request to do so and the Mexican Ministry of Culture along with the National Institute of Indigenous People (INIP) will then work together to identify the owner of that work. Once the community or owner of the work is identified the agency will notify the interested party and they will be responsible for reaching an agreement and obtaining written authorization to use that piece of work for their own purpose. The goal behind this process is to create a greater awareness, recognition and respect for the original works and to empower the artists and communities to consciously protect and determine the future and use of their traditional Mexican artwork.

Mexican cultural appropriation is nothing new and has been occurring in various forms for years, in fact this issue affects many cultures around the world. It is largely driven by corporations and designers with a desire to westernize and monetize a style they find inspiring without respecting the fact that these actions are offensive, inappropriate and a robbery of cultural identity.

Recent media attention around topics such as Carolina Herrera and her 2020 resort line have ignited an outspoken and enraged opinion regarding the issue of cultural appropriation. In case you are not familiar, her recent pieces are undeniably inspired by Mexican folk art and many feel the original artists, communities and indigenous designs were not properly credited or consciously authorized to use. She has been accused of plagiarism and cultural appropriation and this news has made its way into mainstream media increasing the traction this story has gained. On one hand it is sad that often only an establishment label’s actions will draw a substantial amount of public attention to an issue as important as this, but at the same time any attention that generates increased awareness helps.

What is a ‘craft’ & what does it mean for Mexico?

Crafts are techniques that are embodied within a culture, they are taught and learned in a society and community. They are not meaningless items with only a material value that are produced in a factory. Mexican crafts preserve and express the customs and traditions that have shaped and defined Mexico as a country and they have a strong tie to both emotional and social values. Crafts are incredibly important not only for the identity value they represent for the nation of Mexico, but they are a large contributor to economic growth, jobs and income. The handcraft sector employs more than 12 million people in Mexico, 8 million of those being women. Artesanias Mexicanas significantly contribute to the Cultural Gross Domestic Product with recent figures estimating the value at 18.6%, or 123.32 million pesos. Revisita Cambio 

Problems & challenges surrounding the protection of Mexican artisanal handcrafts

Piracy is perhaps the largest factor affecting Mexican crafts and it occurs in many ways and is contributed to by a variety of parties, including Mexicans themselves. Asian made ‘crafts’ have flooded into Mexico creating directly competitive products, devaluing original artworks and resulting in economic losses for artists and the Mexican indigenous groups. This Asian merchandise has infiltrated the Mexican market via legal gaps present in cultural and intellectual property legislation. This illicit merchandise is often concentrated in Mexico City by intermediaries and distributed by people of indigenous communities who wear their traditional costumes to create a false assurance to the public of the authenticity of the crafts in exchange for compensation from the intermediaries. The Chamber of Commerce, Services and Tourism of Mexico City estimates that pirate crafts reduce domestic profits by 22 billion pesos. If this amount were to justly end up in the hands of Mexican artisans their economic situation would be very different. Revisita Cambio

It has been nearly impossible for small communities and the Mexican indigenous to properly patent and protect their works. The traditional rules of copyright have not applied to protect plagiarism to Mexican crafts, never mind the fact that many of these artists and groups face what is often coined a ‘triple discrimination of artisanal work’. With the majority of Mexican artwork being created by women (approximately 70%), possessing scarce resources and who belong to the indigenous population. Unfortunately, a great deal of artisan work suffers from a devaluation and discredit that directly relates to class, ethnicity and gender. Hopefully the recent changes previously discussed help to make this protection accessible and attainable to those who deserve it.

Cultural appropriation in creative industries is a huge issue and deserves the attention, resources and legislation necessary to reduce and hopefully eliminate it. Having said that, it is certainly more complicated that simply taking a stance on the issue. The rules, regulations and guidelines often have blurred lines making it increasingly difficult to tackle appropriation from a cultural perspective, never mind a legal one.

What does this mean for the future of traditional Mexican artwork and what can we do to help?

While in recent years the artisanal sector has acquired growing support, the economic gains have not often become tangible for the original communities responsible for creating the works. Legally enforcing cultural ownership is no easy feat and there are numerous obstacles that are involved. We must be optimistic that these recent changes to legislation will help reduce this unjust status quo. The Mexican culture and its art will never go unnoticed around the world but it is the duty of the government, legislation and its people to unite together to take the necessary action to protect these beautiful pieces of art and allow the rightful owners to become empowered and possess what is truly theirs.

It is vital that buyers assume a more conscious position and educate themselves on the characteristics of the original artisanal work they are interested in purchasing. Buyers should understand the value associated with the craft and be willing to pay a fair price in exchange. True art pieces are crafted by loving hands and are so much more than items, they are representations of culture, talent, pride and sustenance. 

How does our company fit into all this?

Artemex is incredibly proud to offer authentic artesanias Mexicanas that we personally and ethically curate. We are honored to showcase these beautiful pieces that represent the identity and culture of the artisans. We purchase all our inventory directly from small family-based workshops and indigenous communities, always paying the fair price that they deserve. We are fully conscious of what we are purchasing, where it was made, what materials were used and whose hands crafted it. Furthermore, we understand and respect who is the rightful owner of that design or craft and always acknowledge this in our presentation of the items within our business. We realize that our efforts are small in the grand scheme of protecting and preserving traditional Mexican art and indigenous designs, but we take great pride in them. We sincerely hope that our relatively small actions make a positive impact at least with the artisans we work directly with.

Written by Jessica Gomez
Owner of Artemex Mexican Handcrafts & Freelance Writer

*All photos within this post were taken by Artemex during our travels to Mexico to visit our partner artisans.


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