OUR NEIGHBORS IN MATA ORTIZ: VIEWED THROUGH A STERLING LENS

OUR NEIGHBORS IN MATA ORTIZ: VIEWED THROUGH A STERLING LENS

 

By Nancy Andrews, Silver City, New Mexico

Copyright Nancy Andrews 2014

(In early 2014 Donald Sterling was the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers of the National Basketball Association or NBA. He was banned for life after he made racist remarks. His paternalistic remarks were equally disturbing and are the topic of this discussion.)

 

When Donald Sterling asked, “Who makes the game?” he gave voice to his flawed perception that a pale, maturing owner was the essence of a professional basketball team, a team rich with young Black talent. “Do they make the game?” Sterling queried. And a league of strong voices countered together, Yes! We make the game! We make basketball! In one telling day, Sterling was on his way out and the Los Angeles Clippers prevailed without him. Regardless of Sterling’s view, basketball players do make the game. It’s unfortunate that many of us, although well meaning, view the artists of Mata Ortiz through our own similarly flawed lenses.

        Mexican artists make Mexican art; Mexican potters deserve full credit for their ceramics. Seven hundred years ago, Casas Grandes civilization flourished for several centuries in what would become Mexico.  The center of Casas Grandes, a city we call Paquime, stood near the site of present-day Mata Ortiz, Chihuahua. A number of Casas Grandes people were exceptional artists and left a legacy of fine ceramics. In the twentieth century, a loosely aligned league of Mexican potters, Manuel Olivas, Emeterio Ortiz, Felix Ortiz, Salvador Ortiz, Juan Quezada, Nicolas Quezada, Nicolas Silveira, Rojelio Silveira and others, pioneered the renaissance of Casas Grandes ceramics, now known as Mata Ortiz Pottery. Visitors from the United States played important roles in making the pottery known to people north of the border. Still, as artist Juan Quezada suggests in the Journal of the Southwest, the potters of Mata Ortiz were destined for success with or without connections to any particular agents. Mata Ortiz Pottery was already on the road to greatness when strangers arrived. Mexicans, working together and learning from one another, brought forth the rebirth of Casas Grandes pottery. It took a village, a Mexican village.

Today that village is a vibrant community of artists. Phones, paved roads, email and social media are fast-flowing arteries of communication for this society of worldly potters. They are wise and eloquent professionals, some are English-speaking, and many travel frequently to the United States. They live but a few hours from Silver City, Las Cruces and Tucson. Yet, go to almost any Southwest U.S. forum on Mata Ortiz and observe the speakers. Pay close attention. Are they the best spokespersons for this Mexican art form? Is the history inclusive and complete? Are artists’ dreams and the community’s plans discussed first hand? When needed, do objective translators facilitate direct exchange between presenter and audience? Or is communication impeded by a kind of wall of white, a construct disproportionately non-Latino? Is lopsided attention given to Anglo experience, opinion and influence? Listen carefully. Does the narrative reinforce a subtly colonial point of view? Perhaps emphasis is placed on what we outsiders have done in, and for, Mata Ortiz, rather than what Mata Ortiz potters have done in, and for, the world of art. Have we grown paternalistic and comfortable with that scenario? Maybe like Donald Sterling, some of us cling to lenses that have no place in today’s new forum.

Some of us like to envision the Mata Ortiz of a romanticized past. However, the people of Mata Ortiz are twenty-first century multidimensional individuals, not potters in a stagnant exhibition. Their art is ever-evolving. Each Mata Ortiz potter, like any successful artist, is the creator of her own authenticity, the master of his unique destiny. Only an artist from Mata Ortiz can speak compellingly of his creative desires. Only a Mexican potter can adequately share the truth of her heritage. Mata Ortiz pottery is theirs, an endeavor over which they alone have genuine command. Their art and lives develop in ways only they can articulate. We must listen to their voices. In the words of Mata Ortiz artist Diego Valles, “I believe there should be a potter or citizen of Mata Ortiz in every discussion about it. Don’t you think?” Who can disagree?

As gracious Americans, let’s move to the sidelines. Our view is limited, our commentary incomplete. Let’s make way for the people who are crafting their own extraordinary pottery movement. Let’s hear new voices respectfully revise the outsider-embedded account by presenting a balanced narrative that honors all players in the Mata Ortiz story. It’s 2014 and time for a broad vision of Mata Ortiz and its living Latino art, an image not distorted by Sterling lenses. Let’s welcome a chorus of “Nosotros hacemos las ollas, nosotros hacemos el arte.”  “We make the pots, we make the art.”

 

 Nancy Andrews is the author of the award-winning children’s book, THE POT THAT JUAN BUILT / LA VASIJA QUE JUAN FABRICO, as told to her by Juan Quezada, and illustrated by David Diaz. A percentage of the book’s royalties goes to Mata Ortiz to be used as individuals there determine.

 

 

 

30 thoughts on “OUR NEIGHBORS IN MATA ORTIZ: VIEWED THROUGH A STERLING LENS”

  1. I’ve heard Americans speak at the pottery shows. One of them was Spence MacCallum I think. He talked like he was very important. Only a few of the potters in Mexico were mentioned and his talk was mostly about himself and one man from Mata Ortiz.

    1. I am a 41 year old american that grew up in MN with a potter as a father. He and I were introduced to the village 8 yrs ago. We both sell the pottery from Mata Ortiz. Which we do because we fell in love with the people, the region and obviously the art. I know the history story is not perfect but I think it is wrong to discredit the first Americans that have helped the art form and the people as a whole. They have and will always have a large part to do with the success of the movement that is occurring currently. And I will specifically thank Spencer for being an amazing story teller. Because no matter what anyone says he helped the movement take flight. Many of the artists today are family to me. They have blessed my life in countless ways. The message in this blog suggests that somehow the artists voices have been stifled. Aside from the very out spoken and my dear friend, Diego Valles, most of the artists prefer to remain quiet. They are consistently asked their opinions for articles, artist bios, books and documentary films, Mexican and American. This is not the Donald Sterling situation by any means.

      1. Victoria, thank you for underscoring the part played years ago by Americans in Mata Ortiz pottery. As I said, they had an important role. Because of the focus of my post, I did not mention each by name. I appreciate the opportunity to begin to do so now. John Davis, Debi Flanagan, Alan Hawkins, Joe Garcia, Jim Hills and Spencer Mac Callum were among them. In my own case in the 90s, I credit Lydia Quezada’s visit to California, Liz McDannold and Ron Goebel. Thanks!

  2. Wow, its about time. Thank you for posting that article about the way people look at Mata Ortiz from such an old fashioned pov.

    1. Most of the early books and articles about Mata Ortiz are dominated by a lack of credible sources. Much of the “Miracle” book is third person accounts. There is little documentation in some parts. Go figure.

  3. Raises good points. I know that I left a movie about a year ago about Mata Ortiz and my friend was saying the same thing about all the comments but i think only one Mexican spoke in the whole film.

  4. Thought provoking and indeed humbling. I have often been confronted with the same impressions both in Mexico and at home. Thank you for putting it into words. I’m in complete agreement.

  5. At the end of her blog Nancy Andrews calls for respect and balance. I applaud that. I would also suggest that her own blog fails in that regard. It is more missile than missive. I don’t know that I have ever met Nancy and I certainly encourage her passion. But, this blog serves to divide, not to unify. It is as full of stereotypes as is the example of Mr. Sterling. Words like pale, maturing, strangers, wall of white, colonial, outsiders, and paternalistic are neither helpful, nor unifying. The use of words to divide is rarely helpful in solving any challenge.

    I would agree with her that the history of Mata Ortiz pottery is neither inclusive, nor complete. It may never be. I have enough interaction with the villagers to know that they don’t agree on their own history. There is no single story emanating from the village in either Spanish or English. I personally hope there never is. Whenever there is a single story the rich rainbow of individual experience and perspective is lost.

    No one is native to Mata Ortiz beyond a few generations. It exists on no 19th century map. Most likely no one lived there when my own father was born. It was most likely a ramada by the river back then. The Mata Ortiz resident today was the stranger of a few generations ago. The linkage to the pottery of Paquime is primarily stylistic and methodological. The pottery of Mata Ortiz today has no sacred purpose; it is neither funerary, nor is it utilitarian, used to carry water, or for cooking. It is neither an expression of functionality or of spirituality as was that of Paquime.

    It is first and foremost an economic movement created by a small group who discovered and refined the old ways of turning clay into pottery. Manuel Olivas once told me his grandma taught him how to use clay to make toy soldiers. As a boy, he re-fought the battles of the revolution on his kitchen floor with clay Pancho Villas, complete with Siete Leguas, his faithful horse. The pottery of Mata Ortiz has no great oral tradition or history beyond that kitchen floor, or Juan’s boyhood bedroom walls.

    Within the village there are the haves and the have-nots (not too dissimilar to the San Diego wherein I write this). Who gives voice for the potter who has never sold a pot for more than double digits? My concern is for those who struggle to sell $30 pots, but whose children want the same cell phones and laptops as those of potters who sell pots for hundreds or thousands of dollars. The pressure is great. My concern (will I be accused of paternalism?) is for the potter who now sells gas in Casas Grandes, or who has gone to “the other side” to work. How much talent are we (will I be accused of being a stranger?) losing?

    We (dare I say that?) have a tremendous shortage of traders right now. I remember ten years ago (the extent of my personal experience with the village) when many more traders roamed the village than do now. We need a unified single voice for the future. Dividing people by melanin, age, or intent (something very hard to determine) is not helpful. In some sense we (there I go again) are all strangers to the Rio San Miguel (I lobby for the old name) and its beautiful banks. Whether we arrived in the twenties, the forties, the sixties, the nineties, or the 2000’s we are now all of Mata Ortiz and hold its future in our collective heads, hearts, and hands. Melanin doesn’t matter.

    1. Nancy here—Just to clarify, when I refer to the culture and heritage of Mata Ortiz, I’m referencing the culture of modern day Mata Ortiz, 20th and 21st Centuries. That’s why I call it “Mata Ortiz” rather than “Casas Grandes.” I’m of course aware that the heritage of Mata Ortiz pottery is less than 100 years old, and is distinct from Casas Grandes pottery and culture. Nevertheless, I do feel that there is indeed a valid, albeit modern, Mata Ortiz cultural heritage.

    1. Nancy here. Thanks for your support. Posted this in English because of the intended audience. But, since in fact much of the spirit of the essay comes directly from several Mata Ortiz potters, I will try to get this into Spanish. Appreciate the suggestion.

  6. I disagree with Phil Stover’s comment, but respect some of its tenor. Appreciate the vision of plurality with the rainbow metaphor. But while in general this comment does seem to come from a caring place, that sentence about a single unified voice is off putting
    and not supportive of plurality.

  7. Having collected Mata Ortiz pottery for twenty years, I was pleased to see your new blog. Love love love the Lens article. Seems like gals agree and men don’t. Hmmmm. Serves to illustrate the point! The art, the work, the creativity, the significance of Mata Ortiz pottery all belong to the potters themselves, not to the people who resell their wares. THEY are the experts, the heart and soul of Mata, let’s listen to THEIR voices!

    1. Your blog is timely and offers a much needed new perspective.
      Thank you for the “Through a Sterling Lens” post, it brings new and fresh light and air into the Mata Ortiz “equation”…….
      Carlotta Boettcher

  8. We got this comment from Margi Robinson on our facebook page when we posted your article.

    Margi Robison: YES!!! It’s about time that an outsider recognizes that these potters can and must speak for themselves, and that outsiders are not the ones to define who, and what, Mata Ortiz is… And it was wonderful to see, in print, the names of ALL the potters who began and encouraged this art in the pueblo!

  9. You make it sound as if ”gracious Americans” are some how holding the artist back. How many Mexicans are going to do ‘lectures’ ? Geez its hard enough to get any of them to smile for pictures…the very small handful of potters that even have permission to go north gives an even smaller number of ones that can and will speak english, two or four maybe. I agree 100% with the author saying that the ”white view” has prevailed far too long but who else is there in realistic terms? We need dozens.. hundreds.. not less then a handful to spread the word and anyone who describes lovely Mata Ortiz as a ”vibrant community of artists” just isnt paying attention to what is going on now. Mata Ortiz is entering a new phase of existence. It looks good on paper to say these things but reality is another matter I fear. So please ”As gracious Americans, let’s [NOT] move to the sidelines” lets talk it up and promote the stories of Mata Ortiz to everyone you see. As Oscar Wilde pointed out “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

  10. Hi Steve, Thank you for your validation that “the white view has prevailed far too long.” And, as you suggest, it is a dilemma when too few artists are stepping up to speak. But to quote JFK, who didn’t turn a phrase quite as well as Wilde (but almost), “let us begin,” begin to be more inclusive. Clearly word isn’t spreading as much as we’d like regardless of the speaker. Based on remarks I’ve heard, there is a weariness with the current messengers. I do believe that the artists themselves would truly help promote the art. I too know only a dozen potters ready and willing (with papers to cross the American border) to try. And yes, only half of those artists speak English. I’d suggest a new lecture-free format, perhaps Q&A, with questions submitted and considered prior, a conversation between listeners and potters, with objective interpreters. I’d be glad to contribute to pay an interpreter. And I know artists who want only gas money to come. Again, I’m happy to contribute toward their travel expenses.

  11. I am frankly appalled at what seems like a witch hunt!
    I am a Mexican–born and raised here. Mexicans do not like voicing any opinions unless it is behind one’s back. If they had such strong opinions about someone talking negative about them, they would have voiced it through the Presidencia.
    And, whether people recognize it or not, Americans did get them promoted to the world.
    I do not think anyone on this blog site was here 30-40 years ago, I was, and know this story far better than those who think they are an authority on the subject.
    Be grateful
    C.W.

    1. Carmela, thank you for your comment. Yours is a voice some of us would like to hear more of in discussions about Mata Ortiz. Current. Mexican. We may not agree on America’s role in Mexico’s story, but so what. I hope you step up to the podium as a valid legitimate spokesperson. As noted by Steve, the conversation desperately needs to continue.

      I can’t speak for others who’ve commented, but I believe as I said, Americans have played a role in the Mata Ortiz story. I only ask that Americans step aside to make room for the inclusion of Mexican speakers at the podium, voices to expand the commentary. Those artists are the present, and the future, of Mata Ortiz.

      I like to think of it as an ANGEL hunt, a search for more Mexican angels to share their perspective.

  12. Watch for Nancy’s next article, a woeful story about the Canadian who used to live, and mistreat little kids, in Mata Ortiz.

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