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.