I was a scrimshander for a few months, in or around 1980. I scratched three or four different simple designs into bone knife handles for something like $3 each. I remember making around $7 an hour, which was a great wage back then. After being infused with ink, the knives were sent off to Alaska to be sold in souvenir shops, probably as native handicrafts. More than 30 years later, I wouldn’t be surprised to find one of my knives in an antique store.
I have noticed a couple of things during my travels over the past decade. One is the tendency of people in a heavily touristed location to develop a signature style of artwork. I think this might be in response to the success many indigenous cultures have had in marketing their traditional handicrafts, textiles, and pottery. I have also noticed a tendency towards mimicry. One creative, enterprising person has a good idea and exploits it, successfully. Soon after, there are dozens of copycats, hoping to cash in on the profits.
In Taxco, a picturesque, formerly wealthy, silver town in the hills near Mexico City, the streets are narrow, steep, and winding. The perfect vehicle for navigating the Taxco maze is the VW Beetle, so someone had the clever idea of using them as taxis. They were successful, so more and more people jumped on the bandwagon. Now, hundreds of white, numbered Beetles buzz around the town, usually empty, the drivers making just enough to survive.
Some years ago, before I first visited Guatemala, an artist was inspired to paint colorful canvases of Guatemalan markets from a bird’s eye view (vista de pajaro). This concept lent itself to the creation of some very interesting and pleasing abstracted depictions of village life, all one dimensional as seen from above. Naturally, these paintings were popular and sold well, so people began to copy them. Now, the local souvenir shops are filled with these images, along with paintings of indigenous women weaving, seen from behind, also created from a limited palette of colors and designs. Curiously, behind the graffiti covered door above, one can spend a few quetzales and learn to paint one’s own vista de pajaro canvas in 1-3 hours!
When I was here six years ago, I met an artist in San Juan La Laguna who had developed a response to the ubiquitous vista de pajaro paintings. He called his paintings “vista de hormiga” (ant’s eye view). They were also of traditional scenes, but seen from below, in exaggerated perspective. Very interesting work, and much harder to execute than the uni-dimensional vista de pajaro paintings. I have yet to return to San Juan, so I don’t know what became of him. His gallery was in a row of shops now below the level of the lake.
In the quest for the tourist dollar, indigenous artists risk pigeonholing themselves, limiting their art to a couple of repeated themes. Now that the mainstream Mayan artists at Lago Atitlan have not only reduced their art to a formula, but are also teaching tourists to make their own, maybe the vista de hormiga will finally get the respect and exposure it deserves.