Crafting Gender: Women and Folk Art in Latin America and the Caribbean

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Crafting Gender: Women and Folk Art in Latin America and the Caribbean. Edited by Eli Bartra. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003. Pp. ix + 245, acknowledgments, introduction, photographs, notes, index. $79.95 cloth, $22.95 paper)

It is entirely to the credit of this informative and challenging volume's editor and contributors, largely anthropologists, sociologists or art historians, that folklorists will be immediately familiar with the key issues raised in it. For many years it has been a result, if not the goal, of folkloristics to recognize and articulate the qualities of popular creativity and imagination, even if this has been dependent upon a lexicon of economic and cultural privilege-the urge to legitimate being conditioned by the extant vocabulary and colored by criteria that divided artist from artisan, writer from storyteller or drama from ritual. Feminist folklorists (or folklorists who work with a consciousness of gender) find themselves in a more complicated bind. If folklore has been conceived of as androgynous, anonymous or marginal, its practice and interpretation within the discipline has been virilist, if not machoistic. For this and other reasons the hidden histories and aesthetics of women's folklore-quilting, carving, pottery, silver work, stitching or weaving-have remained unarticulated within either the local vernacular discourse or within the analytical discourse of the discipline.

Written from a feminist perspective, Crafting Gender gives fascinating insights into the gendered nature of the creative process at the heart of contemporary Latin American indigenous and mestizo, population. Much of the book's appeal lies in the warm personal depictions of the lives and creativity of the artists themselves. The book is enriching in its portrayal of the vitality and vigor of post-colonial vernacular culture and the adaptive strategies and creativity of women sensitive to both local and global cultural process; it will go some way towards sharpening and refocusing interest in Latin American folk art. While it stands alone as an instructive and informative reader on the subject, it also complements the existing literature, usefully surveyed here by the volume editor, Eli Bartra.

There is much here of interest to the student or scholar interested in gender, material culture or contemporary popular culture in general. In all cases, women artists gain strength through processes of innovation and experimentation out of constantly changing economic and social circumstances. The Saramaka women of Suriname Maroon society are a case in point. Traditionally their artistry was employed to compete for and impress a scarce male population. Over time this found them recombining traditional patterns with those learned from missionaries, priests or women's magazines, crocheting with the spokes of old umbrellas, making anklets from the insides of aluminum cables. In Puerto Rican vernacular religious art, the production of the santos de palo or wooden saints had been a male occupation traditionally, but is increasingly becoming female. …