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Ah Dzib P'izté' Art Project

The Ah Dzib P'izté' Art Project exemplifies how trans-culturation is a basic mechanism of cultural invention and self-constitution. The wood and stone art of Pisté was invented in the 1970s by an employee of the federal anthropology institution; it occurred to this custodian of the archeological site of Chichén Itzá that on his free time he might carve a tree trunk into an image of one the famous Maya stone carvings and sell this to tourists.  The art has only and always existed in the context of tourism as “artisanry” and within the anthropological visions of the Maya that are produced and circulated within the tourist market.  This work of art and artisanry then are themselves ethnographies of tourism and anthropology in that they report in the media of wood and stone the consumer tastes, aesthetics, marketing, and circulation of knowledge that tourists and anthropologists bring to Chichén Itzá.  By researching and installing the first exhibit of Pisté artisanry, we sought to transform this “artisanry” into “art” and the “artisans” into “artists.”

As anthropologists studying arts and artisans of Pisté we are also thus studying ourselves - that is, “us” anthropologists, tourists, and non-Maya generally - being “studied” by the artists/artisans of Pisté who have created an art based on their assessment of the consumer styles and markets of both tourists and anthropologists.   This is not a circular reflection back and forth between magic mirrors that make “real” social reality fall out of sight and touch between mirrors and texts.  Instead, this process must be comprehended historically, as part of history and as having a history:  the mutual and reciprocal borrowing, copying, and cultural differentiation between Maya, Yucatec, Mexican, US-American, and European cultures can be traced back to the 19th century, at least, when Anglo-Americans and non-Spanish Europeans began traveling in the worlds of the Maya as tourists and archeologists and the knowledge they produced was used by Yucatecos and Mexicans to forge regional and national societies.
Expo 1997
Ah Dzib P'izté'  was an exposition of Maya Art and Artists from Pisté, México, which is a Yucatec Maya community located just three kilometers west of the ancient city of Chichén Itzá.  This exposition was organized by The Field School of Experimental Ethnography as a central component of an ongoing ethnographic research project.  The Field School broadly seeks to explore new modes of doing anthropology so as to surpass the sterile choices of modern social science -- scientific objectivity and romantic relativism.  The research culminating in EXPO’97 Ah Dzib P'izté' confounds the distinction between “applied” and “pure” research, just as the exhibition itself dispels and recarves such wearisome distinctions as that between “art” and “artisanry,” “tourist” and “native,” and between the Culture of the First World and the Civilizations of the Third and Fourth Worlds.  The art of Pisté was born in the historical whirlpool of anthropological and touristic involvement in local life that began in the 19th century.

Project Ah Dzib P’izté’  was designed and executed by the anthropology students in the Field School of Experimental Ethnography. These students received training in new ethnographic methods based on principles of collaboration, “double sensation,” evocation, ethnographic triggers, and transculturation.
Carving wood and stone is an art that was created in Pisté in the mid-1970s when a custodian of the archeological site of Chichén Itzá, Don Chablé, decided to carve wooden idols in the image of ancient Maya gods and personages as depicted in the Maya codices such as the Dresden Codex or in ancient stone and stucco carvings of Chichén and Palenque. His experimentation with different local trees, especially the chakáand pich, and with different images or forms, was expressly for the purpose of selling a product to tourists who came to visit Chichén, which was at that moment just beginning an explosive increase of visitors that has continued for the last 20 years.   He soon developed a skill and a market, which he guarded from others.  However, curiosity and envy compelled many young boys and some adults to secretly observe and copy his techniques and artwork as a way to explore economic alternatives to the unstable subsistence farming of corn.  Thus, a whole generation of artisans came into existence who were known as “chac mooleros” because of the idol that they most typically carved, that is the chac mool which is the famous reclining human figure that sits with knees bent holding with both hands a plate over the abdomen, supposedly to receive the fresh heart and blood of sacrifice.
From these first “chac mooleros” a richly complex, delicate, and original art form emerged in direct relation to tourism, the international mystique of the Maya, the history of anthropological involvement in the community, and the tourist obsession with souvenirs.  Constrained by the tourist refusal to pay the cost of high quality indigenous art, skilled artists have been compelled to quickly make generic figures and to not explore their creative inspirations.  For the Expo ‘97 project we asked artists to contribute two or three of their most refined and detailed pieces -- the collection mostly consists of entirely unique works of art whose distinctive value is inestimable in the contemporary art market.
Fieldwork is focused on the work of trans-culturation that saturates all facets of the project, from the collaborative study with the artists, the history of anthropology in Pisté, to the art itself, the market in which it is sold, and the exposition of the artists’ work. The goals of this ethnographic project, which has culminated in the Ah Dzib P'izté' Art Expo’97, are:
1      to facilitate the cross and transcultural exchanges between different communities through the specific pedagogical context of providing USA-based undergraduates training in anthropology through a total immersion program in México whose particular goals are:
2      to explore new experimental methods of ethnographic fieldwork and writing that are rooted in the quotidian processes of cultural invention, exchange, interaction, and evocation in which research occurs;
3      to install in Pisté the first exhibit of local art, to make it an annual event, and to direct it primarily towards a community audience versus solely a tourist attraction;
4      to reinstall the exhibit at international sites in the USA, as well as to explore possibilities in Spain and Argentina, and to create a catalog study of Pisté art based on the exhibit in addition to other ethnographic writings;
5      to stimulate and acknowledge the creative genius of the Maya artists by showing the exhibit internationally and through the publication of both a marketing catalog and scholarly book-length studies;
6     to promote the Maya artists of Pisté and facilitate their access to and recognition within the international market of art;
7     to use ethnographic fieldwork and research processes in new ways to forge new links and relationships between cultural communities situated in different geopolitical and economic locations in the world so that anthropology can become more pertinent to these communities in their addressing the social issues and problems that they experience.

Publications derived from the Ah Dzib P'izté'

Armstrong Fumero, Fernando
2000 Making Art in Pisté: Art and Experimental Ethnography in a Yucatec Maya Community. Master’s Thesis, Department of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania.

Castañeda, Quetzil E., Fernando Armstrong Fumero and Lisa C. Breglia
1999 Ah Dzib P'izté': Modern Maya Art in Ancient Tradition. Exhibition Catalog. Lake Forest, IL: Lake Forest College.

Castañeda, Quetzil E.
2009 Aesthetics and Ambivalence of Maya Modernity: The Ethnography of Maya Art. In J. Kowalski and Mary Katherine Scott, eds., Crafting Maya Identity. DeKalb, Il.: NIU Press.

2005 Between Pure and Applied Research: Ethnography in a Transcultural Tourist Art World. Special Issue, Anthropological Contributions to the Tourism Industry. Tim Wallace, editor. NAPA Bulletin, #23: 87-118.

2005 Community Collaboration and Ethnographic Intervention: Dialogues in the Pisté Maya Art World. Practicing Anthropology, vol. 27 (4): 31-34.

2004 Art-Writing in the Maya Art World of Chichén Itzá: Transcultural Ethnography and Experimental Fieldwork.American Ethnologist, vol. 31 (1): 21-42.




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