Travel, Art and Authenticity - Should Indigenous Art Just Be Left Alone?

This September, I will be travelling to Armila, Panama, and living for a while in Guna Yala (Kuna) territory. The Kuna are an indigenous community who've fought hard to hang on to their territory (stretching across the Northeast portion of Panama, on the Caribbean coast) despite encroachment from the government.

Research the Kuna for 5 minutes and you're bound to come across more than one account of the beautiful textiles made and sold by Kuna women. Called 'Molas', the square textiles have historically been used on shirts and tops, although increasingly they're made in small textiles like wall hangings, to be sold to visitors as souvenirs. 

Crafting Molas is an art in itself. They're made using an appliqué technique - several coloured fabrics are layered on top of one another, then shapes and patterns are cut through into the alternating layers, giving a multi-coloured effect. 

When I first heard that Kuna women make Molas especially to sell to tourists, honestly my first thought was, 'good for them'. Then I imaged buying one of my own to take home. Then I considered how many other tourists would be buying their own Molas ... then I retraced my steps a bit. 

If I do buy one of these traditional artworks, am I putting a weird colonial pressure on these women to produce work for the sole pleasure of Western tourists? Am I contributing to the dilution and ultimate dissolution of their culture? Or, on the other hand, am I simply supporting a local business owner and providing them with income for themselves and their families?

A tricky situation, it would seem, but whilst mulling this over I figured I wasn't the first tourist to feel this way - leading to me stumbling upon a journal entry by Larry Shiner (""Primitive Fakes," "Tourist Art," and the Ideology of Authenticity." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism). In this he contemplates the muddied waters of the Non-Western art market - the naive and futile search for a completely 'authentic' artifact and the Euro-American obsession with art from 'unspoiled cultures'. 

A few issues straight off the bat: The article shows its age (published 1994) in its repeated reference to 'Primitive' art. I hate this term (more on this in a later post), and nowadays it's considered offensive. Contemporary terms include Tribal Art and Ethnographic Art - although those don't seem quite right either. For the purpose of this post I'm going to use the term Indigenous Art. By that I simply mean art that's been produced in it's location of origin, by a person traditionally associated with the culture itself. 

 Also, I don't know if it's the wording, or if I should've just research the author more, but I can't tell whether or not Shiner agrees with his opening statement, that "we have projected either our fantasies of savagery and sexual licence or an idealized vision of an unspoiled humanity" upon these artworks.

I get where he's coming from, but I think that's a lazy balk at lovers of Indigenous Art. Ironically the accusation of admiring certain artworks out of pure fetishization, is in itself offensive. It suggests that these practices can't be admired for their pure artistry. That they couldn't possibly have risen to a position of admiration for their use of colour, form or style, but rather that they must've been put there by the bizarre fascinations of Western art historians.

Initial hiccup aside, the article does go on to make some really insightful points that got me thinking. For example, the author highlights the bizarre hypocrisy of claiming artifacts are now 'genuine' or 'authentic' if they have been bought or traded. He highlights a trend ignited by Western collectors, whereby craftspeople and artists who specifically produce work to sell are accused of shallowly "pandering to the commercial market". 

Shiner resurrects the fact that historically, unless artworks were excavated or stolen, anthropologists and historians still had to buy work or even commission it especially. It's thought that, despite being produced especially for a foreigner and never having been put to use in their local community, these are the objects that end up in our museums. Yet somehow the origin of these are rarely questioned, much less are they dismissed as 'fake'.  

Below is another example of 'tourist art'. In Cuzco, Peru, the tops of houses are adorned with ceramic bulls - symbols of good fortune, protection and happiness. It's thought that positioning the bulls in this way will shower the house with all that energetic goodness. In terms of the bulls below - clearly for sale at a market (possibly a tourist one), do they count as genuinely Peruvian, or are they just tourist tat. Do they lose all meaning when removed from their country of origin, or did they have no meaning in the first place, since they were made for the purpose of selling and money-making? 

In this case I can see how the ceramic bulls sold at market could appear a little soulless. If a Cuzco local bought one of these, positioned it on top of their house for a year, then took it down and sold it to a tourist, I guess the item would naturally have accrued more meaning. Yet that doesn't change the fact that the item was (presumably) made by a local, and sold by one, too. Only the context has changed. 

Another point that stood out in Shiner's article was the relationship between art, money and making a living. Personally I believe that the connection between art and money is inherently weird, and I don't know if it'll ever change. The art we learn about in school (for me that was mainly Renaissance art) seems to have originated from the artists' divine purpose to create great art. It was presented not so much as an occupation, but rather a mysterious, God-like skill, too exquisite to be associated with banalities like money.

Since then we've been fed the charming rhetoric of the 'starving artist', whilst simultaneously being bombarded with auction houses announcing the sale of works by long-dead artists in the hundreds of millions. Personally I'd love to live in an arts economy that recognises a skill, pays the artists for possession of a work demonstrating said skill, and so the artists continues to make the work. It could all be so simple.

That's how I view the purchasing of 'Ethnographic' art. Although I'm travelling to a relatively remote Panamanian location, I have no preconceptions of an 'unspoiled' or 'untouched' community. I love seeing these women selling their creations, if that affords them a good life. Perhaps it's more cruel for tourists to refuse locally-made or indigenous artworks, on the basis that they were made solely for tourists.

Shiner builds upon this superficial aversion to 'tourist art' in his article - highlighting that the terms 'inauthentic' and 'fake' are based upon Euro-American perceptions of what constitutes a genuine artwork. Shiner's frustration with the hypocrisy of our Western classifications (the most cringe-inducing is the concept that we are yearning for expressions of cultures that our own colonization ruined in the first place) is evident through the article, and the frustration is contagious. I mean, of course Non-Western art has been mass-produced and monetized. These people have identified a market, and it's within their rights to make the most of it. 

For me, the decision to buy these artworks is based upon the situation and person that created them. When an artist creates a piece, they intuitively embed it with their skill, training, influences, and inspiration. Whilst I wouldn't care for a Mola punched out by a machine in a factory (the equivalent of purchasing a mass-produced print of 'Guernica' and celebrating its cultural heritage), if I was to buy a Mola made by a Kuna woman, I don't think it should matter whether it was clipped straight from one of her own garments, or sewn that morning in her living room. The geographical origin is the same, the inspiration is the same. 

Also, at risk of sounding like a complete Neanderthal, I'd quite like to purchase a Mola as my own personal collectors item. Not to parade around and boast of my travels, but as a reminder of the location, contemporary culture and history of the country I got it from. I'm quite a tactile person, and lately I've been thinking about how I'd love to collect a small, locally-produced object (like a Mola) from each country I visit, as a physical reminder that goes beyond a framed photograph. So far I have a rune from Iceland (I painted it myself, but the pebble is from a beach in Skagaströnd), and hope to collect much more. I hope that doesn't make me sound like a superficial magpie. 

An assortment of Greenlandic 'Tupilaq' priced up and ready for sale | 'Kulusuk museum' | © James Petts/Flickr | Creative Commons Licence CC BY-SA 2.0

Mexican street vendor selling wooden masks and textiles | 'IMG_7120-27' | © ijokhio/Flickr | Creative Commons Licence CC BY-SA 2.0

I think the purchasing of Indigenous Art is all about intuition. Personally I wouldn't buy an item that was evidently factory-produced or made in China and imported in, but I would probably buy a textile or pottery work sold, for example, by a Kuna woman in her home town. 

Evidently the mangrove-like web we've got ourselves tangled in is going to take some time to climb out of. The Indiana-Jones style of discovering foreign treasure is outdated. As an ethical traveler, I want to see small business owners doing well, and would happily contribute to that by purchasing a piece of work from them. Perhaps the process of travelling, meeting locals and exploring their work, what ever that may be, should be the end goal, rather than finding that one item that's destined for a glass cabinet in a museum. 


Shiner, Larry. ""Primitive Fakes," "Tourist Art," and the Ideology of Authenticity." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 52, no. 2 (1994): 225-34.