HISTORIAS: Women Tinsmiths of New Mexico

Posted by: Kevin Coyle

The following is an excerpt from an article that appeared in “HERESIES: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics,” Volume 6, No. 4, Issue 24, 1989 – “12 Years” It is featured here courtesy of Joan Braderman, a founding member of HERESIES.

Because of its climate and terrain, and because of its history as a Spanish colony and later as a Mexican territory, New Mexico was able to keep its traditional art forms alive and intact until U.S. colonization nearly devastated all forms of native expression.

Although the actual historical role of women in these traditional arts is unclear, Janet LeCompte, in her article “The Independent Women of Hispanic New Mexico, 1821-1846,” has noted that the culture of New Mexican women was quite different from Anglo women in the East who, with the emergence of the Industrial Revolution, had already lost their economic importance. Because of New Mexico’s isolation, the New Mexican woman was able to retain equal status and power within the community until U.S. colonization. She retained wages and property, could keep her maiden name if she so chose, and had many other legal rights.

Often women had occupations outside the home, and women were not barred from “men’s work!’ “While there was a division of labor between the sexes, the distinction was quite flexible and men and women often played parallel or complementary roles in accomplishing one overall task. “In the Southwest today, Hispanic and Native American family members not only support each other’s creative activities, but frequently work together on the same objects. Where a woman is the only artist in the family, she usually has the strong support of male family members.

This is often a matter of basic economics. If a woman has a market for the art she makes, it is to everyone’s benefit to help her-sometimes even to the extent of helping make the objects although they are sold under her name. The “cult of signature,” so prevalent in Euro-Western art, does not have the same meaning in the Southwest, where the issue of who signs the art object seems to be primarily a function of the craftsperson’s judgment about how to attract the tourist market.

Marianne L. Stoller writes about this in El Palacio, the magazine of the Museum of New Mexico: “Meeting the public and meeting the public’s expectations are held to be more important than claiming individual creation of the work. There are many cases in which men’s work was sold under their wives’ names because the work was marketed out of their homes and it was then the women who met the public. “In contrast, when work that was jointly created by a man and a woman has been marketed in the art gallery world, it has frequently been attributed to the man.



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