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Miguel Uc Delgado, three-dimensional portrait head of the ruler K’inich Janaab Pakal II, based on the stucco portrait from Palenque, Chiapas.
Miguel Uc Delgado, three-dimensional portrait head of the ruler K’inich Janaab Pakal II, based on the stucco portrait from Palenque, Chiapas.

Jesús Marcos Delgado Kú, in the early stages of creating a carving. Some of his tools and other pieces are seen on a table where he works next to the thatch roof palapa where he displays his sculptures at the archaeological site of Kabah, Yucatán.
Jesús Marcos Delgado Kú, in the early stages of creating a carving. Some of his tools and other pieces are seen on a table where he works next to the thatch roof palapa where he displays his sculptures at the archaeological site of Kabah, Yucatán.



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News Release

Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-9472

September 1, 2009

‘Crafting Maya Identity’ will lend credibility
to emerging art form in northern Yucatán

DeKalb, Ill. — Some art historians scoff at the notion of conducting academic research into the wood carvings sold to tourists at various archeological sites in the Puuc region of Yucatán, Mexico.

In their estimation, the pieces are new, cheap and almost exclusively derivative “replicas.” They are derogatory in their descriptions of the sculptures, spouting pejoratives such as “tourist art,” “handiwork” or “kitsch.”

Jeff Kowalski and Mary Katherine Scott are not among those art historians.

Kowalski, professor of art history in the Northern Illinois University School of Art, and Scott, who earned her master’s degree here and now is a scholar at the Sainsbury Research Unit of the University of East Anglia, are the driving forces behind a new exhibition in the Jack Olson Gallery.

“Crafting Maya Identity: Contemporary Wood Sculptures from the Puuc Region of Yucatán, Mexico,” considers the work of four contemporary artisans and how their emerging artistic tradition reflects their heritage as it communicates the evolving nature of their cultural identity.

The exhibition of pieces by Miguel Uc Delgado, Jesús Marcos Delgado Kú, Angel Ruíz Novelo and Wilbert Vázquez will remain open through Friday, Sept. 25.

“These images are from the past, but the people who are producing them are living in the present,” Kowalski said.

“If our visitors know something about the ancient culture or civilization of the Maya, either from reading, watching an occasional TV special or having seen articles on the Maya in National Geographic, they will recognize many of the images in these wood carvings as what might be called iconic images of ancient Maya art.”

“It’s really interesting. (The artists) look at stone carvings, take those images, reproduce them with a different material and then turn around and sell them,” Scott told Northern Today in 2006. “Visitors (to the archeological sites) might not know the significance of those pieces.”

Kowalski, Scott and the School of Art are doing all they can to expose that significance.

A scholarly symposium on issues of globalization, tourism, cultural identity, authenticity and art is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 19, at Barsema Hall. Presenters include Nelson Graburn, Janet Berlo, Christopher Steiner, Quetzil Castañeda as well as Kowalski and Scott.

The event is free and open to the public; those who plan to attend should call (815) 753-1474. A lunch can be reserved for $8.

Meanwhile, the NIU Press has published a book-length exhibition catalog that includes essays from internationally known scholars that explores those same questions. Scott and Kowalski, who wrote the principal text, originally intended to write the entire catalog but expanded it as they realized the rich assortment of papers available.

The exhibition and symposium became a catalyst for this year’s theme for ARTLab, a parallel year-long interdisciplinary project of the School of Art that will employ research, dialogue, programming and pedagogy to focus on the local impact of globalization and its effect on the production and perception of cultural meaning.

For her part, Scott became immersed in this world when she traveled to Mexico a few years ago to learn more about the artworks and the artisans.

Her preparation included gaining a knowledge of their language – Yucatec-Maya, an indigenous language from pre-Hispanic times that is still spoken by about 700,000 people in the Yucatán Peninsula – that allowed her to conduct interviews.

Those lessons came via the Consortium for Latin American Studies between the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University.

“It’s like any kind of relationship you build with someone. If someone is not a native speaker in your language, it’s harder for them to open up to you. It’s harder for them to articulate what they want to say,” Scott said in 2006.

“For me to do interviews with these people when I’m more fluent in their own language would make them more comfortable. It shows them I’m serious about what I’m doing and that I want to create a comfortable atmosphere in which to learn about their culture, their beliefs and their artistic motivations.”

What she obtained laid the foundation for her master’s thesis and, ultimately, the current exhibition.

As her thesis developed, Kowalski felt that “Mary Katherine could make a real contribution to the field on the limits of art, the nature of art, how decisions are made about what counts as art.”

“She was trying to understand how the study of a field of art that traditionally was considered on the low end of the art spectrum, like other forms of visual culture, was gaining greater esteem and being taken more seriously by both art historians and anthropologists,” he added. “As a result, she and I put a proposal to the School of Art that we organize an exhibition of these sculptures.”

The four artisans are skilled part-time carvers who make their living as caretakers of, or tour guides at, the archeological sites. Although they understand their pieces function mainly as souvenirs, priced anywhere from $25 to $400, they are proud of their work and regard it as an outlet for creative expression.

“They’ve given these iconic images a new life by creating very well-made and very finely carved replicas or adaptations, created not for ancient Maya kings but for tourists,” Kowalski said.

“The artists recognize that the audience to whom they’re aiming these works are responding to them as tangible, possibly collectible, memories of their experiences,” he added. “But they also do create pieces that are deliberately modified – specifically somewhat more inventive – re-creations of creative arrangements of forms based on their own aesthetic statement.”

Kowalski and Scott are grateful for financial support from the NIU Foundation’s Venture Grant program, the Target Corp., the Mexican Consulate in Chicago, the School of Art, the Center for Latino and Latin American Studies, the Latino Resource Center and the Department of Anthropology.

For more information, call (815) 753-1474 or visit the exhibition Web site at www.vrc.niu.edu/maya.

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