Crafting Identity: Art and Exile

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(Note: I’ve posted comments and summaries of the texts of several books that I have had in my Master’s in Communications degree. This isn’t one of them, though it is by one the professors I have had for said degree. But it is the book I have most enjoyed reading from that academic background. I am sharing my own perspective on the book, and doubtless have missed much of the scholarly point and may even have misunderstood some of it. For the scholarly among you, I apologize for that. For the rest of you, I encourage you to read more deeply than you usually do with my “scholarly” reviews. This one is more fun, and more worth it.)

Chapter Three: Indian Arts and Exile

This is a very interesting, and very focal part of the book. It is also a chapter where one could question the author’s professional detachment. One of the things that makes this book worth reading is the story-like quality of much of the – there isn’t a more appropriate word – narrative. Yet as an ethnographer the author actually lives and observes within the group he is studying, trying not to change it while observing, and trying to be aware of the changes of his observations.

I guess an ethnographer has the same problem as a doctor, to be connected, and yet professionally detached. That double-layer comes through in this chapter, and the author makes us aware of it, and that he is aware of it.

So what happens in this chapter, how does he make us aware, why is it important, and what does it tell us, how does it support the author’s narrative and conclusion?

Do you remember the vignette from the prologue – the Indian made to play the simple artist? Shlossberg tells the story from a different angle – his response to Xavier when first told the story. Shlossberg got on his soapbox – actual word from the text. To quote:

I was on a roll and I had gotten on top of my soapbox, and at that moment I began to lecture Xaxier about the social hierarchies, and the social inequalities, and the poverty that the Indian tales, the folkloric canons dolled up, objectified, reproduced. (Shlossberg, 70).

We then get more stories, of many of these artists. There are common themes: many of them went for education of different types and level, attempted to move into another circle of society, only to find themselves stopped by the nepotism and patronage of the government and big companies. No one would hire or trust an Indio as an engineer, or technician, or whatever. So they all returned to their cultures,and their art.

The Indian tales Shlossberg mentions above romanticize the poverty and exclusion the rural Indios are kept it. This chapter removes the romance. He quotes many well-respected books and magazines on the Indio arts and artists, and then compares it with actual lives of these Indios.

When I read these descriptions of the life and poverty of the Indio, and the getting by, that Shlossberg describes, I cannot help but recall similar descriptions of growing up in poverty in Portugal, and what it really means, from author Sarah Marques de Almeida Hoyt. There are many shared observations, with many similar, and some different conclusions from the same.

Yet I digress from the chapter. Let me return. Shlossberg is in some ways profiling the entire “traditional art/culture” industry. It separates out certain art as traditional and other art as commercial. And the price to pay for being the special, traditional artist, is producing your art in exile, in poverty (because you only need and want a little), while the collectors and procurers make money off your art, and fill the museums with pieces of your art that tell the story of your traditional art, and why you should stay the way you are.

That is a simple, and doubtless somewhat skewed, summary of the chapter. It is much better in full.

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