Art Resource Traditions: education and community development with indigenous arts


The use of indigenous materials by aspiring professional artists

In our materialistic era, it is often argued that art is a luxury. But art has always been a sustaining force in culture, even in the poorest and most primitive of societies. People have always known that wonderful art could be made with the humblest of materials. Since the dawn of civilization, artists have always turned to the earth to obtain colors. Mineral pigments adorn temples, manuscripts, and ceramics from ancient cultures all around the world. These traditions are still sustained in folk culture around the developing world, but are rapidly disappearing as artists, artisans and art educators increasingly look to the more industrialized countries for commercial products and cultural values. This is unfortunate, because there remain many ways in which these traditions can still have value and relevance. We pay much lipservice to matters of cultural identity, but we do relatively little to support it in practical ways. The loss of these traditions and material practices is an artistic equivalent to the global loss of biodiversity: once lost, it is difficult or impossible to recuperate the artistic inheritance of countless generations.

There are many ways we can help artists who have fewer privileges than we. To begin with, we can help disabuse them of the common assumption that our ways of making art are superior to theirs, as well as its corrolary, that our art materials are better than theirs. This simply is not true, and we should affirm the value of other artists' own cultural traditions and resources. We can do this by creating relationships with artists in other cultures, encouraging them, and creating practical structures of support. This may include collecting their work, if we can afford it, or helping them sell it. Eventually, we hope to use this site to showcase the work of artists around the world who are doing work that demonstrates the value of their traditions and resources.

In the field, we can also help set up venues where artists can teach their skills and share their culture in workshop settings, which in turn can be combined with cultural tourism initiatives. We can also help equip them to teach their skills in the schools in the areas where they live, providing income for them and opportunity for their students (see the section on art education). We can also support and help strengthen regional systems of artisan production (mentioned in the next section) of inexpensive art materials, making them more readily available for artists who cannot conveniently produce them on their own.

Much pioneering work has been done by the Latin American Art Resource Project in all these aspects of concern. The effectiveness of the LAARP program owes much to the way that art can catalyze the desires, ambitions, and resourcefulness of target communities, beginning with artists, artisans, and educators, who in turn influence other social sectors. This is because art plays such a crucial role in society. Although it is difficult to quantify, we should never underestimate the influence that artists and other creative people exert in their cultures. They help create a climate of attitudes, expectations, and ways of seeing. They reinforce (or undermine) a region's sense of identity and achievement; they provide models for resourcefulness, critical thinking, and problem-solving. Healthy cultural development depends on a common sense of possibility, which is to say, what can be done with available resources. In many cases, passivity stands in the way of possibility. Many artists (and others) get discouraged for want of what they assume to be the necessary materials to get the job done. It is remarkable how people become more resourceful once they realize how much they can accomplish with materials already at hand. Resourcefulness is a turn of mind that artists are especially gifted to contribute to their culture.