Material Culture in Latin America

The Oxford English Dictionary defines material culture as the “physical objects, such as tools, domestic articles, or religious objects, which give evidence of the type of culture developed by a society or group” (OED 2011). Thus, material culture itself is the product of the commodities created by members of a society. Our own associations and inferred meanings determine the value granted to a particular object. Today money and price have come to denote the value of everything and everyone (Bauer 2001, 2). Our world is defined and characterized by the coinciding integration of economies and transformations of societies through global commodification (Castells and Laserna 1989, 538). The populations of Latin America have been exposed to copious goods from across the globe, especially from European countries and the United States (Bauer 2001, 8). This glossary entry will focus on the transition/evolution of Latin American material culture as a result of the colonization by European (Spanish) forces, discussing the sociocultural impact of imports/exports, and on key artists exemplifying the desire for a cultural identity within the Americas.

Prior to the Spanish invasion of Latin America, the idea of ownership did not exist in Latin American. Rather, an emphasis was placed on a family’s ability to produce their own necessities (such as food, clothing, and shelter). Throughout the invasion, the Spanish engaged in a civilizing mission directed towards the natives. This mission included changing aspects of the local inhabitant’s everyday, cultural and traditional lives including their clothing, food, architecture, and religious artifacts. Decades after the Spanish conquest, there was still an adherence to colonial tradition, but the Latin American culture had stepped closer to the model offered the bourgeoisie (Bauer 2001, 1-12). People in the Americas began constructing their identities in association with imported commodities. For example, one could achieve social mobility through the hierarchy of social classes by displaying European items (such as fine cloth/clothes, furniture or art) in  their homes or on their body. People could “dress to impress,” and define themselves in relation to others (Spencer 2008, 4-5). The aspiration of individuals to place themselves at the height of the historical moment coincided with what signified modernity, and this impulse culminated in ever ascending material wealth (Bauer 2001, 12).

During the early 1800s, Latin American markets became infused with imported goods from Europe and the United States. This concept of the “allure of the foreign” culminated in a profoundly Europeanized society. The materialization of affluence eventually gave people of lower classes the ability to climb up on the social ladder, thus resulting in a cultural society transformed by the importation of goods from abroad (Spencer 2008, 4).

The concept of modernity is intimately bound to the consumption of goods, and Europe was the epitome of this notion (Bauer 2001, 152). The process by which Latin Americans constructed themselves in relation to each other and the outside world was, and still is, affected by the introduction, adoption, assimilation, and integration of imported commodities. People eagerly appropriated and integrated imported items to help form their identity, and sought to advertise their status by exhibiting their modern, foreign commodities. Hence, people began to associate themselves with possessions from abroad, resulting in effects on their own ideas of cultural identity (Spencer 2008, 2-3).

 Latin America has been in a sense controlled by the United States’ interests, both political and economic, through a process known as the dependency theory. Dependency arises when one society is dependent on another. The dependent society (Latin America) is structured and culturally influenced by the dominant society’s (Europe and the United States) interests, innovations, trends, and social dynamics. For example, the technological revolution has changed how countries import and export, influencing the flow of commodities. This restructuring of the world trade has resulted in a decreased demand for raw materials and agricultural goods, and an increasing demand for manufactured commodities.  With such a close proximity, Latin America (especially Mexico) has gained much of its modern cultural ideals from the United States, such as what constitutes modern clothing, beauty and technology (Castells and Laserna 1989, 535-556). Growth in material culture is, therefore, a reflection of extensive changes in a society, from the influence of modernity (Bauer 2001, 218).

By the 1960s, considerable changes in material culture throughout Latin America were brought on by political/government intervention in industrial and material productivity, a strong sense of nationalism and the move away from colonial tradition. Revolutions began to take place in reaction to the new politics, as seen in murals by Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera  and Alfaro Siqueiros (Bauer 2001, 165-178). Latin American art is an important visual means of cultural identity and representation. Working to reverse the stereotypes associated with their cultural societies, Latin Americans gained recognition from Europe and the United States with their murals. In the 1930s, the art of the Americas became well known and was highly acclaimed in the U.S. This achievement is credited to the many muralist artists who were commissioned to work in the States. The subject matter of these murals was more often linked to the combat phase of the Revolution: scenes depicting the Spanish conquest, the power/presence of the Church, myths/rites, geography, social customs, and Mexico’s past. They were attempts to render Mexico whole again, and to instill a sense of national identity in the citizens. For example, photography communicated symbols of community and a sense of the current-day political situation (Sullivan 2011, 8-48).

By the end of the twentieth-century, the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo had become the most recognized and imitated Latin American artist (Sullivan 2011, 12). Kahlo was aware of the capacity of clothing and art forms to convey information about a nation’s character, tastes, principles, and moods, and she inspired a sense of national identity for Mexicans following the Mexican Revolution. In an effort to counteract negative stereotypes associated with Latin Americans, Frida Kahlo often dressed in native costumes affiliated with her Mexican heritage. This was the case when she visited the United States; arguably it was her way of making a public statement (Black and Hoffman-Jeep 1998, 8).

In her work titled, The Two Fridas, Kahlo depicts Mexican heritage combined with European styles of dress, connoting her mixed emotions about her own identity and the national identity of the Americas constructed by European populations. Considering the fact that Kahlo grew up after the Mexican Revolution, it makes sense that we should find direct emphasis to nationalism in her work. Her art was both cultural and political. She used her clothing to elude to her pride in her nation, but also juxtaposing national ideals to make political statements. Kahlo was a passionate nationalist and a political radical, inspired by her personal suffering and public beliefs to create work that allowed for discourse around the topic of Latin American and Western ideals, and the influence they impose upon each other as a result of proximity and conflict (Helland 1997, 401-402).

“The practice of material culture, of course, is not static and never has been. One generation’s innovation is the next’s tradition.” Today, Latin America is part of the expanding world market, powered by abundance, mobility, and convenience (Bauer 2001, 217-219).

Morgan Matthie

Works Cited

“material, adj., n., and adv.”. OED Online. September 2011. Oxford University Press. (accessed November 20, 2011).

This entry was posted in assimilation, commodity, Frida Kahlo, furniture, markets, Mexican dress, myths/rites, national identity. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Material Culture in Latin America

  1. Pingback: Material Culture in Latin America | modernlatinamericanart

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