Preserving Tradition in a Modern World

Most of us recall the old adage: Evolve or Die. A little harsh, perhaps, but we live in harsh times. And it’s happening to some of the oldest traditions in pottery and indigenous crafts in Mexico. They are dying. Some of these traditions, handed down from generation to generation, are gone forever. And this tragic loss is a direct result of unconscious consumerism.

The artisans, who have spent their lives learning and practicing the craft of their ancestors, used to be able to sell their pieces to the tourist markets in Mexico. But those markets have fallen prey to cheap knockoffs of traditional Mexican pieces. Seriously. Check the bottom of that last tchotchke you bought in Puerto Vallarta.

The only way to keep these ancient traditions alive is to create new markets and then to support the artists in those markets. Obakki is partnering with pottery artists in three regions of Mexico to try and do just that. But there is a fine line here that we don’t want to cross.

On one hand, we are striving to help preserve the culture and ancient methods of these artisans – whose pottery techniques have been developed over 3,000 years. These artists still gather the ancestral earth for their clay by hand. They form the pieces by hand. Some are even fired over open wood. Their work is not some product from an assembly line. These pieces are art, full of history and culture and worthy of preserving.

But at the same time, we must bring them into the modern world—their pieces must fit the modern lifestyle in order to create a market that will keep their traditions alive. If they don’t evolve, they will become obsolete.

At Obakki, our work with the artists and their craft is always artisan-led. We don’t march in and tell them what we want. We sit with them, we talk to them, we listen to them. We learn how to ensure that their traditions and culture are respected. And then we collaborate with them on slow design pieces that will have modern function alongside ancient history.

One example is our colander bowl, whose clay is made from the rich, fertile, black soil of Oaxaca (barro negro). This bowl began its design history as a pichancha—or pierced potused when making corn tortillas by hand. They are still being used for the same purpose all over Mexico today.

With larger holes, these pichanchas became colanders for the intentional consumer. Colanders with culture inside their clay. The maestros are limited in number and annual production is small. And these pieces are not just a pleasure to touch and hold, but fully functional pieces. And pieces that you, the informed consumer, can trace back to the origin.

As the traditions of pottery have been handed down from generation to generation in small villages in Mexico over hundreds of years, we hope that the products born of this partnership will also be preserved by multiple generations.  

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