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University of Iowa News Release

Nov. 17, 2004

Photo: Michael Chibnik (right) with Gabino Reyes, a wood carver from the village of La Unión Tejalapan in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico.

First IP-Obermann Fellow To Discuss Oaxacan Woodcarvings At Dec. 2 Lecture

Michael Chibnik, University of Iowa anthropology professor and chair of the department, will discuss "Oaxacan Wood Carvings in the Artworld: Aesthetic Judgments of a Tourist Craft" at 4 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 2 in the UI Museum of Art's Lasansky Room. The lecture is free and open to the public and will be followed by a reception in the museum's Nancy and Craig Willis Atrium.

The event is being co-sponsored by UI International Programs and the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies. Chibnik is giving this talk in his role as the first Stanley International Programs (IP)-Obermann Center Research Fellowship awardee.

In spring 2003, the University of Texas Press published Chibnik's book about the flourishing trade in painted woodcarvings from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. These brightly painted, whimsical pieces are novel creations without longstanding cultural significance. Many rural households have prospered by selling carvings to wholesalers and storeowners from the United States. Chibnik explains that men and women who once eked out a living through farming and wage labor are now able to build concrete houses and purchase automobiles, satellite dishes and CD players. Some carvers make regular trips to the U.S. to demonstrate their crafts in museums, shops and schools.

The woodcarvings, called alebrijes, are what Chibnik calls an "invented tradition." The inventors are not just the artisans themselves but also the wholesalers, the shopkeepers, the Internet marketers and, of course, that ultimate shaper of stylistic trends and fashions, the consumer, Chibnik says.

In Chibnik's efforts to understand the immersion of Oaxacan wood carvers into the global folk art market, he has carried out fieldwork for a decade among artisans, tourists, storeowners and wholesalers. Although his research mostly takes place in three Oaxacan communities (Arrazola, San Martín Tilcajete, and La Unión Tejalapan) and the state capital, he also works in other areas where carvings are sold in the United States and Mexico.

His current field research focuses on the conflict between "art" and commerce among high-end Oaxacan woodcarvers. In fall 2005, he will be the guest curator of an exhibit of Oaxacan woodcarvings at The UI Museum of Art. This exhibit will later be shown at other museums in different parts of the United States.

Thanks to the generous support of the Stanley - UI Foundation Support Organization and the Obermann Center, IP and OCAS created a new research funding opportunity for faculty: the Stanley International Programs-Obermann Center Research Fellowships.

These semester-long awards are given to selected Obermann Center Scholars whose research focuses on international issues. In addition to receiving an award of $3,000 for travel and research support, each IP-OCAS fellow will present his or her research as the featured speaker at a public lecture and reception to be co-hosted by International Programs and the Obermann Center.

UI International Programs consists of a number of offices, centers, degree programs, academic programs, research projects and services. Organized under the associate provost for academic programs and dean for International Programs, these units serve to further internationalize the campus and community and promote global scholarship, research and teaching.

The Obermann Center for Advanced Studies is dedicated to scholarship and to intellectual exchange. Some Obermann Scholars work independently, stimulated by uninterrupted blocks of time and by informal conversation. Others work in close collaboration. Obermann Scholars have published numerous scholarly books and articles and have been awarded many external research grants and fellowships for projects begun at the center.

For more information or special accommodations to attend this lecture, contact Jenna Burns at 319-335-0368 or

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

CONTACTS: Media: Lois Gray, 319-335-2026,; Program: Jenna Burns, 319-335-0368,