The exhibition “Crafting Maya Identity: Contemporary Wood Sculptures from the Puuc Region of Yucatán, Mexico” considers woodcarvings by four contemporary Yucatec Maya artisans: Miguel Uc Delgado, Jesús Marcos Delgado Kú, Angel Ruíz Novelo, and Wilbert Vázquez. These finely detailed, hand-carved, and aesthetically engaging works are replicas of subjects based on ancient Maya sculptures, ceramics, and manuscripts. Produced for sale at archaeological sites in northern Yucatán, they are purchased principally by ‘cultural tourists’ who visit these sites on organized educational trips.
The influx of cultural tourists to archaeological sites in the Puuc region provided the impetus for a group of entrepreneurial local artisans to combine opportunities for economic gain with creative expression. The Puuc carvings are a complex phenomenon and they present problematic images of “Maya” identity. Many tourists recognize them as being accurate facsimiles of ancient Maya imagery. This, coupled with the fact that they are handmade by a local “Maya” artisan, gives them a certain “authenticity” while providing a tangible reminder of a visit to the “Maya World.” The artisans recognize that a historical and cultural gulf separates them from the ancient Maya, yet feel a sense of pride in their distant ancestral heritage. While the carvings are made to supplement income, and vary in size, detail, and level of finish, Miguel Uc Delgado, Angel Ruíz Novelo, Jesús Delgado Kú, and Wilbert Vázquez make it clear that making these carvings provides them with sense of satisfaction and personal creative expression. Although tourism tends to reinforce visitors’ ideas that the most authentic image of Maya culture resides in the Pre-Columbian past, the economic incentive it provides also has supported these artisans’ efforts to reclaim and re-task such cultural imagery, giving it new meanings that convey only one strand of their more complex contemporary cultural identities.