Tourists traveling to Puerto Ayacucho naturally are in search of tribal art, which would sell for much more elsewhere in the world. We bought Yanomami baskets for about $10, and recently found much smaller versions of the same thing on-line for nearly $200-. However, our experience during our travels to Puerto Ayacucho over successive years shows that the quality and authenticity of the tribal art and handicrafts is dropping off rather dramatically. Some of this decline is due to the purchase habits of naive tourists. So, in these shopping tips I'll explain some things to look for and consider when purchasing art or handicrafts. I'll discuss these here according to these categories of analysis: origin of production and purchase, materials, construction, and size. First, the origin of production and purchase should ideally be determined. Many fine handicrafts are produced by creole Venezuelans for sale, but these should be considered separate from those produced by indigenous tribal members for themselves. In terms of origin of purchase, normally established foundations for cooperative production are preferred over the multiple number of vendors found in Puerto Ayacucho. However, as discussed in the tip on FUNDAFACI, foundations can themselves be corrupted by Christian missionary goals and sloppy methods of access and quarantine by those in contact with the tribes.
What to buy: On my first trip to Puerto Ayacucho, I found purchased a mix of locally produced handicrafts that appealed to me for the functional purpose to which I would later put them in my home, as well as curious tribal handicrafts that I came across. In the following photo number one, notice the anteater bench made from a solid piece of hardwood. The finished work is clearly only possible with either modern metal handtools, or even more likely, power tools. The bench is large and fits well at the foot of our bed. The natural motif is familiar enough within the indigenous world, but is nevertheless created with the tourist in mind. Next to the anteater bench is a tribal chief's seat which appears to be made entirely with handtools. So, to some extent there are degrees of authenticity. While the creole handicraft has indigenous qualities, the simple chief's seat is more authentic to tribal lives. However, it appears that the chief's seat, while made by hand, probably was made with metal tools, such as a machete. The most authentic version of this seat would be made with stone tools. Thus, the enormous significance of the tribal art becomes apparent in it's size. Using stone tools to fashion wood involves a terrific amount of time and skill. The finished product may not appear as dignified as the throne of a European king, but for the indigenous tribal chief, having a seat, rather than sitting on the ground, projects great status relative to other tribal members. When chiefs meet, they no doubt bring their own seat as a show of power.
What to pay: I don't bargain hard for authentic tribal work, except when buying from vendors. I don't want to pay a large sum and flood the market with money, but I also want to reward more for the purchase of authentic work than for phony tourist souvenirs.
I have a particular interest in tools of technology, so tribal weaponry is a favorite for collection in Puerto Ayacucho. Unfortunately, I have not been yet able to bring home an authentic blowgun, as they are as long as a pair of skiis and therefore difficult to pack for air freight. I do have an shorter version which works quite well for demonstration with students and children. I also have several apparently authentic quivers full of darts, and other vessels the hunter would carry with him. In appraising all these things, I look at the materials and construction for authenticity. Ask questions to learn more. The quivers shown in the first photo are from different tribes. The cylindrical tube one with the authentic peccary leather cap is Yanomami, I believe. The quiver shaped from a palm branch is Piaora, I believe. The second photo of the two arrowheads shows the resourcefulness of the hunter to include new technology, and the buyers need to avoid purchase of such implemented technology. Note the use of a metal fragment for the point in the phony version while a bone or tooth is found for the same in the more authentic point. Also, note the use of a special crooked bush branch in the more authentic version, while the less authentic is more straight and of a more ubiquitous reed material. The construction is less time consuming as well. As it turns out the crooke branch has it purpose in the authentic arrow, a purpose made obsolete with the introduction of metal, particularly if the arrow will be sold to a naive tourist who wants a functional arrow.
What to buy: The feathered end of the arrow is even more shocking in its decline of elegant construction. Note the indiscriminate use of any bird feather to decorate the end of the steel pointed arrow. In contrast, on the more authentic arrow, two carefully selected feathers from a particular bird specie are carefully tied to the arrow shaft. In flight these feather's cause the arrow to spin for a more straight trajectory. In the metal tipped version, the shear weight of the tip makes such concern for aeordynamics much less important. Besides, the newer technology is crafted for tourists who want to play with a tribal bow and arrow. Their use of such equipment is experimental at best. In appraising the construction of these arrows, particularly in the third photo, note carefully the type twine used to bind the parts together. Phony arrows and spears will use synthetic string, rather than specially crafted twine made from rainforest fibers.
What to pay: Vendors will keep the more authentic weaponry in the back, and so you'll need to bargain for it. Again, anything that's truely authentic deserves a good price as these things are vanishing fast from the Puerto Ayacucho market. Their market value in the USA is not high, but good authentic weaponry will certainly become museum items for the next generation.
Materials and methods of construction requires careful appraisal by the purchaser. As state in Part I, we've observed a decline in both the use of natural materials and alterations in production. In the first photo, of two rallos, graters used by indigenous women and create a mash or pulp from the main rainforest staple--the manioc root. Form follows function, so it doesn't take a keen observer to see how the larger curved rallo would be more productive for the indigenous woman. However, to produce this tool, considerable wood craftwork is required. Notice also that the smaller flat rallo is made from a shingle or even a finished piece of lumber, rather than a complete naturally shaped piece of hardwood. The asphalt like mixture of rainforest resins and ashes are nevertheless the same in both rallos, providing the flat one with at least one authentic characteristic. Originally, fragments of stone, rather than pieces of metal or glass, were embedded in the wood to create the cutters of the grater. I have not determined to what extent the construction of the larger curved rallo is made from stone, I would be surprised if it were, but the odds are that the flat rallo is made from whatever bits and pieces of old steel cans, or whatever the industrial world would provide for such purpose.
What to buy: The second photo shows a Piaora basket which is authentic enough and makes a great purchase anywhere in Puerto Ayacucho for just a few dollars. Some basket work as this remains a powerful attraction for tourists, and so the main concern is shape and motif. I don't know whether or not the hinged lid of the rounded basket is an authentic Piaora design or not. But, I do know that flat "pot holder" shapes are very unlikely to be authentic. This photo also shows the wood carved print blocks that are used by women to decorate their bodies. My wife's first impulse was to use these to make handprinted fabric. When we bought these, we asked many questions about the print patterns and their meaning, knowing that these patterns are very often important symbolically. I have over the years become more careful to document what I learn so as not to forget the story, so that I can retell it to others. I don't have any special explanations for these, but would appreciate an e-mail from anyone who does. Finally, notice the child's toy fashioned from a corn husk, a rainforest fiber, and some special furry rainforest seeds. The husk itself is probably not entirely authentic, but the concept of the flying toy shows clearly that indigenous children think about things that fly.
What to pay: I would pay now a considerable sum for the authentic rallo that I have. The other items are fairly cheap. The child's toy, a relatively authentic indigenous souvenir was purchased for perhaps 25 American cents, but is worth much more for me, particulary when I use it in the classroom to teach my American college students.
Fine example of Yanomami basketry is still available, as are relatively authentic masks. These are already featured in museums around the world along with the same from extinct tribal groups, such as the California Indians. Authentic Yanomami baskets are somewhat irregular in shape, and have only black line motifs. Many tourists want to buy more symetrical basketry, such are made by machine in Asia. However, the more valuable baskets are those made by hand. Regarding masks, my view is that the more authentic masks are in shapes Europeans and Americans might consider "ugly". I provided in these photos two examples. Animal motifs are not unknown among indigenous tribes, to be sure, however, their increased production, particularly in smaller, easier to pack sizes is obviously created for the tourist market. Materials here should be completely natural. Any synthetic string, colored paints, plaster, or other materials not typical of original indigenous work should be avoided.