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Appropriation, approximation and overlay in Guarani-inspired ceramics, Argentina

Arnd Schneider

As a result of my participation in the project ‘Creativity in a World of Movement’, and  based on fieldwork (August –September 2010) in Northeast Argentina (Province of Misiones), two major theoretical concepts have emerged, namely approximation and overlay.

Both are in some sense native (emic) concepts (that is those of my interview partners), but also have heuristic value.  Approximation stands for a rejection, on part of the research subjects – here amateur potters who are inspired by Guaraní ceramics, of the more negatively connoted appropriation, positioning themselves close to but yet different from the indigenous Other they are appropriating from. Overlay on the other hand, emerges from an intriguing case of the unmitigated separate existence, or co-existence, of different aesthetic registers (or regimes), that of interior designers, and that of the ‘traditional’ art of Guaraní indigenous people, which the designers commission, and incorporate without interfering with it into their design objects.

The first case, of ‘approximation’, concerns two groups of potters / ceramicists, who are inspired by the ancient pottery techniques of the Guaraní indigenous people inhabiting the area before the Spanish conquests, and of whom small groups, the Mbya-Guaraní continue to live on the margins of Misiones society. The potters met at workshops organized by the Museo Regional Aníbal Cambas and the Museo Provincial Andrés Guacurarí in Posadas, the provicial capital of Misiones. The potters are especially interested in the large funerary urns (yapepó) of which they make they make small replicas, after originals in the two provincial museums. The replicas are understood not as mere copies, but recreations, where the potters use their own imagination and creativity to approximate the original (or ‘spirit’) of the originals. It is for this reason that they reject the notion of appropriation, and its negative connotations.

In the second case, a collaboration between designers (of the company Misiones Creativa) and indigenous craftsmen in Aristóbulo del Valle in central Misiones, overlay then is understood as a combination of two (or more) different systems of meaning, which co-exist unmitigated alongside each other – a kind of composite alterity, where one side does not immediately change the other, or indeed changes or transmutes into the other (and thus becomes the other).  In fact, rather than dealing with a process of appropriation, as I have analyzed in other instances (Schneider 2006, 2003), here the process of working with the cultural expressions of the Mbya-Guaraní is rationalized by the designers, as one of fusion and resignification. Whilst the working processes, and commercial labour dealings of the designers with the Guaraní clearly display and reveal their position of superior economic power, the transfer of ‘intellectual property’, at first hand at least, does not seem to be the main issue here. The design articles are manufactured as a combination and recombination of creole, that is white society’s design mould, form or base, with indigenous design elements that are provided by the indigenous artists at their own choice. Thus the decision on which indigenous designs to use rests within the indigenous community, and also which specific materials are used in this part of the design work. Yet despite of an apparent indigenous prerogative over the design patterns, there is still more influence the designers can try to exercise over the overall choice of materials, but in the end, here too, the indigenous artisans decide which material to use for the specific design patterns. Thus in this case, there are at least two notions of creativity present. The one held by the designers, propagates the design objects as ‘avantgarde’, going beyond received notions of European and internationally inspired functionalist design in Argentina. On the other hand, the notion of creativity as developed by the indigenous artisans  is confined to a space clearly marked and prescribed by the designers. Arguably, it can been seen as a kind of modern-day inlay or intarsia work, which leaves high creativity to the individual artisan or artist, but severely frames and restricts his or her space of expression. As for the original mythological and symbolic significance of these patterns, whilst they are potentially still intelligible to contemporary Mbya Guaraní, once overlaid in the composite design product, they have become generic decoration to the white creole customer – intriguing and entrancing only because of their intricate geometries.

It is clear then, from both cases that we are dealing with changing local (Mbya-Guaraní), and translocal (even transnational) discourses (i.e. functionalist/modern/ avantgarde design) of creativity (CIM objective 1).  Similarly, the potters use  dynamic improvisation (CIM objective 2: interlinked creative practices), to recreate Guaraní ceramics in an ongoing process of cultural production, appropriation and recontextualisation (CIM 2).



Schneider, Arnd. 2003. On ‘appropriation’: a critical reappraisal of the concept and its application in global art practices”, Social Anthropology,  11 (2), 215 - 229.

------------------ 2006. Appropriation as Practice:Art and Identity in Argentina. New York: Palgrave.


Publications forthcoming

Refereed article:

“Beyond Appropriation: Significant Overlays in Guaraní-inspired Designs”, accepted for publication, Journal of Material Culture, planned for publication end of 2012.

Refereed book chapter:

“Approximation as Interpretive Appropriation:  Guaraní-inspired Ceramics in Misiones, Argentina”, Creativity in Transition, eds. Birgit Meyer & Maruska Svasek, Oxford: Berghahn, planned for 2013.


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