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Humble art of life.

On an extensive tour of the United States, Visiones del Pueblo is the first major exhibition to examine the rich folk heritage of Latin America

Some came from the harsh Bolivian altiplano. Others began their journey in agrarian Ceara, Brazil. Still others departed from Guatemalan towns with melodious names like Chichicastenango or Nahuala. They also came from Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Haiti and other lands of the vast region known as Latin America.

They did not all travel at once, but at different times over the course of three years. At the rendezvous point, in a teeming northern city made of concrete, glass and steel, men and women waited with anticipation. As each arrival made it to the Museum of American Folk Art in New York, it was eagerly, yet, gingerly uncrated in preparation for its metamorphosis from anonymous object to ambassador of a richly diverse folk art. One by one, the molas, lottery boards, stirrups, canes, ex votos, masks, puppets, chacanas, bowls, chap books, photographer's backdrops, statues and other items emerged from their protective cocoon to be placed in the rooms of the Museum.

The result was Visiones del Pueblo: The Folk Art of Latin America, the first major traveling exhibition to chronicle the folk heritage of the region through more than 250 historic and contemporary objects from 17 different countries. The exhibition and its national tour are made possible by Ford Motor Company.

Marion Oettinger, Jr., a cultural anthropologist and curator of the show, vividly recalls the day Visiones was conceived. "One afternoon in 1989, I received a telephone call from the late Dr. Robert Bishop, Director of the Museum of American Folk Art, asking if I would serve as Project Director and Guest Curator for a major exhibition of Latin American folk art that would open in New York some time during 1992." Oettinger, currently curator of the Folk Art and Latin American Art at the San Antonio Museum of Art, readily agreed. His chase for the objects began with a three-month stint in the caribbean and Venezuela during the fall of 1989. Six months later, he spent another three months in Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru. In between these two field trips, he made several visits to Guatemala and Mexico.

Some of the pieces were borrowed from museums and collectors, but the bulk of the exhibition was assembled by Oettinger the old fashioned way: through substantial legwork. He hunted for his prizes in market places, shops, and homes or workplaces of folk artists, all the while recording his experiences in a journal. The following entry, from 1989, recounts a visit to a wood-carver from the Andean city of Merida, in Venezuela: "I took a cab from the center of Merida to the home of Jose Belandria. Jose's house is located in a middle-class subdivision just off Avenida de las Americas. it is untypically modern and quite comfortable. His gracious manner and inviting face put me at ease. Jose's workshop is located out back, in a little covered section off the patio. His tools are primitive and the materials he uses are sparse. His work, however, is highly stylized and finely finished. One of his trademarks is his unusual rendering of hands, which was always oversized. He is also known for his attention to detail. Most of the characteristic fineness of his figures results not from the use of the knife, but rather his effective use of crayons and a ballpoint pen. Fingernails, facial features, shoes and jewelry are finely rendered to the most minute detail. All of his religious figures, such as Santa Teresa and San Antonio, display carefully carved features, and great care is given to portraying their saintly attributes. He showed me his kinetic toys, sort of jumping jacks I knew as a child, and I loved them. I bought a set of three, each one unique, each one pure Belandria."

For the cultural anthropologist, this search was a labor of love. He bought a shoeshine box from a young urchin in Bogota who expressed confidence that the tall American would be able to shine a lot of shoes in the United States with his new purchase. He acquired a lottery board from a game operator in Otavalo, Ecuador, only after loosing a considerable amount of change to the savvy entrepreneur. As the pieces were purchased, he shipped them off to New York City. Whatever the curator could not transport, like billboards or Day of the Dead candies, he photographed for the catalog that would complement the exhibit. "I was interested primarily in those things that were made by Latin Americans for Latin Americans. I was not interested in folk art made for export," he remarks.

Oettinger describes himself as a "better Latin Americanist" because of this experience. His interest in folk art, however, is long standing and goes beyond consideration of the time itself to the macro-concept of objects as data banks, a philosophy he has applied to Visiones. "I became interested in folk art while studying the Tlapanec Indians in Guerrero. I was working with this group and found myself trapped in the town of Tlopa because of rainy weather. The Cessna couldn't go out. I had to stay there for three or four days. I met a man who told me he had a codex. It was a nineteenth century lienzo." Oettinger photographed the lienzo but promptly forgot about it until the mid-1970s, when he pulled out his notes and pictures and decided to write a book about it. The project took seven years and "got me into the idea of using these things to describe a people." With folk art, explains Oettinger, "what you find, even if it's not on your list, is always fascinating. It's sort of uncharted research."

Contemporary folk art in Latin America, like the people of the region, is an amalgam--a composite of influences and forces from many directions. According to Oettinger, it is the purpose of folk art that has remained a constant. "Since pre-Columbian times, folk art has been the primary vehicle through which the people in Latin America have expressed their dreams and fears, courted their lovers, amused their children, worshipped their gods and honored their ancestors," he explains. "In modern times, it continues to be an important device for coping with the physical, social and spiritual worlds. Indeed, folk art pervades most facets of Latin American life."

There are many ways to classify American folk art--by materials, techniques, place of origin or age. For this exhibit, Oettinger organized the items according to their functional role: ceremonial, utilitarian, recreational and decorative.

Ceremonial art, both secular and religious, is the most visible and dramatic form of Latin American folk art expression. Throughout the region colorful parades or reenactments are staged to recall historical, patriotic or military events that have shaped a community. These annual festivals bind people together and contribute to a sense of national identity. Masks, costumes and traditional objects of symbolic significance play an important role in these folk dramas.

Most Latin American ceremonial art, however, is religious. At the core of this religious art is the concept of la promesa, a vow between a believer and members of the spiritual world who control individual, familial and communal destiny. For example, throughout Latin America milagros, small votive objects, are placed on altars in fulfillment of a vow. Little silver eyes and full-sized wooden legs and arms attest to a saint's healing powers. Masks are also prominent manifestations of religious folk art. In religious rituals deeply rooted in pre-Columbian times, shamans wore masks to represent the spirits. Today most masking takes place during the celebration of saints' days and other important dates in the Catholic calendar.

A large percentage of Latin American folk art is utilitarian, a response to the physical, social or economic circumstances of a given community. Hand-made clothing, household furnishings, cooking utensils and other utilitarian objects have survived in great quantities, despite their gradual replacement by modern mass-produced items. Although folk artists are concerned primarily with meeting specific demands imposed by environmental factors, they go beyond the purely practical considerations, embellishing and decorating their objects with imaginative images rooted in tradition. Sturdy walking sticks are entwined with serpents and vines, drinking vessels are shaped like llamas or goats, and wooden stools resemble armadillos and horses. Textiles, particularly used for dress, are also a common manifestation of folk art.

Recreational folk art, made to entertain and amuse, includes toys, such as buses and airplanes, as well as games and miniatures. At first glance, recreational folk art pieces may be seen as lighthearted playthings, but they often reveal fundamental facets of social and religious life. The devils of Ocumicho, Mexico, are charming figures, but also serve as a reminder of the eternal conflict between good and evil. Boys and girls play with toy farm tools and dolls in preparation for the adult tasks which lie ahead.

Although decorative folk art--objects used to adorn the body, the home and other places--strongly reflects local customs and aesthetic values, the forms of these objects are not necessarily tied to their function. They are works of art in their own right, although they remain bound by the cultural traditions of their creators. Souvenirs or recuerdos evoke images of important events or visits to specific places. Jose Rodriguez da Silva's "Carnival Figures," for example, recall typical scenes from Brazilian carnival and remind the owner of the experience.

Virtually none of these pieces have been seen outside the local community that produced them. For Catherine Fukushima, director of Public Programs of the Museum, coming in contact with Latin American folk art was a great cultural adventure. "Nobody here was really familiar with Latin American folk art, even though the pieces are similar to what can be found in American folk art," says Fukushima. "It impressed me as an enormous subject and gave me a whole insight into the Hispanic community. I picked up things I'd never studied before."

That was precisely what late director Bishop had in mind when he developed the idea for Visiones--putting together an exhibit that would reflect the current demographics of the United States, an exhibit that relatively new segments of Americans could relate to in a fundamental way. Oettinger, for his part, sees it as an opportunity for everyone to admire the exhibition and learn from it. "I hope it's the beginning of a new education process for the American public. Latin America is such a rich place and we have not done it justice. But I think that is changing and I hope this exhibit will do its part in this process."

The museum has invested heavily in the educational dimension of Visiones. Fukushima developed a teacher's guide and a bilingual family guide for visitors, along with a packed schedule of workshops and lectures. The results so far are promising. Since its opening on September 17, Visiones has attracted about 1,500 visitors weekly. The average range for other exhibits is 1,000 weekly.

School children are among the most enthusiastic customers, according to Fukushima. "We book three tours a day of schools. A lot of them are Hispanics. They love the pieces just as art objects. They see things we don't necessarily see. There's this little ceramic piece of a cow undergoing a Caesarean section. For us it's just another object. I don't think we even included it in the catalog. But the kids are fascinated by this. They ask questions like, 'Is the mom going to live? Why is the baby blue?'".

The exhibition will remain at the Museum of American Folk Art through February 21, 1993. Then it will travel to the San Antonio Museum of Art (March 13-May 2, 1993); the Mexican Museum, San Francisco (May 19-July 27, 1993); the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (August 14-October 10, 1993); the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (November 1, 1993-January 5, 1994); the Art Museum at Florida International University, Miami (January 24,- March 20, 1994); and become invisible." The irony of this insightful definition of folk art by French painter Jean Charlot (an important chronicler of the Mexican art scene of the early twentieth century) is not lost on Oettinger. It is a perception the curator would dearly love to correct. "Folk art has been with us through the ages. It's the very earliest form of artistic expression. Most societies have two systems going on. (One is) the sophisticated, art gallery art, the result of formal training. Parallel to it is a form of art that's meant to be used up. When you talk about contemporary art of Latin America, if you look at (Colombian artist Fernando) Botero's paintings, that's important, but it's not the whole picture. Both systems depend on each other. I'd like to see people be more inclusive and not use an auction price as a measure of worth."

Liza Gross is a freelance writer residing in Washington, D.C. The author wishes to acknowledge the collaboration of the public relations department of the Museum of American Folk Art.
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Title Annotation:Latin American art works
Author:Gross, Liza
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Previous Article:Symphonies of solitude from the north.
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