¡Carnaval!

At the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe · 2004-2005

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Every year in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday, young people in the small remote village of Laza, Spain gather in the town center to carry out a battle that involves throwing muddy rags, ashes, and dirt filled with ants at one another. A few hundred miles to the southeast, ladies and gentlemen wearing elaborate eighteenth-century-style court costumes and golden masks float in gondolas on the canals of Venice, Italy making their way to a grand ball. Farther north, in Basel, Switzerland members of a troupe put the finishing touches on their costumes and a painted lantern that mock the U.S. Department of Agriculture's regulation governing the size of the holes in imported Swiss cheese. What do these people have in common with each other and with bands of dancing devils in Oruro, Bolivia, thousands of revelers in Port of Spain, Trinidad, or black Indians marching through their neighborhoods in New Orleans, USA? It's their participation in Carnival-- a time to laugh and play, to bond with friends and community, to reach a common feeling of exhilaration and renewal.

Morenos

Morenos Oruro, Bolivia
Photo by Barbara Mauldin, 1997

Carnival evolved in medieval Europe as a celebration of transitions, marking the approach of Catholic Lent and the seasonal change from winter to spring. Through ritual, masquerade, and play, which exaggerate and invert everyday behavior, the celebration led people through this time with irony, disguise, laughter, and revelry, helping to insure renewal and growth for themselves and their communities. As Europeans introduced Carnival into the Americas, the colonists and their colonial subjects merged varied, and sometimes conflicting, cultural practices into this dynamic event. Through periods of repression and revival, the popularity of this festival has continued to grow in both Europe and the Americas, and today millions of people annually participate in the celebration.

The Museum of International Folk Art created this exhibition to recreates the experience of living Carnival traditions. In a single afternoon the visitors were taken on an excursion through eight different Carnival celebrations in Europe and the Americas. In Europe these sites range from the small rural community of Laza, Spain to the larger cities of Venice and Basel. Oruro, Bolivia and Tlaxcala, Mexico are Indian/mestizo communities where aspects of indigenous religious beliefs and ritual have been merged with the European carnival festivities. Three other sites, Recife/Olinda, Brazil, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, and New Orleans, are larger metropolitan cities where a variety of cultural traditions, deriving from European, African, Native American, and East Indian, are brought together, reflecting the make-up of societies throughout the Americas today.

Barbara Mauldin, curator for ¡CARNAVAL!, has collected close to fifty costumes that reflect a range of masquerade and performance themes and represent the history and evolution of traditions in each of the eight sites. The ornate costumes and masks of the peliqueiros in Laza, Spain are said to derive from sixteenth-century tax collectors sent into the rural villages by the feudal rulers of the region. The popular masquerades of Harlequin and Pierrot in Venice come from the Italian commedia dell'arte, which had become an important part of European Carnival theater by the late 16th century. The devil masqueraders in Oruro, Bolivia honor the Andean god of the underworld, Supay, whom colonial Catholic priests viewed as the devil and on whose images they put horns to further their point.

Some of the most elegant costumes worn by the Afro-Brazilians in the Carnival of Recife and Olinda, Brazil represent Kings and Queens from the Portuguese royal court, a tradition that began on the colonial sugar plantations when the wealthy owners dressed their slaves in these costumes for Christmas pageants.

In some cases the masquerades drawn from local history are worn as a means of criticizing and making fun of certain individuals or whole groups. For example, in Basel, Switzerland, a popular masquerade known as Waggis portrays unruly French farmers from neighboring Alsace who came into Basel and sold their produce in the street markets. In the rural villages of Tlaxcala, Mexico, young Indian men wear elaborate costumes and beautiful pink-skinned masks that impersonate and mock wealthy Spanish and French ranchers and dandies who once controlled the political and economic life of their region. In New Orleans, the Zulu Carnival society, made up of middle-class African American men, wear black face and grass skirts, carry spears, and throw coconuts in a parody against the stereotyping of black people in American society.

Masqueraders

Masqueraders Venice, Italy
Photo by David and Shirley Rowen, 1998

Role reversal has been a facet of Carnival masquerading since medieval times and an intriguing form of this is found in cities in the Americas where indigenous people and African slaves were brought together under colonial rulers. Over time masquerades and performances were developed that featured one ethnic group consciously portraying and playing with the cultural expressions of the other. In Oruro, Andeans created Morenada groups whose rich costumes and performances portray a mythical rendition of African slaves who once lived and worked alongside the native people in the mines and lowland plantations. In Recife/Olinda, Port of Spain, and New Orleans descendants of African slaves wear elaborate costumes and give performances that emulate and identify with the Indians who had been a part of their history in the Americas.

Collecting the costumes and masks for the exhibition was an adventure for Mauldin who visited each site and purchased the pieces directly from the masquerader or the maker. "Each costume has its own story," she says. However, negotiating for the pieces did not always go as planned. "For the most part I wanted to purchase used costumes and masks so I was sure they were authentic and I could get a good price."

In many communities the Carnival costumes are made in workshops and the owners rent them out to the masqueraders during the festival season. Then they are returned and the makers refurbish them for the next year. "When the costume and mask makers heard that I wanted their pieces for an exhibition in the US, they refused to sell me the used ones, insisting that they would make an even better costume or mask for our show . . . I was always a little nervous about this because I wasn't sure what I would get and I had to rely on friends to make the final payments and ship the pieces to me." Mauldin's fears were unfounded, however, and each costume and mask she acquired is a fabulous example of its type.

Mauldin has also overseen the production of the new ¡CARNAVAL! book published in collaboration with the University of Washington Press. It will follow the format of the exhibition with essays on each of the carnival sites in the show written by scholars who have conducted extensive research within these communities. Additional essays will examine Carnival festivities in rural Bulgaria, Haiti and the Cajun region of Louisiana.

The ¡CARNAVAL! exhibition was on view at the Museum of International Folk Art remote

November 2004-August 2005 and then traveled to LA, New Orleans and Dallas.


Thanks to Barbara Mauldin and Micaela Seidel
©2004 Wingspread Guides of New Mexico Inc.

Originally appeared in
The Wingspread Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos & Albuquerque
— Volume 18


Related Pages

Collecting Milagros article
Glossary of Hispanic Folk Art Terms article

History of an Ancient Human Symbol article
Magic in the Land of Enchantment article
The Neutrogena Textile Collection article


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