Can poverty spawn great — even good — art? With its vibrant “Dreaming Mexico: Painting and Folk Art from Oaxaca,” the Cultural Center of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) answers with a resounding “yes”.
Economically, Oaxaca (pronounced Wa-ha-ka) is the poorest and most diverse state in Mexico. Artistically, it’s one of the most creative. Exhibit curator Felix Angel has combined paintings by internationally known Oaxacan painters Rufino Tamayo, Francisco Toledo and Rodolfo Morales with delightful groups of surreal ceramics and the indigenous form of hand-painted and sculpted fantastic animals known as “alebrijes” (ah-lay-bree-heys). The products of this region’s extraordinary energy and imagination, accentuated by the hot pink walls of the IDB exhibit rooms, are sure to keep visitors happy for hours.
It’s fortunate that Oaxaca has these indigenous folk arts to support it economically. The alebrijes, inspired by the much larger papier-mache figures of Mexico’s famous fiestas with their blaring mariachi trumpets and seemingly endless supplies of tequila are the state’s chief source of income. Now most U.S. cities, especially those with large Hispanic populations, have shops that sell the little animals, which promise, as vibrant transmitters of pulsating fiestas, to liven up buyers’ own homes.
Mr. Angel, an artist himself, went directly to the alebrijes carvers in Oaxaca, saw them working and selected the best pieces for the exhibit. He says there’s a strict division of labor. The male carvers first go to nearby forests for pieces of their preferred copal wood that are “just right” (carvers follow the natural contours of the wood for the alebrijes). The craftsmen are inspired by the animals that roam these forests and the neighboring rocky hills.
The men then sculpt fantasy images that could easily come from fairy tales, such as the exhibit’s “Dragon con Lengua de Fuego (Dragon with Fire Tongue),” created by Pablo Vasquez Matlas, and “Sirena Voladora con Dragon (Flying Mermaid with Dragon),” made by the HEMAFER Crafts Cooperative. Unlike our fairy tales descended from Europe, they are happy and nonthreatening.
After carving, women paint intricate, colorful designs on the forms, but the men sign the finished pieces as the last step. Mr. Angel says he was astonished by the way whole communities continually and collaboratively turn out the figures.
Oaxacans make outstanding ceramics. They model images of icons Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, as well as vividly colored figures of peasant women wearing their native dress. A particularly amusing woman, one of the “Dos Campesinas Tipicas (Two Typical Peasant Women),” holds a hefty chicken in her right arm, supports a tiny calf on top of her head, and holds a nursing “baby,” actually a diminutive man, up to her voluminous breasts.
Mr. Angel centered the exhibit’s black ceramic masterpiece, “Carreta de la Muerte con Diablos y Calaveras (Death Carriage with Devils and Skeletons)” in the middle of the gallery. Sculpted by Carlomagno Pedro Martinez, the most famous craftsman in the town of San Bartolo Coyotepec, “Death Carriage” is a macabre composition of skeletons presumably wending their way to the afterworld. Black clay is indigenous to parts of Oaxaca, and Mr. Martinez and his family model it expressively and expertly.
Works in the exhibit by Mr. Tamayo, Mr. Toledo and Mr. Morales underline the fantastic, surreal ambience of the alebrijes and ceramics. Mr. Tamayo (1899-1991), a Zapotecan Indian born in Oaxaca, absorbed the cultural richness of pre-Columbian Mexico when he worked as a draftsman at Mexico City’s Museo Nacional de Arqueologia.
Painted with luscious, often seductive, hues, his mysterious figures seem like fragile connections to a higher order. His beautiful work implies, as Mr. Angel writes in the exhibit’s brochure, “a forthcoming catastrophe … a metaphor of cosmic drama.”
Mr. Morales’ simplistic looking painting is anything but. By juxtaposing commonplace objects such as town squares, houses, people and landscapes, he creates intensely mysterious and compelling metaphysical riddles.
The work of Mr. Toledo has been called savage. It’s definitely threatening with its constantly metamorphosing images, such as the exhibit’s “Composition au Cheval (Composition with Horse).” Here, what looks like a horse’s vertebra circles around a horse’s head while a smaller horse leaps out of the picture.
This extraordinary exhibit shows how philosophical and cultural themes are sustained and evolve over centuries. Surreal dream worlds, beauty, savagery and mystery far removed from our often matter-of-fact art and lives infuse this fascinating show. “Dreaming Mexico” will carry visitors along with its artistic dreams.
WHAT: “Dreaming Mexico: Painting and Folk Art from Oaxaca”
WHERE: Cultural Center of the Inter-American Development Bank, 1300 New York Ave. NW
WHEN: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, through July 25