Tesoros del Pueblo: Garcia Mexican Collection at CFAC

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 02/11/10More articles
Susan Keeter's portrait of Dr. Alejandro Garcia, courtesy of CFAC.

By the late 80s, Dr. Alejandro Garcia’s personal collection of artwork from his native Mexico had grown so large that the long-time professor of social work at Syracuse University was talking about moving out of his Fellows Avenue home to a larger house. So when the Community Folk Art Center’s Gina Stankivitz set out to curate a new exhibition from this 40-year-old collection – she had already curated previous exhibitions from his collection in 1996 and 2004 – it’s not so surprising she had some 43 bags and boxes to choose from. The ceremonial masks Garcia is already well-known for in Central New York, but there is also a variety of textiles, prints, paintings, sculpture, papier mache and carved wooden objects, and increasingly in recent years, Garcia’s own photographs. “Tesoros del Pueblo: El Arte Folklórico de México/Treasures of the People: The Folk Art of Mexico” is the cream of the crop, filling both main galleries and the lobby as well. A packed and festive crowd opened the show on January 23rd at CFAC, 805 E. Genesee St., Syracuse. It stays on view until a special Cinco de Mayo celebration closes the exhibition on the evening of May 5th.

“Tesoros del Pueblo” represents both the contemporary folk art of Mexico and Garcia’s personal journey. The exhibition also serves as the setting for an equally abundant schedule of related programs during this time. There are monthly free films, folk art workshops (one to make sugar skulls for the Day of Dead and another for piñatas), an associated lecture by Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho at the Newhouse School (where she receives the Tully Award for Free Speech on Feb. 16th at 7:30 in Herg Auditorium), and a play and discussion about the women of Ciudad Juárez. Dr. Garcia kicks off these extras next Thursday, 2/18 at 6:00 PM with a gallery talk for Th3 before the first film at 7:00, “Blossoms of Fire.”

Last Friday morning he provided a preview during a stroll around the gallery as he related how he came to amass his collection and his plans for it. Here is part of our conversation:

NKR: When I first met you in you were already talking about needing to move to a larger house because you had so many Mexican masks and you didn’t have room to display them. That was 1987. So I wonder if you could talk about the size of this collection and how you have built it?

AG: Well first of all I really don’t know how big it is because I really haven’t counted. I haven’t really had time to do that and one of my frustrations is not having categorized the masks. I think there are over 300 masks and that’s only the high quality masks – mostly functional, that is, they are used in folk dances throughout Mexico. Some decorative, as you will see. And I have a whole array of decorative coconut masks that generally go up on walls and they are pretty and a lot of fun to look at. And as you look around it’s more than just masks. My collection began – I collected chess sets, made of bone, made of inlaid wood, et cetera, and then I saw masks that I liked and was able to afford. That was over 40 years ago. What has happened is that some people call me a collector and others call me a hoarder. I follow Karen Bakke’s perspective that you can never have too much of anything and that goes for my collection. Every chance I get I go to Mexico and I look around for something new. I keep being amazed at the diversity of Mexican folk art and it’s always exciting to see new pieces or types that I hadn’t collected before.

NKR: When I was here at the opening reception and walking around a little, it seems to me that this is all from many parts of Mexico.

AG: That is true. Mostly from southern Mexico, but it does also cover for example northern Mexico and Arizona, where the Yaqui Indians are. But most are from southern Mexico – the state of Guerrerro, the state of Oaxaca, Chiapas, and so on. You will find a great diversity. Some states don’t have as many masks as others. Some of the Indians prefer to paint their faces, as you see in one of the paintings here.

NKR: Let’s go around and we’ll kind of do a walking tour – is that okay? I’d like you to lead the way.

AG: Absolutely. Maybe we could start right at the beginning then, with this wonderful painting done by Susan Keeter. That is me in my SU gown, my academic robe, and holding a mask. And the mask represents fertility and you’ll notice we placed the mask right next to the painting. There’s a snake holding a fruit – the snake in indigenous folklore is not anything evil. Quite the contrary, the snake is good because it represents water and then you can have fruit and vegetation. And the painting has some of the words that I appreciate in my life – equality, dignity, and respect. The artist was kind enough to put those words there in a way that celebrated my commitment to those principles. By the way, we brought in 28 boxes and 13 to 15 bags from my home and Gina Stankivitz, the curator, selected what she wanted to put up, which was a fraction of what we brought in. This is a wonderful, wonderful space here.

NKR: There are textiles on the wall here as we start out.

AG: Yes, we chose some wonderful shirts. These are “mop cloth.” Cloth that is used for mops and they started making shirts. You’ll see they’re very popular. Some wonderfully embroidered blouses from a number of places. This is a 'huepil' – a top that women from Oaxaca from a certain group wear on a daily basis. I love the colors, but what’s fascinating is these are made on what’s called a body loom, so these panels are as wide as the loom, and then they put these pieces together to make a whole. These blouses are made for daily use and if a woman gets pregnant what you do is just open up the side to allow her belly to extend and once she has the baby you just sew it back. It seems so practical and something like this takes a long time to produce, so you couldn’t have too many of these. If you had one you’d be happy. You wear things until they wear out, and you also share them. You can see how some of these are tattered. This little piece is from the Chemula Indians in Chiapas and this is a man’s top. They wear this and a straw hat with ribbons – if the ribbons are loose and blowing in the wind, that means the man is single. But if they’re tied in kind of a pony-tail, that means they are married.

NKR: This is an every-day shirt?

AG: Yes – a top, they wear a shirt underneath. Here, let me show you this carved wooden statue – this is how the man would be dressed. These are the shoes they wear. They have very, very strong legs because they come up and down the hills and mountains. Really quite an impressive civilization that lives right outside what they call Los Altos Chiapas, the high areas of the state of Chiapas.

NKR: And a very aesthetically attuned civilization.

AG: Indeed. I was in the main square right outside of the cathedral and there were some indigenous people – chiefs – talking to the archbishop, and they were all dressed in their cleanest outfits with their ribbons, so I had to do a wonderful picture of just the hats with the ribbons blowing in the wind. One of the churches they have is San Juan, Saint john, and inside you will see no benches. They will have some pine needles on the floor and it will be totally dark and as your eyes get accustomed you’ll see candles lit in different parts of the church. And you’ll see glass cases all around mostly of Saint John, that they carry on their shoulders in processions. But you’ll also see groups of people sitting around in circles with their candles – they are people praying with their shaman. Tall candles are for adults, short candles are for children. Colored candles are for the living, white candles are for the dead. We went as close as we could to the altar and there was another group there that had just sacrificed a chicken. So – talk about the fusion of indigenous religions and Catholicism, and the Catholic Church allows this because it’s the only way they can get the indigenous people to be part of the church. Compromise.

NKR: Seems to me that’s a change.

AG: Oh it absolutely is and it varies from place to place. Not only Mexico but Guatemala where the indigenous people have rituals right outside and they’ll even take some of their rutuals right inside. One time I was at San Tomas in Guatemala and there were some Indians dancing outside the church and they had a can with incense just like the priest does. That fusion which we don’t think about here is acceptable to them and to the church.

NKR: These panels on the wall, they are rugs or blankets? How are they used?

AG: These are blankets for what they call a bed for married people – we would call it a double bed here – and these are for wearing, with the slit. They are very practical. These Gina selected. And we decided to bring in a number of religious items.

NKR: I think this section is wonderful, with the small sculptures of saints and winged angels.

AG: Yes and one of the things that Gina did was to create sort of an altar here. So we have angels and Our Lady of Guadalupe and crucifixes and some paintings – these are from Chiapas – and some wooden figures and this black clay figure from Oaxaca, and the traditional crosses. There’s a town that specializes in lacquer work. And this Madonna and child made of marble is from Puebla which has a lot of wonderful pieces made of onyx and marble and other stone. The archangels may be Peruvian and not Mexican, but I got them in Mexico.

NKR: What about these Day of the Dead skeletons here – they are puppet-sized and there are about twenty of them or so, with sombreros and musical instruments.

AG: They are made of driftwood from the state of Oaxaca. One of the things that Octavio Paz, the Nobel laureate on literature, said in “Labyrinth of Solitude” was that in American society we do not talk about death – we do not even whisper its name. But in Mexico it’s quite different. We embrace death, we celebrate it, we sing to it. And of course the big celebration is the Day of the Dead. This is part of that celebration – musicians, drummers, et cetera. In Mexico you build altars to the dead in your own home, you go to the cemetery and clean up the gravesite, have lunch there – well, you allow the dead to eat first but then you have lunch. You have a special bread for the Day of the Dead. The marigold is the flower for the dead. You have a very different perspective. I just thought these skeletons were incredible. You can never have enough of them. They’re so - playful. I’d like to go back and get more.

NKR: Now how much of this is a fusion with Europeans and what indigenous people already had?

AG: Well, I don’t know of any European culture that celebrates death in this way.

NKR: Well, not exactly like this. But the Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar has scenes in some of his movies – in “Volver” and in the new one, “Broken Embraces” – where people go to cemeteries, they’re eating there, cleaning the graves, drinking wine, in large numbers. The Macedonian filmmaker Milcho Manchevski depicts similar scenes in contemporary Macedonia as well.

AG: Yes, you do this in cemeteries for the Day of the Dead. And in Mexico you sell a lot of flowers for the Day of the Dead.

NKR: This is something much more exuberant?

AG: Yes, it goes beyond that. Hey, you celebrate death the way you celebrate life, and you build altars in your home for your dearly departed, and you put up flowers for them, you put up their favorite foods, their cigarettes, their favorite liquors. There’s an art now around Mexican Americans who have departed – for Frieda Kahlo, for Cesar Chavez, for our Lady of Guadalupe – they’re really quite beautiful and creative. That part of such art dates itself back to Mexican altars, but I don’t know of Europeans who do that in this way.

NKR: Here are the coconut masks – they are too small to actually wear.

AG: I have quite a few of these and I really love them. Every time I go back to Mexico to the state of Guerrerro – not only do they use coconuts but they use different vegetation, seed pods, et cetera, to decorate. So these are used to decorate the masks, as you can see – right up here, these are used for a moustache but over here they are used for a head-dress. And the leaves right here – beautifully done. They’re great in a kitchen on the wall. All my friends love them and all my friends try to take them from me!

NKR: That’s on the free-standing wall and over here is another wall of – ceremonial masks that are used?

AG: Yes, for the most part these are bearded ones – personages. Persons with beards are sages in dances and they carry great weight. Masks here are made of wood – this is leather and this one as well, put over a bowl and shaped and material added, such as horse-hair.

NKR: I’m noticing this huge variety of style. From very elaborate and Baroque to stylized to – that looks Greek or Roman almost –

AG: Yes, some of them representing Europeans, some of them representing a variety of other characters. And this one was done by a master artist who also carves saints. And one of the wonderful things, I spoke to him and his wife. Each one of the eyelashes is put in by hand and that’s his wife’s hair. And those are glass eyes. So there’s a mechanism back here, with a string you can pull, so he can blink. I loved it. It was very expensive but you know, you have to have some things.

NKR: But we’re getting the benefit of this!

AG: And so do I. And you saw the gold tooth? I thought it was great. And what this person, this character, does – they wear top hats, and they wear sashes, black outfits, and an umbrella.

NKR: Let’s not leave these masks. Some of these are entire animals. There’s a grasshopper mask and a couple scorpions…

AG: Yes, a number of these masks are in celebration of the harvest. These are the insects that we find in the fields. These are massive, here. A double butterfly and a butterfly woman. A butterfly symbolizes something that is really – able to evanesce. This is a drum, from the state of Guerrerro, carved into a wild boar with real teeth. I have a stick that you play it with but we were concerned that everyone would want to play it.

NKR: Now how would this be worn? This is like a body mask – would it be worn around someone’s waist?

AG: Yes, obviously someone with a considerable slimmer waist than mine. So that’s a mer-man, and he would be dancing with a mermaid, and hopefully they’ll produce a lot of fishes. Again, a fertility dance, to hope for a great harvest, of fish in that case.

NKR: This section of masks is labeled “Negritos.”

AG: Yes, there are a lot of Black folk around Mexico. People don’t realize that. They are represented in a number of celebrations and one of the biggest celebrations is this one here, “Juan Negro.” And this is “Juan Blanco.” Part of the dance is fighting over the hand of a lady. And of course he’s a very poor person and he’s a very wealthy man, who wins. Of course. Again, the continuous battle of racism, that existed even back then. There’s a whole exhibit in Washington, DC, right now of people of African ancestry in Mexico – in fact, Khelli [Willets, director of CFAC] has the book. And then you have somebody like the artist Elizabeth Catlett who married a Mexican man [and whose work was exhibited at CFAC last fall] and lived in Mexico and they have a son, three sons.

NKR: Here is the wall of devil masks, with a painting by Jerome Witkin in the center that includes a devil mask.

AG: I gave that mask to Jerome and then he used it in that painting and gave me that painting for my birthday. Otherwise I wouldn’t have anything like that! The portrait that Susan Keeter did was also a gift. So I’m just terribly honored by the kindness of friends. I have a collection of David MacDonald’s pieces and, again, for the most part they are gifts. I’m really honored and touched by the generosity of friends. So he said, ‘This is for your birthday.’ Oh my God! It’s not the first thing he has given me. A couple of drawings that he did of me and a number of other smaller pieces. This is the largest that I have of his.

NKR: The wall text says that the devil masks came after the Christians came.

AG: Well there’s an explanation for that – I’m not sure how the wall text says it there. In Christianity we have God, that’s all good. The devil that’s all bad. In the indigenous religion, they had gods but gods could do good and they could do evil. My understanding is that the indigenous people have masks and they celebrated with their masks and the friars try to get them to put down their masks, so they have the Indians put horns on their masks and say they were evil, they should push them away. And rather than push them away, they said, ‘Well if two horns are bad, why don’t we put more horns on them?’ And so you’ll see – here, look at this. You have one, two, three – six horns! It’s fascinating. But the fact is that having devil masks is important in a variety of celebrations. For example, at Christmas you have good and evil. The archangel protecting the baby Jesus fights against the devil. Again, the on-going battle between the two.

NKR: Is that also what’s going on with this mask that has two faces on it?

AG: Would you believe I don’t know what the background of that is? My sense is that’s just the duality of humankind. They didn’t put up all the masks. I have a mask with a couple characters trying to move out of the person’s head.

NKR: Now some of these are very fearsome but some of them seem to me to be very witty and poking fun at the idea of that fearsomeness.

AG: Indeed, and kids grow up with them. They dance with them.

NKR: Almost as if it’s ridiculous to be afraid of these things that are really funny.

AG: You’re absolutely correct. And in the end you know the devil’s going to lose out.

NKR: Let’s look at these wonderful little creatures that you can get - right in the marketplace?

AG: Yes, for the most part. They are things that you have to have when you see them. These characters playing cards, with their bottles of liquor – you have to buy all four and the table. With the musicians over here – again, you wanted to have the whole band. These are from the state of Oaxaca and they’re called ‘alebrijes.’ Fantastical animals. Again, Gina posed all of these. The devil I bought from a little boy, who obviously didn’t make them but probably helped his family make them.

NKR: These creatures have such amazing detail. What would something like this cost?

AG: It all depends on where you get them. It could be anywhere from, say, twenty-five dollars to a hundred. But it all depends. Some of them, I went right to the people’s home, and they know me and I brought them little gifts, et cetera. I try to respect them and what a fair price is, although if I buy in quantity I’m hoping they’ll be kind to me as well.

NKR: Now when you go back, you’ll share with these artists that there’s been an exhibition here?

AG: Yes, if I do see these individuals again. My aunt who lives in the state of Chiapas, I tell her about it. She purchased this mask from a person who danced with it for several years. What you usually do with a mask is you pass it on to your child. This is for the dance of the Feast of Saint Sebastian, which is sometime in the middle of January. This again has a racist perspective in that, in the 17th century or so, a Guatemalan woman asked the Indians to pray for her son who was disabled and they did so in the way in which they were accustomed, which was creating a dance. And they thought that God listened better to the prayers of white people than to Indians, so they created European faces, with blond hair. So when God looked down he would think they were white and he would answer their prayers. This is a full costume, with a top and these are leggings. Beautiful thick embroidery all by hand. This is the Chiapanecas dress that you saw in the photograph I took, on the cover of the catalogue. And this is the Deer Dance mask and costume of the Yaqui Indians. This is a religious dance and that’s a real deer head. The Yaquis are not only in Arizona but also in the Mexican state below it. The belt is made of deer hooves that would jingle. And these decorations on the leggings are made from silk-moth cocoons.

NKR: There are a lot of these leopards – jaguars?

AG: Well they’re called ‘tigres’ but actually are jaguars. There are no tigers in Mexico. That’s what that mask is. And here is a painting of people trying to corral the jaguars. This man is saying, ‘Hit him with your stick! Here I come!’ And the other guy is saying, ‘Behave, cats!’ Gatos. And that’s what the mask looks like, which I got right from the mask-maker. He was honored for the quality of his mask-making. It celebrates the deer, which is a very special animal – it’s the animal that essentially accompanies you from this world to the next. In one of the presentations by the Mexican Folk Ballet, they actually kill the deer and it’s very dramatic – but in the real dance the deer is not killed. If you kill the deer no one can accompany you to the next world. But this, it’s really a work of art and something of religious significance.

NKR: Now what’s the relative age of these masks?

AG: I’m not sure that I can tell you. Some of them are very, very old. I haven’t done any carbon testing! Some are fifty or a hundred years old. Some are fairly recent. They take quit a beating in their dancing. You stop and think that I’ve had some of them for forty years, and some of them were old at that time. Some of them came out of people’s homes and they had been dancing for years, some of them were very well protected. Some of them could be antiques. The value of masks is they’re functional masks – so you want them to be danced. And they would actually be used in ceremonies.

NKR: They’re sacred objects.

AG: Yes. The paracheco, for example, that one up there, when you’re not wearing it would have a special place in your home. In fact that’s how I purchased it, from somebody who was getting another mask. These tin figures are another band – Claire Rudolf gave me one figure and I had to have the rest – and this painting is a celebration. It’s called ‘El Castillo,’ The Castle. They literally build a wooden castle and insert fire-works into it at critical points and set it on fire and that’s what the finale looks like. It’s really pretty spectacular.

NKR: There’s quite an extensive print-making history in Mexico and several are here.

AG: Yes indeed. And of course we know this from Elizabeth Catlett’s recent exhibition here.

NKR: This is going to be here for quite some time.

AG: May 5th.

NKR: There are many events attached to this – a film series, some speakers.

AG: Yes, and we are having some workshops. We’ll make sugar skulls for the Day of the Dead. We’re having a film called “Blossoms of Fire” on the 18th – I’ll be doing that, and right before that, at 6:00 PM, I’ll be doing a gallery talk very similar to what I’m doing with you today.

NKR: Any hopes for what this exhibition will accomplish?

AG: A better understanding of folk art in Mexico. I think it’s beautiful as art and it’s beautiful as religion and it’s beautiful as a celebration of oneself. A number of people have said, oh, we brought our friends over and we want more of a connection with your whole country.

NKR: Earlier I said one could see it’s an aesthetically attuned culture and everyday life is portrayed as graceful and exuberant too.

AG: And even among the hardships. Because a lot of the people who have done this work are not that wealthy. These inlaid skulls here are carved onyx with lapis in-lays and they were done by a deaf-mute. These yarn paintings are essentially done on a piece of plywood with hot wax and a piece of yarn and they go around and around and make patterns. The same Indians made this as made the bead paintings. Again, the symbolism of fertility and the harvest and there is a deer here.

NKR: And there’s another deer mask on the wall, in the archway between the two galleries.

AG: Yes, those masks are part of an Easter dance and at the end they burn the masks. I was very lucky to get that one at a museum in Mexico. This print is mine and it shows an Indian being conquered by a chief. He is being made to bow before him and the person is crying, as you can see. As I noted in the brochure, in making this collection I was trying to find out who I was. So this is a celebration of self and diversity and really getting all the pieces of the puzzle of who I was. This is very exciting that they chose to celebrate this display here. It brings incredible riches to me. And the next step of course is trying to decide who can take care of it and where it should go. And I’m thinking about that and about some place that will accept it intact, particularly the masks – I’d like them all to go to one place.

A short version of this article appears in the print edition of the 2/11/2010 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. For further details about the exhibition and its related events, call 315. 442.2230 or go to communityfolkartcenter.org. Nancy covers the arts. Reach her at nancykeeferhodes@gmail.com.

To see an October 2007 video interview by Ellen Blalock and Maureen Sieh of the Post-Standard, go to:

TAGS: Alejandro Garcia, Tesoros Del Pueblo, Mexican art, ceremonial masks, Community Folk Art Center
EDITION: The Eagle

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