Barbara Mauldin, the museum's curator of Latin American folk art, is a scholar of festivals. For this exhibition, she concentrated on Trinidad and the highlands of Ecuador. In fact, recycling and improvisation in the steel-drum bands of Trinidad and Tobago proved both obvious and already heavily documented. Ecuador was a much different situation. Mauldin went in search of a more elusive artist, eventually involving three arduous trips, including a high-jacking at gunpoint. In 1991, she had been startled by a photo of a Corpus Christi ceremonial headdress decorated with light bulbs and crowned with a baby doll. After finding very little information, Mauldin went to Quito in 1992 and followed a rutted dirt road to the remote mountain village of San Rafael (near Puijili) and the home of Jose Ignacio Criollo. He was shocked; he had never been approached by an outsider, and most problematic for Mauldin and her consultant, he didn't speak Spanish; he spoke only Quichua. By local standards, Criollo was clearly a man of elevated status. His home was cinder block--not adobe--and, it was filled with costumes that the villagers rented from him for their many different festivals.
In 1993, Mauldin returned with a suitcase full of peacock feathers, an essential crowning flourish attached to a Corpus Christi headdress when it is worn by a dancer. She negotiated a contract for a specific piece that would be picked up the next year. Criollo asked for $30 and Mauldin finalized the agreement for $400 in consideration of the artist's consent to an interview. Criollo signed with a thumbprint. In 1994, Mauldin returned with a video crew and Amado Ruiz, an Ecuadoran activist whose mother was a known native leader. In a videotaping, Criollo blossomed, telling how he "dresses" the edges of the headdresses in mirrors and lightbulbs. He said he began using the bulbs in the early 1970s, long before electricity was delivered to his home.
When Cerny and Mauldin speak of their experiences, it is clear that they were captivated and enchanted by the artists and their work. This raw exuberance is reflected in the installation, a blend of tumult and triumph. Cerny concludes in her text: "For me, the power of recycled arts lies in their ability to make manifest the power of transformation and of personal transcendence, meanings that are rooted in the very process itself. Some would say that is a romantic notion. But could it be that the very concept of metamorphosis is inherently interesting to the human intellect? . . . Recycled works are compelling because they suggest the triumph of human creativity over circumstance, and divergent thinking at its best."
With this exhibition, the field of folk art feels more vital and urgent, and a lot less quaint.
"Recycled, Re-seen: Folk Art From the Global Scrap Heap," Museum of International Folk Art/Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe. Through Aug. 22, 1997.