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Cleveland exhibition explores folk art tradition of Oaxaca, México


On Feb. 1, 2008, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History opens an exhibition that highlights folk art forms from the Oaxaca region of México.  Entitled “Vibrancy of Tradition:  Folk Art of Oaxaca, México,” the exhibition will run through April 27.


In 1953, William and Evelyn Ward visited Oaxaca, México, for the first time on their honeymoon.  They were enchanted by the region’s rugged landscape and its native people, whose way of life included a strong folk art tradition.  The Wards made more than 20 trips to the region together, photographing and interviewing local artisans and collecting their work.  William, who worked as director of design at the Cleveland Museum of Art and a professor at the Cleveland Institute of Art, continued to visit Oaxaca even after Evelyn died in 1989.


The Wards’ collection of folk art passed to The Cleveland Museum of Natural History after William’s death in June 2004 and was accessioned in the summer of 2005.  Selections from this collection, accompanied by the Wards’ photographs, will be on display in the Museum’s Corning Gallery.


Organized by Cultural Anthropology Curator Adriann Balok and Museum intern Christine Salsgiver, the exhibition features several folk art forms of this Mexican region and demonstrates how they have endured over time. Many of the artists whose work is highlighted attained national and international reputations in the years following the Wards’ visits.


Oaxaca is renowned for its ceramics, and several examples will be on display.  Specific styles are handed down from one generation to the next.  Terracotta figurines and green pottery from the village of Santa Maria Atzompa show the influences of the native Zapotec and later Spanish cultures.  Black pottery from the village of Coyotepec is made from dark clay that is fired under conditions promoting an oxidative reaction that further darkens it.


Visitors will probably recognize “chia” pottery – sculptures of rams, goats, deer and angels – but may be surprised to learn its heritage.  The chia plant is a type of salvia that was eaten by Aztec warriors for strength.


Woodcarving is another Oaxacan specialty.  The village of Arrazola, which lies in the foothills of Monte Alban, is home to numerous skilled carvers.  Among the most famous of them is Manuel Jimenez, whose carving of a kneeling red bull is included in this exhibition.


Elsewhere in Oaxaca, craftspeople specialize in carving figures for the Day of the Dead.  Several examples of these skeletal figures (called calveras) will be on display.  Families bring out these figures, usually as part of an altar, on November 1 and 2 to entice the souls of the deceased to return home for a celebration, then continue on to the spirit world.


The exhibition also highlights textiles, including examples of traditional clothing, such as the huipal and rebozo, as well as blankets and rugs.  Traditionally, weaving was done either with cotton or a fiber called ixtle, derived from the maguey plant, on a backstrap loom. Dyes were made from plants and insects, including the cochineal beetle, whose larvae create a vibrant red dye.


After colonization in the 1500s, the Spanish upright treadle loom and wool came into general use, and Catholic imagery was incorporated into weaving patterns and garment embellishments.  Eventually, natural dyes were replaced by aniline dyes. (However, in recent times, there as been renewed interest in natural dyes.)


“Vibrancy of Tradition” is a testament to the creative skills of the Oaxacan people and their determination to hold on to their heritage in spite of a changing world.


“Vibrancy of Traditon:  Folk Art of Oaxaca, Mexico” is included in the Museum’s admission fee:  $9 adults; $7 ages 7-18, college students with IDs and seniors 60 years of age or older; $6 children 3-6. Group rates for 12 or more are also available.  Shafran Planetarium shows are $4 per person with admission. Museum members receive free admission to the Museum and planetarium.


The Cleveland Museum of Natural History is located at 1 Wade Oval Drive in University Circle, 15 minutes east of downtown Cleveland.  Museum hours are:  Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. and Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Paid parking is available in the Museum’s lot for $2 per hour or $15 per day maximum when purchasing general admission.  For more information, call (216) 231-4600 or 800-317-9155.  Visit the Museum’s Web site at www.cmnh.org. 









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