Fiestas for the Rest of Us

“El alma de la fiesta” is Spanish for “the life of the party.” The exhibit on display at Pilsen’s National Museum of Mexican Art takes its name from that festive phrase and brings the spirit of  the 5000-plus regional feast days, numerous political holidays, and countless private quinceañeras that dot the traditional Mexican calendar to the gallery setting. But don’t think the quiet, climate-controlled  location drains the subject matter of its vivacity. Formed into strange new shapes, tinted in a million dazzling colors, the walls shiver with the promise of parties to come.

Fiestas, it is clear, are central to Mexican and Mexican-American culture. In past centuries, influences from Spain, Amerindian tribes, and Africa blended; Catholic feast days corresponded to indigenous holidays, and Afro-Mexican dances reenacted the end of slavery. A calendar in the exhibit lists some 35 major national festivals, most of which celebrate saints.

Though the exhibit is united by a single theme, there seem to be two distinct thematic currents. Some pieces–including waist masks and folk violins–serve primarily to illuminate the peoples and practices that make up Mexico’s fiesta-friendly indigenous culture. The authorship of the particular artifacts seems less important than the historical and cultural context out of which they emerged. The second current, meanwhile, is made up of pieces that seem more like self-conscious works of art than artifacts of a specific time and place.  Works by various Mexican and Chicano artists from Chicago and beyond, including Francisco Mendoza, Carmen Lomas Garza, among others, belong more to their creators than to Mexican tradition more generally. To a certain extent, the artist’s own story starts to take precedence over his culture.

After diverging for a while, high art and folk culture come back together, forming a bright, loosely stitched whole. Ceramics by contemporary Mexican-American artists sit beside traditional Mexican cooking pots, emphasizing a degree of cultural continuity that the viewer might otherwise miss. And in “100 Years: El 10 de Mayo”, a poster by Marcos Raya celebrating the history of Labor Day (or May Day) in Mexican-American Chicago, pasted images of Vladimir Lenin and Che Guevera share a frame with dancing skeletons and yellow-masked luchadores.

A lot can be gleaned from this wild array. For starters, the list of materials used becomes a tribute to human ingenuity. One male costume for a traditional Oaxacan feather dance is assembled from what looks like the contents of Josef Beuys’ junk drawer–cotton, velvet, sequins, mirrors, reed, polychrome wood, leather, tin, polyester, paper, and turkey feathers. Even MacGyver (or MacGruber), if offered these materials along with a needle and thread, would have produced something half-synthetic and flightless. But in the hands of an anonymous tailor, the parts became an eclectic, Crayola-colored whole.

At its best, the exhibit goes beyond the fiesta experience particular to Mexican and Mexican-American culture; after a while, something about the artistic representation of good times starts to seem universal. As in other organically mythological art (e.g., Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights “ or Walt Disney’s “Steamboat Willie”), when the festivities really get out of control, even the forces of nature start partying down. On the fringes of a mural by José Gómez Rosas, the animals of the forest shake, rattle, and rumba, totally unable to resist the beat. And atop one of Alejandro Nelo’s colossal puppets, the hollow-eyed skull of death–normally grayer than roadside ice–has pink cheeks and a mischievous grin.

If anything, the exhibit was not large enough. And for some, the highly visible corporate sponsorship was a little off-putting (one visitor said that he had an “Exelon time Southwest of downtown In Good Hands”). But any such weaknesses were minor when compared to the exhibit’s rich offerings. Under February skies, in a sere and bellowing city, “El Alma de la Fiesta” is a reminder that there’s always something to celebrate.

National Museum of Mexican Art, 1852 W. 19th Street, Through August 19. Tuesday  Sunday, 10am-5pm. (312)738-1503. nationalmuseumofmexicanart.org