El Museo del Barrio has a wonderfully diverse collection of Caribbean and Latin American folk arts comprised of over five hundred secular and religious objects. These artifacts have been created in a broad range of materials and techniques. The most important ensembles in the Collection are the santos de palo and masks. Santos are carved wooden images of the saints of popular Catholicism. The santos de palo collection includes three hundred and sixty examples. El Museo’s holdings have, for the most part, been created by Puerto Rican artisans, traditional carvers or santeros, who worked in rural, pre-industrial areas between 1850 and 1940. El Museo’s collection is of national significance; in the United States, it is second only to the Vidal collection of The Smithsonian Institution.
The majority of the objects in the Permanent Collection have been created in the past one hundred years and are considered “folk arts,” as they belong to traditions preserved by the informal transmission of knowledge from one generation to another within the communities that create them. Other items, however, which are now assembled under the rubric of Popular Traditions, did not evolve in this manner. They are works invented by artists that bear witness to idiosyncratic styles, media, and symbolism. Such is the case of the shiny beasts created by Gregorio Marzán, who worked in East Harlem, New York, or the colorful wooden gallos (fighting roosters) carved by Emilio Rosado Méndez, in Puerto Rico. Finally, utilitarian objects, epitomes of vernacular design, created with ingenuity and resourcefulness by individuals who do not even consider themselves artists, are also part of these holdings. A wonderful example is the piragua cart, used to sell a cool drink made of shaved iced with flavorful, colored syrup.
It consists of a wooden box painted yellow, with handwritten announcements of flavors and prices, mounted on the wheeled chassis of a baby carriage. El Museo also collects objects made out of gourds: a seemingly humble, but extremely important medium of vernacular design, and artistry. These document the various manners in which gourds can be transformed, at certain times turned into musical instruments such as the maracas or the güiros; and at others turned into water cups, such as the jícaras of Guatemala.
El Museo del Barrio’s Permanent Collection of masks numbers nearly one hundred, consisting of primarily Mexican, Guatemalan, and Puerto Rican examples. Open to astounding creativity and permutations, masks are usually one part of a costume used in both religious and secular collective festivities. Perhaps the most important aspect of masks is that they are facilitators: individuals use masks to masquerade, for social and religious ritual performances, and with dance and music. Both Meso-america and South America had strong pre-Columbian traditions of mask-making. Under Spanish colonial rule, long-standing indigenous practices were blended with those of the Catholic colonizers, forcibly merging diverse cultural systems. Carved in wood and painted, or molded with papier-mâché, Mexican and Guatemalan masks, such as those in the collection, often represent animals, religious and historical figures, or ethnic types. From Puerto Rico, El Museo has a good number of the celebrated vejigante masks of both Ponce and Loíza Aldea. These horned masks are used during specific celebrations, such as Carnival. They combine both animal and demonic characteristics, and allow their wearers to remain anonymous during the festivities, a once-a-year radical break from social norms of behavior.
SANTOS DE PALO
In addition to the holdings of Santos de palo and masks, textiles are also represented in the Permanent Collection of Popular Traditions at El Museo del Barrio. These are typically the product of the intense labor of highly skilled women. Among the textiles in the museum’s collection are blankets, coverlets, pants and shirts (made out of cotton and wool, and loom-woven in Mexico and Guatemala); the Puerto Rican mundillo, a delicate lace fabricated by the criss-crossing of individual threads with the aid of bobbins; and the vibrant molas of the Kuna of Panama, who employ a special embroidery and cut¬out technique to create abstract and figurative images to sew onto their blouses. Patchwork and embroidery are used by Chilean women to create wall hangings known as arpilleras that protest the political repression in their country. From Haiti, Vodun flags consist of a piece of nylon embroidered with thousands of sequins and beads, forming shimmering images of great religious significance. The collection of Vodun flags is outstanding and includes several created by Antoine Oleyant, a celebrated master of the genre. El Museo also has select ceremonial objects pertinent to other Afro-Caribbean religions, including Santería, or Orisha worship, in its holdings.