One day, a Fiesta-themed face covering or pandemic-mandated mask seen on the street might become part of the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA) collection.

If this idea sounds far-fetched, consider that many of the fanciful masks on display in the museum’s Latin American Popular Art gallery were “danced,” or worn during traditional festivities in Guatemala, Bolivia, and the Gran Fiesta of Chiapas, as part of the normal life of the cultures from which they came.

The masks are featured among 140 objects in the collection, which has been reinstalled after a three-year hiatus by Latin American Art Curator Lucia Abramovich, and opens to the public Sept. 12.

She included masks made as tourist souvenirs alongside the ceremonial masks prized by collectors “as a way to show that masks can be valid forms of art in any form,” and as a way to define the gallery’s new name.

Dog Mask, artist unknown, ca. 1978 Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Though around 75 percent of the objects from the previously installed folk art collection remain in the redesigned gallery, the “folk art” term is based on European tradition. “The concept of arte popular in Latin America really was born out of Latin America itself,” Abramovich said.

In renaming the gallery using the term “popular” – intentionally for its bilingual meanings – she said she “wanted to honor that history and have people look into that history more thoughtfully.”

The reinstallation was Abramovich’s first priority when she was hired in March 2019, replacing Marion Oettinger, SAMA’s longtime Latin American art curator. Out of necessity was born an opportunity to rethink how the objects can be regarded, in “a reinterpreted gallery, or a reimagined gallery … reinvigorated … refreshed,” she said.

While Abramovich admits she is new to the field of Latin American popular art, she thought she could bring a fresh perspective to the project while staying “faithful to the objects that San Antonians really love and wanted to see again.”

“Greatest hits” like the large concrete Brahma Bull by Elisio Alvarado remain, now paired with a growling Bear by Felipe Benito Archuleta. Both worked in the trades before becoming artists, Archuleta to supplement his carpentry income and Alvarado to find meaning after retiring as a groundskeeper for the City of San Antonio.

The Latin American Popular Art gallery at the San Antonio Museum of Art features approximately 140 pieces, and the overall collection comprises close to 8,000 works. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Other objects on display were not originally intended to hang in museums but to attract business. An iron sign for a Barcelona butcher’s shop from the early 20th century drew the attention of collector Peter Cecere, who in Oettinger’s telling rescued it from being thrown away during a tour to buy examples of Iberian popular art, Abramovich said.

Though the reinstallation did not allow for it, the eyes of the bull light up when electrically wired, as do the ornately rendered flowers ringing the edge of the 8-foot-long sign, she said.

In that sense, the reinstalled gallery follows museum protocols, with objects once animated by their communities safely set behind Plexiglas cases. Outsize Alebrijes by Mexico City artisan Pedro Linares look ready to break through their transparent barrier, possibly to rejoin the many smaller souvenir versions that populate stores in Market Square and elsewhere, unsigned by their makers as are many popular art objects.

Alebrijes, Pedro Linares, 1968 Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Other objects tell stories of diverse communities across Latin America in cartoon-like paintings, papier-mâché sculptures, lotería cards, and toys. Several objects date back to the late 18th century, but the majority represent the period after 1920, when a post-Mexican Revolution movement arose to promote a new national unity.

The movement “promoted popular art as the essence of Mexico’s national identity,” an explanatory placard in the exhibition reads, though at the expense of recognizing the names of many individual artisans along with their work.

Two well-known figures stand in the back gallery. Large ceramic figurines of revered revolutionaries Venustiano Carranza and Emiliano Zapata stand together under Plexiglas as if in conversation.

From one angle, the eyes of the baroquely-dressed Zapata appear to gaze directly into the eyes of the viewer, with a plain terra cotta Tree of Death and a florid Tree of Life anchoring the back wall visible behind him, as though encompassing the scope of Latin American traditions and expressions.

Latin American Popular Art is a permanent exhibition, opening to the public Sept. 12 with pandemic safety protocols in place for museum visitors. Tickets for timed visits are available online or in the museum lobby, and face coverings are required for entry.

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Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...