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November 6, 2005 – April 23, 2006

Explore the revelry of Carnival festivals as they are enacted today in eight different geographic and cultural regions. This lavish exhibition presents approximately fifty elaborate costumes and numerous masks reflecting a range of masquerade and performance themes that represent traditions in these sites: Laza, Spain; Venice, Italy; Basel, Switzerland; Oruro, Bolivia; Tlaxcala, Mexico; Recife/Olinda, Brazil; Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago; and New Orleans. These unique celebrations and rituals are brought to life through photographic murals and short video programs of recent Carnival festivities in these locales, allowing you to explore the history and evolution and experience the sights and sounds of this vital celebration.

Exhibition in Depth

In Tlaxcala, Mexico, rural Indians dance through village streets in pearly pink-skin masks, sequined capes and feathered headdresses, imitating once-dominant Spanish and Mexican ranchers. In Basel, Switzerland, members of an outspoken community group masquerade as “U.S. Mouse Marshals” in protest of a U.S. proposal regulating the size of holes in imported Swiss cheese. In a pigeon-filled piazza in Venice, Italy, a man in a fake wig and fussy, ruffled 18th-century finery turns toward the camera and strikes an aristocratic pose.

Every year before the Catholic season of Lent and the arrival of spring, remarkable scenes like these are recreated worldwide. Individuals and communities honor the past and celebrate the present by playing out historical fantasies, making social and political commentaries on contemporary issues, and reveling in the fun of coming together — all in the spirit of the cherished global tradition of Carnival. These celebration are the subject of the multimedia exhibition ¡Carnaval!

The exhibition transports viewers to eight rural and urban locations in Europe and the Americas where Carnival is among the most important occasions of the year:

  • Laza, Spain
  • Venice, Italy
  • Basel, Switzerland
  • Recife/Olinda, Brazil
  • Tlaxcala, Mexico
  • Oruru, Bolivia
  • Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago
  • New Orleans, U.S.A.

¡Carnaval! is a 10,000-square-foot excursion into the folklore, fantasy and festivity of modern-day Carnival celebrations in places where the Carnival spirit is deeply rooted in cultural history, tradition and identity. Combining 49 colorful costumes with 15 short video programs and 80 large-scale photomurals shot on location, the exhibition recreates the Carnival experience as viewers are immersed in an atmosphere of motion, color, music and sound.

The multinational focus of this exhibition is expressed by the use of the Spanish spelling for the exhibition title, and by the global nature of the show’s design. Each Carnival site is presented as its own section, featuring articulated mannequins in costumes that portray the community’s cultural history and the vibrancy of the celebration today. The mannequins stand before photomural backdrops that capture the cityscapes and rural environs of the sites. Video monitors with two video programs per section bring the thrilling drama of Carnival to life.

Origins of Carnival: Ritual, Masquerade, Play and Renewal

Carnival began in Europe in the Middle Ages to mark the coming of Lent, when Catholics abstain from meat and other means of sin and vice. The name for the event was derived from the Latin term, carnem-levare — “to remove oneself from meat.”

In the next few centuries, as the celebration spread throughout Europe, the name was shortened to the Italian Carnevale, meaning “flesh farewell.” By the 18th century, European adventurers had transplanted the Carnival tradition to the New World. Wherever it spread, Carnival absorbed elements of other cultural festival traditions and was translated into the language of its new home: Carnaval in Spanish and Portuguese, Carnival in English, Mardi Gras in French, and in German, Karneval or Fasching.

Though Carnival began in acknowledgement of a religious event, the celebration eventually became more secular and egalitarian, incorporating traditional festivities related to the seasonal transition from winter to spring, and inviting all ages and social classes to take part. Whether rich or poor, old or young, Carnival was a time for everyone in the community to let loose by joining in various forms of ritual, play and masquerade. In donning outrageous disguises, playing rowdy games and engaging in all-out revelry, communities were bonded and individuals uplifted through the shared sense of exhilaration and renewal that the Carnival experience inspired.

Carnival Around the World Today

By the 19th century, Carnival celebrations around the world were structured civic affairs whose distinct forms of ritual, masquerade and play gave rise to the cherished Carnival customs these communities are known for today. The exhibition ‘¡Carnaval!’ displays a range of masquerade and performance themes that illuminate the cultural history, identity — and even the special characters — that distinguish each site.

In rural Laza, Spain, and Tlaxcala, Mexico, Carnival customs remain closely tied to the arrival of spring. Masquerading peliqueiros in Laza, wearing ornate costumes and masks said to derive from the 16th-century dress of tax collectors, run through town whipping residents to remind them it is time to play. Revelers also ritualize aggression, throwing ashes, flour, water and dirt filled with ants. A morena, or brown cow masquerader in a carved wooden mask, appears amidst the ant throwing to butt people, lift women’s skirts and add to the chaos.

The Nahuatl Indians of Tlaxcala, disguised as wealthy Spanish and Mexican charros, furiously crack long whips to simulate the sound of thunder in a symbolic petition for rain, fertility, and the community’s well being in the coming spring. In other Tlaxcalan villages, young men masquerade as chivarrudos, imitating working class, late-19th-century Mexican cattlemen wearing chaps made from the hides of goats, or chivos. The masquerade is a way that the Indians make fun of cowboys who often stopped in town for supplies.

Carnival came to an end in the early 20th century in Venice, Italy, after government and religious officials criticized the excessive nature of the event. But it was revived in the 1980s with all the pomp and flourish of the Renaissance era, featuring costumed counts, Harlequins and Pierrots who float through fog in festooned gondolas along the city’s famous canals.

Similarly, in 17th-century Oruro, Bolivia, Catholic priests who accompanied Spanish settlers hoped to repress the native Aymara and Quechua peoples’ reverence for Supay, the Andean god of the underworld. The priests viewed Supay as the devil in disguise, prompting the natives to mock the religious directive by disguising themselves in brilliantly colored masks of big-eyed, long-horned diablos, or devils, which remains a popular Carnival costume today. Other masqueraders known as morenos emulate enslaved Africans who worked beside Indian laborers in the Bolivian mines and on lowland plantations. Their elaborate embroidered barrel-shaped costumes are believed to symbolize the richness and weight of the silver extracted by the slaves in the mines. The morenas also carry matracas, or noisemakers, whose creaking noise is said to imitate the sound of chains dragging behind the slaves’ feet.

African slavery is also a strong Carnival theme in the Brazilian cities of Recife and Olinda. There Afro-Brazilians re-create 18th- and 19th-century performances that took place on rural sugar plantations where enslaved Africans worked alongside Brazilian Indians. Groups known as maracatu de baque solto dance to loose rhythms played by small orchestras. Spectacular figures known as caboclos de lanca, or Afro-Indian lancers, represent warriors possessed by Amerindian or African spirits. Wearing large cowbells and carrying long lances, they dance, leap, drop to the ground and sometimes duel with one another.

In Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago — where Carnival is known as Mas — modern-day Afro-Trinidadians masquerade as simple devil figures and elaborate devil “rulers” clad in large papier-mâché masks and ornate costumes with capes. The rulers have names such as Satan, Lucifer and the Bookman, who carries a book to record the sins of the people of Trinidad. Another important Carnival activity is the crowning of a King and Queen, who dance across the stage in ornate costumes highlighting a chosen theme. Costumes often integrate sophisticated technology—like pyrotechnics and enormous, wheeled armatures—to lend their performance special effects.

Perhaps more than anywhere, the communities of Basel, Switzerland, and New Orleans, U.S.A., stay true to the 19th-century transformation of Carnival to structured celebrations where tight-knit community groups and societies began representing themselves with costumes, floats and other public displays.

In Basel, where Carnival is known in Swiss-German as Fasnacht, members of work guilds form Carnival “cliques” and design costumes, elaborate lanterns and other props around a theme that criticizes or otherwise comments upon current political or social issues. Favorite Basel characters include the mischievous, confetti-carrying Waggis, whose large teeth and bulbous nose stereotypes the French Alsatian farmers who once sold their produce in Basel street markets. The elegant Alti Dante, or old aunt, wears a pointed nose, gray wig and straw hat adorned with feathers, flowers, or even a small bird. She offers revelers gifts from her purse: a spray of perfume, hard candies or a sip of spirits.

At Carnival in New Orleans, famously known as Mardi Gras, societies called krewes build massive floats, host elegant balls and commission expensive costumes. However, the krewes, which are generally formed along social and racial lines, express themselves in very different ways — from the white society of Rex that sponsors the Mardi Gras royal who parades through the streets on an elaborate throne with a scepter and crown, to members of the working-class African-American Krewe of Zulu, who protest black stereotypes by dressing in black face and grass skirts and throw coconuts into the crowd.

The Art of Costume

While capturing diverse cultural histories, these costumes also display masterful artistic expression and skill. Carnival costumes and masks are usually made in small workshops run by mask makers and seamstresses, or by the organizers of a Carnival troupe. In many communities, the costumes are rented out during festival time. In New Orleans, where large groups create new masquerade themes each year, costumes are commissioned and purchased from master costumers. Often, they are worn for one day, then destroyed. When Mardi Gras is over, costumers start designs for the next year.

The nearly 50 ensembles acquired for ‘¡Carnaval!’ by Barbara Mauldin, curator of Latin American Collections at Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art, came either directly from the masquerader who wore the costume or the individual who made it. “I wanted used costumes and masks so that I could be sure they were authentic,” says Mauldin.

Among the highlights of the handpicked costumes that will be on display is a child’s Mardi Gras costume made by Darryl Montana, a member of one of New Orleans’ most famous families of costumers. Montana’s father, Alliston “Tootie” Montana, is an acclaimed master costumer whose exquisitely detailed handmade costumes feature thousands of colorful beads, feathers and rhinestones. Darryl Montana shares his father’s talents in making ornate masquerades for the mythical Black Indian tribe, the Yellow Pocahontas.

Another classic is a “Doctor of the Plague” costume and mask from Venice, Italy. The disguise —a black dress and hat, white gloves and a mask with a long, bird-like nose — imitates the bizarre outfit donned by a famous 17th-century French doctor as a sanitary precaution before visiting plague patients.

From Basel, Switzerland, comes a large cloth lantern painted with an image of Uncle Sam examining the size of a hole in a piece of Swiss cheese. In 2001, members of the city’s Rätz-clique carried the lantern as a mocking criticism of a U.S. proposal to regulate the size of holes in imported Swiss cheese.

Finally, a sequin-studded Queen’s gown from the Recife/Olinda area of northeastern Brazil is a colorful and costly example of prized costumes worn by female leaders of Afro-Brazilian groups known as the maracatu nacao. Maracatu members make large financial investments in their costumes to parade proudly at Carnival in memory of royal pageants performed on 18th- and 19th-century rural sugar plantations.

Press Release


Exhibition Credits

This exhibition has been organized by the Museum of International Folk Art (MOIFA), Santa Fe, in collaboration with the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History. It was curated by Barbara Mauldin, Curator of Latin American Folk Art, MOIFA. Major funding has been provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, International Folk Art Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Neutrogena Corporation, and Museum of New Mexico Foundation. The Los Angeles presentation and its educational programs are made possible by the Donald B. Cordry Memorial Fund; Shirley and Ralph Shapiro Director’s Discretionary Fund; Neutrogena Corporation; Yvonne Lenart Public Programs Fund; Jerome Joss Endowment Fund; Dana Foundation; Office of the Dean, School of the Arts and Architecture; and Manus, the support group of the Fowler Museum. iCarnaval! partners include the Consulate General of Switzerland, Los Angeles, including Swiss Roots; Italian Cultural Institute in Los Angeles; Tourist Office of Spain; Consulate General of Brazil in Los Angeles; the departments of Ethnomusicology and World Arts and Cultures and the Latin American Center at UCLA. Special thanks to Playa Digital Media,, Varig Brazilian Airlines, and local media sponsor 89.9 KCRW.

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