Folkloric Encounter between Loíza-Zürich
2012. Christinger de Mayo, Zürich, Switzerland
For his participation in the First Tropical Biennial in the village of Loíza, Puerto Rico, Negrón carved a series of coconut masks (copied from the traditional masks made by the descendants of African slaves in the town) and installed them on a palm tree in the beach. The Vejigante Palm Tree was awarded the Golden Pineapple award for best artist of the biennial and an invitation to do a show at Christinger de Mayo in Zürich. The exhibition was conceived as a pavilion for Loíza, mixing original works, ready mades, commissioned masks and traditional food. The photograph documenting the biennial's intervention were framed in a carved and lacquered wood panel, a popular craft in disuse mainly taught in prisons nowadays. Other works included a series of ink and crayon drawings that confront Loíza’s traditions with images of Switzerland’s folkloric traditions that circulate through the media; a drum used to play ‘Bomba’ -a traditional rhythm from Loíza- and a double video projection of videos found on the Internet. One projection shows people from Loíza playing ‘Bomba’ drums, played simultaneously with videos of Swiss people playing the Alphorn, a traditional instrument. By playing both videos concurrently, a new musical rhythm is created by the overlapping both traditions. The idea of the exhibition is that the Folkloric Encounter will continue in Loíza, with Negrón exhibiting the results of his research on Swiss folklore.
"In his article ‘Art in Puerto Rico’, published in The Art Gallery Magazine in December 1967, New York art critic Jay Jacobs presented a condescending and paternalistic view of his understanding of the art context of the island. The picture he presented was quite pathetic: a lack of market and institutional support, with artists in Puerto Rico divided between the desire to be international and the need to auto exoticise themselves in order to have their work bought by the tourist market. Jacobs concluded that the Puerto Rican artist was “better off economically if he allows himself to be regarded patronizingly as an exotic, a manufacturer of souvenirs.” He also quoted an American expatriate on the island who affirmed: “the only native culture this place has ever had is carving coconut masks.”
On December 2011, for his participation in the First Bienal Tropical, which took place in the seaside near the village of Loiza in Puerto Rico, artist Jesús "Bubu" Negrón carved a series of coconut masks which he copied from the traditional masks made by the descendants of African slaves in the town. Negrón learned from a youtube video the secrets of mask carving. He had previously tried without success to convince a master artisan to teach him how to make the masks, but the artisan had refused to. Once Negrón had carved and painted his own coconut masks, he proceeded to install them over coconuts on palm trees. With this, he returned nature (the coconuts), which had been transformed into culture (the masks), back to its origins. There was also an irony on having a coconut mask being used as a mask for a coconut in a palm tree. For this work, he was received the Golden Pineapple award for best artist of the biennial. The award included the invitation to do this exhibition in Zurich at Christinger de Mayo.
Loiza coconut masks are made traditionally by skilled hand craftsmen, with the knowledge passed from generation to generation. Still, as with many other traditional crafts of the island, the number of people who posses this knowledge is quickly disappearing and the new generations are not interested in learning these techniques and continuing the tradition. Coconut masks are used during the feasts of Santiago Apostol (St. James) which last for a week during the month of July. The coconut masks represent evil devils, forefathers who come back from the past to celebrate with their descendants the harvesting of the crops. Today the devils are also seen by some as figures of resistance to colonialism and imperialism.
For this exhibition in Zurich, Negrón found a master coconut carver, Wicelino ‘Celele’ Pizarro, who was willing to collaborate with him. Negrón commissioned him to create new masks. In the same way that Duchamp transformed the urinal into an art work by presenting it within an exhibition space, the new masks function as tropical ready-mades. In exhibiting the masks inside the white space of an art gallery, Negrón erases the traditional distinctions between folk and high art, between artisans and artist. As Walter Benjamin wrote in ‘Some Remarks on Folk Art’ his 1929 unpublished text: "Art teaches us to see into things. Folk art and kitsch allow us to see outward from within things”. In this way, wearing the coconut masks allows us to become the other, see outwards, and in doing this action destabilise notions of contemporary art. In 2006 Negrón performed a similar operation as part of his project Honoris Causa, for the Whitney Biennale in New York. There he introduced inside the lobby of the museum, for the duration of the exhibition, two activities that normally happen outside the Whitney every day: a cart selling hot dogs, and a stall selling African masks. With this operation Negrón questioned conventions of what is normally excluded from institutional culture and what should be allowed inside the museum."