In 1995, Cándida Fernández de Calderón embarked on a remarkable expedition to support Mexican folk art. As the director of nonprofit Fomento Cultural, she began visiting artists, buying their work, and helping them to improve their studios. She wasn’t the first person to take folk art seriously: artist Frida Kahlo collected it and even incorporated aspects of it into her own work; and many modernists also bought up American folk art or were influenced by it. But Calderón’s interest was unique in its scale. By 2013, she had expanded the program to all of Latin America and purchased at least 2,200 items.
The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is now exhibiting 1,200 of those works, representing 600 living artists from more than 260 towns in 22 countries, in Grandes Maestros: Great Masters of Iberoamerican Folk Art. Spread across 13,000 square feet, the show is a visual symphony of handmade objects that would put much of Etsy to shame. These include a papier-mache skull decorated with butterflies, a clay diorama of a bus past its occupancy limit, and a woven hat fit for Fashion Week — among many other works made from fiber, metal, leather, and various materials.
It’s hard to ignore the show’s title, which describes these works not as Latin American (an already controversial term), but as Iberoamerican — meaning they were made in countries once ruled by Spain and Portugal. Historically, fallout from colonial oppression has nourished poverty and violence, crippling strong artistic movements from blossoming in many of these places. The persistence of inherited art forms — so often dismissed as cheap tchotchkes, now given an in-depth view in this exhibit — reflects the doggedness of the creative spirit. And while contemporary folk art in Latin America doesn’t need fine-art world approval, it’s still refreshing.