Óscar Soteno Elías, “Artisan Tree of Ibéroamerica” (2012), molded clay, modeled with raised clay applications, and polychrome in
cold. Metepec, Estado de Mexico, Mexico (image Courtesy of Fomento Cultural Banamex, A.C.)

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.

Leonardo Linares Vargas, Skull (2001), wire and papier-mâché, modeled and polychromed. Mexico City, Federal District, Mexico.
(image Courtesy of Fomento Cultural Banamex, A.C.)

Cecilia Vargas, “Pitalito Express, Eustorgio Inchima and Yorleny’s Wedding” (2007), modeled with clay with applique and
polychromed after firing. Pitalito, Huila, Colombia (image Courtesy of Fomento Cultural Banamex, A.C.)

Artists Mary, Victoria and Marcia Vásconez Roldán. Quito, Ecuador. (image Courtesy of Fomento Cultural Banamex, A.C.)

Manuel Jimenez Ramirez, “Feline” (2001), carved and polychromed wood. San Antonio Arrazola, Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán, Oaxaca,
Mexico. Coll. (image Courtesy of Fomento Cultural Banamex, A.C.)

Miguel Caraballo García, Mask (2011), molded, modeled, and polychromed papier-mâché Santo. Tomás, Ponce, Puerto Rico. (image Courtesy of Fomento Cultural Banamex, A.C.)

. Isabel Mendes da Cunha, “Bride” (2008), hand-shaped and modeled clay, with appliqué, smoothed, with slip & incised. Santana do Araçuaí, Vale do Jequintinhonha, Ponto dos Volantes, Minas Gerais, Brazil (image Courtesy of Fomento Cultural Banamex, A.C.)

. Manoel Gomes Da Silva Nuca, “Lion” (2011), modeled clay, smoothed, with appliqué and varnished. Tracunhaém, Pernambuco,
Brazil. Coll. Fomento Cultural Banamex, A.C. (image Courtesy of Fomento Cultural Banamex, A.C.)

Artist Cecilia Vargas Muñoz. Pitalito, Huila, Colombia (image Courtesy of Fomento Cultural Banamex, A.C.)

Silvano Aguirre Tejeda and Francisco Aguirre Tejeda. Jalostotitlán, Jalisco, Mexico (image Courtesy of Fomento Cultural
Banamex, A.C.)

. Francisco Aguirre Tejeda, Chest on cabinet (2000) carved, assembled and inlaid wood. Jalostotitlán, Jalisco, Mexico (image
Courtesy of Fomento Cultural Banamex, A.C.)

Dora Panduro Silvano, “Mucahua (effigy vessel)” (2009), clay thrown on a wheel, modeled, decorated with natural earth tones,
varnished with pitch. Shipibo, Amazonía, Peru. Coll. Fomento Cultural Banamex, A.C. (image Courtesy of Fomento Cultural Banamex, A.C.)

. Manuel Eudócio Rodrigues, “Couple Riding an Ox” (2008), modeled clay, polychromed after firing. Alto do Moura, Caruaru,
Pernambuco, Brazil (image Courtesy of Fomento Cultural Banamex, A.C.)

Medardo de Jesús Suárez, Vueltiao Hat (2007), natural and dyed strips of caña flecha, woven in bands and stitched. Tuchín,
Córdoba, Colombia (image Courtesy of Fomento Cultural Banamex, A.C.)

Medardo de Jesus Suarez, Tuchín, Córdoba, Colombia (image Courtesy of Fomento Cultural Banamex, A.C.)

Grandes Maestros: Great Masters of Iberoamerican Folk Art continues at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (900 Exposition Boulevard, University Park, Los Angeles)

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Laura C. Mallonee

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...