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Museum of Culture and Environment

Mexican Folk Art Spotlighted in New Exhibition at CWU

A unique collection of Mexican folk art, known as retablos and ex-votos, is now on display in Central Washington University’s Museum of Culture and Environment in Black Hall.

The art is part of a collection amassed by Antonio Sanchez, assistant director of government relations at Central Washington University. Retablos and ex-votos are religious images that are hand-painted by untrained artists on small, tin sheets.

Three-dozen pieces from Sanchez’s collection will be exhibited from April 7 until June 11. An opening reception will be held at the museum on Thursday, April 7, at 6:00 p.m. for the exhibition, which is called, “Miracles of Mexican Folk Art, Retablos and Ex-Votos.”

Sanchez, who has a PhD in anthropology, said he became attracted to the art form because of its significance to both the largely anonymous artists who created them as well as to the people who placed them in their homes.

“I started collecting in high school in 1970, and would save my money from picking and selling apples,” Sanchez said. “I continued my collecting and would travel into Mexico in search of these treasures. In those days, however, they were not considered treasures.”

Sanchez said he was particularly interested in these folk depictions of religious figures “because they were made by the common craftsman for common people to use in their everyday pleas for hope, health, wealth, protection from evil, and all of the mundane caveats of life.”

In addition to loaning part of his art collection for the exhibit, Sanchez, a former faculty member in the Department of American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington, also contributed an essay on the history and cultural significance of Mexican folk art in the catalog for the show.

“As coveted objects of veneration, retablos were an integral and intimate part of the Mexican family,” Sanchez noted in his essay. “They are the testimony of faith of the individual, his community, and the entire Mexican nation.”

Sanchez said retablos were produced in large numbers by Mexican artists from the late 18th century until the early 20th century. They were usually painted in oil on recycled tin sheets that had originally been made for use as ceiling tiles and for other commercial purposes.

Retablos usually depict just a deity or saint while ex-votos contain images of an event which the persons is asking for a miracle or thanking the saint or deity for an answer to their prayers.  The ex-votos will vary widely in their themes while the retablos will depict the saint or deity almost the same each time.

Growing up in New Mexico, Sanchez said he was surrounded by the art in his family’s home. He described his mother as the “keeper of the saints” and said she regularly “would nurture and pray to each and every image.”

He said it was from his mother that he learned the traditions surrounding the images, which inspired him to want to know more about their history and meaning.

“I became interested in how they were made, why particular images were more common, in what ways these special folk images deviated from the high art found in the churches and cathedrals, and how they became ‘Mexicanized’ by local craftspeople,” he said. “Their story is unique, distinctly Mexican/Mestizo, and hold the key to better understanding this one special part of Mexican history.”

Over the years Sanchez has acquired approximately 500 retablos and ex-votos. His complete collection numbers nearly 3,000 artifacts, including milagros (folk charms), rosary beads, and a 17th century missal (a book of prayers and instructions used during the Catholic liturgical year).

Sanchez said his hope for the show is that students, especially those of Latin heritage, will see their history and heritage taken seriously, in a museum setting.

“I wanted to bring this world-class teaching exhibition to CWU to help leave a footprint on our mission to develop a world-class education at Central,” he said. “It’s a way to build the Latino/Latina culture into the very DNA of this campus, so all students can learn and appreciate it.”

For more information about the exhibition, contact Lynn A. Bethke, collections manager, Museum of Culture and Environment, 509-963-2313, bethkel@cwu.edu.

Media contact: Rich Moreno, director of content development, 509-963-2714, richardmo@cwu.edu.
 

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