Vejigantes of Puerto Rico: Origins, Myths, & Messengers


: Vejigantes of Puerto Rico: Origins, Myths and Messengers

(Panel discussion on the exhibition Dec. 7th at 3PM)

Raúl Ayala, La Buruquena, Miguel Caraballo, Danny Torres, Marina Gutiérrez, Maria Dominguez, Paola Nogueras, and Miguélàngel Ruíz

This survey exhibition brings together reinterpretations of a central figure in Puerto Rico’s culture – the Vejigante. Having evolved from a figure of mystery and mischief in carnivals and festivals in Puerto Rico, the Vejigante has developed into a symbol of cultural identity, resilience, and resistance. The artists in the exhibition  range from the traditional to the contemporary, from the basic role of vejigantes as celebratory figures to iconic messengers of personal statements.

Puerto Rico’s vejigantes (bay-he-GAHN-tay) are known for their colorful costumes with bat-like wings, the inflated animal bladders they carry, and by their masks with three or more horns. There are two distinct vejigante styles coming from two regions and two differing celebrations. One is from the city of Ponce in the South of Puerto Rico with masks made of papier-mâché, associated with the celebrations of Carnival. The second style is from the town of Loíza, far to the North, with masks made from coconuts and identified with the Feast of Santiago in late July. Both though are mysterious, mischievous characters that have become symbols of cultural identity, resilience, and resistance.

Ponce’s vejigantes have a connection with Carnival, a festival that begins in early February, just before Lent. In Carnival, the vejigantes just like in Loíza, are reveling characters that interact with the crowds and cause mischief with the inflated bladders they carry. With their characteristic snouts, sharp teeth, and multitudes of horns, Ponce’s vejigantes cast a distinctive silhouette to this internationally-celebrated festival.

In Loíza, the vejigantes represent the Muslim Moors in the Catholic festival of the Feast of Santiago. This festival, also known as the Festival of Saint James, celebrates the ouster of the Moors from Spain. In Loíza, the festival lasts three days, and its roots can be traced back to a legend of the discovery of the statue of Saint James outside of the town. Some explain their inclusion in the religious festival as a symbol of the ongoing battle of good over evil. No matter the history, Loíza’s population (primarily of African descent) views the vejigante as a strong, and unapologetic character with a history of survival and a connection to Africa that they can relate to.

This exhibition of craftsmen and contemporary artists shows how this figure that is such an integral character in these festivals has become an iconic symbol that unifies and identifies the people of Puerto Rico. These artists perceive the vejigantes from many different perspectives: as a nationalist hero; a character that brings into focus issues of Latino identity; a creature that is used as a surragate to discuss the life and death struggle of living with AIDS; a symbol that brings a community together with its visage or captures the imagination with its mystery. For these artists, the vejigante has evolved into something much more than a playful festival figure – it has become the living incarnation of the Puerto Rican spirit with all its vigor, resilience and jubilant ferocity.

The artists and artisans:

Raúl Ayala, from the town of Loíza in Puerto Rico, is an authority on the traditional Loíza style vejigante mask, characterized by caretas made from coconut shells and commonly seen with buckteeth and three horns. Ayala comes from a multi-generational family committed to maintaining the dance and music festival traditions of this region as well as its mask making art form.  In Loíza, the vejigante not only participates in carnivals but also in the Feast of St. James the Apostle (Fiestas de Santiago Apóstol) in the third week of July.  In this festival, the vejigantes are accompanied by people dressed as caballeros (knights) in recognition to the Spanish origins of the festival where they celebrate the Christian Castilians’ ouster of the Muslim Moors from Spain.  Some interpret the festival as a metaphor for the eternal battle between good and evil. The majority of Loíza’s population is of African descent and views the vejigantes not as evil, but as a link to their African heritage.  Ayala’s masks are famed for their beauty, construction, design and the large number of horns.

La Buruquena, (which is the Taíno word for the sweet water crab that lives in Puerto Rico) was born in Abington, Pennsylvania and currently works out of New York City.  He is a self-taught artist and uses the vejigante as a relatable cultural icon. Through its colors and sensibilities, the vejigante helps him connect to his Puerto Rican heritage- yet its distinctive appropriations of religious and foreign motifs also bring him into conversation with the world around him.  He describes his art-making process as a search for understanding through the exploration of our differences and similarities in all senses: individually, communally, religiously, symbolically and otherwise. His papier-mâché masks are often painted in muddied colors and incorporate surprising materials such as feathers, barbed wire, and chains.  In his manifesto, he describes his process as Surreformationism and aims to challenge perceptions and religious absolutism while confronting intolerance and ignorance.  With his methodology, he hopes to create a platform that can be uplifting to a person’s sense of self worth. (laburuquena.com)

Miguel Caraballo, from Ponce, Puerto Rico, is considered a traditional master and teacher in this region’s mask making art form. He works in the traditional Ponce-style careta (mask) papier-mâché construction with long snouts and a multitude of horns. Caraballo played an important role in resuscitating the vejigante mask making tradition when the popularity of latex and plastic masks in the 1970’s & 80’s threatened to extinguish the craft and traditional inclusion in the island’s carnivals and festivals. His masks are admired for both their aesthetics and the high quality of their craftsmanship.

Maria Dominguez was born in Puerto Rico and moved to New York City when she was four years old.  After graduating with a BFA from the School of the Visual Arts in 1985, she began working as a teacher, arts administrator, artist and muralist. In response to community changes and the increasing cost of living pushing out the Puerto Rican and Latino communities in Spanish Harlem and the Lower East Side of Manhattan, her murals with vejigante masks were placeholders and identifiers of the people living in the neighborhoods. (mariadominguez.com)

Marina Gutiérrez, born in and working out of New York City, creates art that blends studio, community and installation practices.  In the use of cultural iconography from her father’s native Puerto Rico, she acknowledges syncretism and its effects of displacing, hiding, forgetting, and reinventing of identity.  Her work is often comprised of commonly used materials, such as cans, textiles, and wire mesh. In this exhibition, Gutiérrez introduces La Vejigante, a work that is part of her “Body Mask” series, which investigates the dualities of concealment and display associated with historical narratives and constructions of identity. (marinagutierrez.com)

Paola Nogueras, born in Puerto Rico and living in Pennsylvania, is a photojournalist and author who has worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Nogueras is the photographer and publisher of Fiesta en Puerto Rico, ABC de Puerto Rico and Manos del Pueblo, Artesanos de Puerto Rico (Hands of the People, Artisans of Puerto Rico).

Miguélàngel Ruíz, born in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico and working out of New York City, is an artist who creates a contemporary mythology based around the vejigante character and his cultural heritage. Ruíz is currently working in video and performance. In his paintings and comic books, he portrays his protagonist “Awutok-Thon, El Vejigante – Luchador,” as a man transformed into a demon who uses his power to fight for justice, truth and freedom. Through fusing mythology and graphic novels, he has created a universe where he can comment on the power’s corruptive qualities and bring historical events to light in a way that is easily digested by popular culture. (miguelangelruiz.us)

Artist Danny Torres, who resides in North Philadelphia, was born in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico. He is an art teacher, political activist, and self-taught artist who is known for his paintings and murals. In his work, Torres’ vejigante assumes the role of a “freedom fighter” reflecting his political aspiration for an independent Puerto Rico. Torres’s vejigantes are strong, masculine creatures that embody his culture’s African and indigenous roots and will for survival.

Download a PDF of the exhibition handout here.

 

 

This exhibition is made possible through the generous support of:

NEA LOGO  The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts LogoPeco Logo