UCLA Spotlight

iCarnaval! at the Fowler

  • By Jack Feuer
  • Published Oct 1, 2005 8:00 AM

The music throbs, the night shines, the colors dazzle. Can this be Heidi's Switzerland?

Indeed, it is, at “¡Carnaval!,” an imaginative excursion into the folklore, fantasy and festivity of modern-day Carnival celebrations around the world at the Fowler Museum of Cultural History. The exhibition kicks off Nov. 6 and runs through April 23, 2006.

Transport yourself to the fantastic, to eight rural and urban locations in Europe and the Americas where, each year before Lent and the arrival of spring, the past is honored and the present is feted in Carnival (the Spanish and Portuguese call it Carnaval), celebrated globally for hundreds of years.

Watch rural Indians dance through village streets in Tlaxcala, Mexico, wearing pearly pink-skin masks, sequined capes and feathered headdresses. See a man in a fake wig and fussy, ruffled 18th-century finery strike an aristocratic pose in a pigeon-filled piazza in Venice, Italy. And laugh at Swiss protesters masquerading as “U.S. Mouse Marshals” at a Carnival in Basel, Switzerland, demonstrating against a U.S. proposal to regulate the size of holes in imported Swiss cheese.

“I thought it would be interesting for people to see the origins of Carnival, which really began in Italy and other parts of Europe, and how it plays out in other parts of the world,” observed Barbara Mauldin, the curator of the exhibition and the Latin American Collections at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Fowler visitors also will see Carnivals in Recife/Olinda, Brazil; Oruro, Bolivia; Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago; and New Orleans, perhaps bittersweet in retrospect.

This remarkable exhibition was more than a decade in the making. The idea, Mauldin recalled, was to “go into the new millennium looking at the same festival as it manifests in different communities. It's tied into the Catholic religion, but it really is a secular festival.”

It originated in the Middle Ages to mark the advent of Lent, when Catholics abstained from meat as well as acts of sin and violence. Carnival, in fact, is derived from the Latin carnem levare — “to remove oneself from meat.”

Over the next few centuries, the festival spread throughout the Continent; in the process its name was shortened to the Italian Carnevale, meaning “flesh farewell.” By the 18th century, European adventurers had brought the gala (Mardi Gras in French) to the New World. It grew more secular and egalitarian, incorporating other traditional rites of spring as well as participants of all ages and social classes, and eventually social and political themes.

Mauldin said the hardest part in creating “¡Carnaval!” — with all of its rituals, masquerade and play — was narrowing down the hundreds of celebrations to a manageable eight. In Europe alone, more than 40 separate festivals were considered.Even with that limitation, “¡Carnaval!” offers a brilliant spectrum of color with a display of nearly 50 different ensembles. There are also three consecutive photography exhibits in the museum's Goldenberg Galleria, where visitors can view the galas of Venice; Guinea Bissau, Africa; the Black Forest in Germany; the Canary Islands; and even Mobile, Ala. There will be mask and headdress-making classes for kids and a World of Art Family Workshop featuring Samba music and dance. Then on April 8, 2006, Carnaval UCLA will take place, with a parade across campus.

Probably the most touching tribute will come Dec. 1 when actor, satirist, musician, UCLA alumnus and Carnival aficionado Harry Shearer will celebrate the enduring legacy of New Orleans and Mardi Gras in a concert to benefit the Hurricane Katrina relief effort.

“I have some good friends there who are suffering,” Mauldin said. The exhibition had been slated to travel next year to the New Orleans Museum of Art. “The director called me a week after Katrina,” she said. “I thought they were canceling their slot.” Instead, he said the show would go on next fall. “We're going to use it to reopen our museum,” he told her.


Carnival masqueraders in Venice, Italy, 2001. Photo by David and Shirley Rowen
Copyright © Fowler Museum of Cultural History


Chivarrudo, Tlaxcala, Mexico, 1999. Photo by Barbara Mauldin
Copyright © Fowler Museum of Cultural History


Basel, Switzerland (exhibition installation). Photo by David Mayo
Copyright © Fowler Museum of Cultural History