Maybe it’s just a post-Fiesta and CAM hangover vision, but SA seems like one big, roving party, a festival town defined by event as much as place. When people hit the streets here, they do it with gusto. But hey, it’s in our blood — part of a tradition hundreds of years old that began in small rural market towns and still gives pride to place here and further south. “¡Feria! Folk Art from Regional Fairs in Latin America,” on view now at SAMA, gives an intimate lesson on the history of the fair in Mexico and Central and South America, with a select display of rarely seen historic pieces from the museum’s collections.
Regional fairs, often coupled with religious festivals or agriculture markets, turn country towns into two- or three-day pockets of urbanity, purveying locally produced crafts and foods and trading livestock and commercial goods to crowds that come from miles around, sometimes traveling for days to enjoy juegos mecánicos (carnival rides), titeres (puppet plays), and spend their market profits on games of chance, like lotería or roulette.
The lotería cards chosen for the exhibit are hand-drawn examples of the 19th-century originals that today’s printed lotería are modeled on. Though likely made by a rural artist, the lines are deft, the varied expression of the sun or the dandy showing subtle hope or resignation, the faces of fate. Also on view is a set of large carved wood puppets, made by an unknown craftsman. Their stunned, grotesque expressions recall characters that were brought from Spain centuries ago, but whose origins trace back millennia to classical Rome.
A rough handmade roulette wheel is of recent origin, and shows a hint of Vegas. A lever thrown by the game operator can shift the ball and con the mark. Carved carousel figures on view include la sirena, the mermaid, and join toys, souvenir Ferris wheel models, and other handmade goods in an exuberance of craftwork.
Today, many craft traditions are failing, and along with their disappearance rural economies are failing, too. As men flee to El Norte to find the cash dollar, Mexican villages are left to the old and to women. Fewer children arrive to replace the missing. The militarization of borders makes the return of the migrant and his winnings less likely than in years past, and paradoxically forces others to take the same roads away. At la feria, the fair, the goods are now more likely imported than handmade. But as long as the rides twirl and the night is lit, the crowds will come.