Folk Art: Myrlande Constant

Haitian Hero Toussaint Louverteur

This afternoon, I once again took a walk on the UCLA campus and visited the Fowler Museum. There were two new exhibits that fascinated me, particularly the work of Myrlande Constant of Haiti. It was a strangely satisfying mix of Hieronymus Bosch and Haitian vodou (aka voodoo). On her website, the artist talks about the influence of vodou flags on her work:

Within the vodou community the flag is a sacred ritual object that identifies the hounfour and honors the spirits with whom it is associated. The sparkle of the sequin or mirror used to capture the attention of the iwa started in the temples. Drapo voudou (sequined sacred flags) are unfurled at the beginning of a ceremony. They are power points that are used for both identification and transformation. When the flag is unfurled it signals the congregants to come to order -the sacred is about to come home to roost. The spirits will soon walk next to (or in) the market woman.

As I looked around the exhibit, I found myself drawn to details rather than to the overall design, which in any case I could ill understand as I am not a practitioner of vodou. Here are a couple of examples:

Like all the works on display, the art was covered with sequins, beads, and other shiny objects. The result was that I found myself immersed in detail. Is that Baron Samedi or Papa Legba on horseback? I don’t know, now why that woman at the lower left is exposing her buttocks.

Making frequent appearances were Catholic saints and angels, though in the world of vodou, everything has a different meaning.

Sometimes, it is useful to immerse oneself in a culture one doesn’t understand. The mysteries have a role to play in our lives—a role which, I believe, is ultimately benign.

J M W Turner’s Castle in Wales

“Conway Castle, North Wales” as Painted by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1798)

Back in 1976, I visited Britain after making some money selling a script idea. One of the places I stayed was Betws-y-Coed, from which I could visit several beauty spots in North Wales. One of them was Conwy [sic] Castle. I was elated to see at the Getty Center J M W Turner’s rendition of Conway Castle, which is what the English called it.

The Getty website describes the painting:

On a dramatic, rocky area of the northern coast of Wales looms the late medieval Conway Castle. It towers over a stormy bay while fisherman struggle to pull their boats ashore. Caught in this uproaring of the sea, the tiny figures of fishermen in their boat convey a sense of humans’ barely significant place in the order of the universe.

The Welsh landscape exerted a strong hold on Joseph Mallord William Turner, and he made several sketching trips there in the 1790s. In this early Romantic painting, Turner represented the dramatic effects of natural light, allowing sunshine breaking through the clouds to illuminate the castle and the coast beyond.

The castle was built by Edward I—the evil king in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart played by Patrick McGoohan—between 1283 and 1287. It was one of a number of fortifications he built in his effort to subdue the Welsh. Here’s what it looks like today:

Conwy Castle Today

Smart Phones and Brussels

James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels 1889

On Friday, I took a bus (to avoid the $20 parking fee) to the Getty Center to view the latest exhibitions and to reacquaint myself with the permanent collection. Unfortunately, the museum was mobbed. Time and time again, I was prevented from seeing a painting because some oversized bozo was stationed in front finger f—ing his smart phone, totally oblivious to the crowds and the magnificent artworks around him.

They reminded me of one of my favorite paintings in the Getty’s permanent collection, James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels 1889. Look closely at the crowd entering with Christ who appears (with golden halo) in the center of the painting and slightly to the left. Now imagine each member of the crowd with a smart phone and not giving a tinker’s damn about anything but his or her Facebook or Instagram or whatever.

The Getty’s notes on the painting confirm my opinion:

James Ensor took on religion, politics, and art in this scene of Christ entering contemporary Brussels in a Mardi Gras parade. In response to the French pointillist style, Ensor used palette knives, spatulas, and both ends of his brush to put down patches of colors with expressive freedom. He made several preparatory drawings for the painting, including one in the J. Paul Getty Museum’s collection.

Ensor’s society is a mob, threatening to trample the viewer–a crude, ugly, chaotic, dehumanized sea of masks, frauds, clowns, and caricatures. Public, historical, and allegorical figures, along with the artist’s family and friends, make up the crowd. The haloed Christ at the center of the turbulence is in part a self-portrait: mostly ignored, a precarious, isolated visionary amidst the herdlike masses of modern society. Ensor’s Christ functions as a political spokesman for the poor and oppressed–a humble leader of the true religion, in opposition to the atheist social reformer Emile Littré, shown in bishop’s garb holding a drum major’s baton and leading on the eager, mindless crowd.

After rejection by Les XX, the artists’ association that Ensor had helped to found, the painting was not exhibited publicly until 1929. Ensor displayed Christ’s Entry prominently in his home and studio throughout his life. With its aggressive, painterly style and merging of the public with the deeply personal, Christ’s Entry was a forerunner of twentieth-century Expressionism.

I managed to enjoy my visit despite the crowds. I guess it was Spring Break for too many people, so I should have known better.

Casa de los Venados

Mexican Folk Art from the Casa de los Venados in Valladolid, Yucatán

Perhaps the largest collection of Mexican folk art in private hands is on display at the Casa de los Venados in Valladolid, Yucatán, about a block off the Zócalo. The collection contains 3,000+ pieces of high-quality folk art. If you should ever find yourself in Yucatán, you should consider paying a visit. Not only is the museum an eye-opener, but the city of Valladolid is worth spending several days touring.

A Friendly Demon

You Can See Me Taking the Picture to the Left of the Cross

The Casa de los Venados is probably the best museum of Mexican folk art I have ever seen.

Behind a Mask

Mexican Folk Art at the Museo de Casa Montejo in Mérida, Yucatán

Right on the Zócalo in Mérida is the Casa Montejo, which belonged to the family of conquistadores who conquered Yucatán for Spain. Today, the building is the main local branch of Banamex. Because the bank is a major supporter of traditional Mexican folk art, it maintains a free gallery on the premises. When I visited there in January 2020, there was an exhibit of folk art entitled “Detrás de una Máscara” (“Behind a Mask”) by the husband and wife team of Jacobo and María Ángeles.

Below are some of the exhibits I saw at that show.

Above the main entrance to the gallery is an image of a conquistador crushing the bearded heads of Spain’s enemies. Since the Maya are not known for sporting beards, it does not literally refer to the conquest of the Maya except indirectly. Still, it’s a powerful image:

Conquistador Treading on Heads of the Enemy

A Garden in the Desert

Jael Hoffmann’s “Topography of Belief”

No, it’s not a garden of plants, but rather a sculpture garden, right near one of the turnoffs from U.S. 395 to Panamint Springs and Death Valley. It’s off the side of the road on the left as one heads north on the highway. I’ve noticed it several times on my trips to and through the Owens Valley as I passed through the town of Olancha, just south of Lone Pine.

As soon as Martine’s broken wrist heals, I hope to spend a little time studying the metal sculptures of Jael Hoffmann and photographing them. Unlike most modern sculptures, which leave me cold, I find that Jael’s work sets off little explosions in my head. Really great art does that: It makes you a different person than the what you were a few minutes earlier.

There is an excellent video on YouTube in which the artist is interviewed and discusses several of her sculptures—including most especially the one illustrated above. It is called “Internal Scapes,” which is an accurate description of how they affect me.

An Interview with Jael Hoffmann

Below is one of her sculptures entitled “Give and Take”: It urges you to donate something in the can marked “Give” and take something from the can marked “Take.” As you examine both cans, your face is reflected in a mirror. Perhaps it will make you feel guilty if you take something without giving.

Jael Hoffmann’s “Give and Take”

Finally, there is another work I like which its creator calls “The Hitchhiker.” All three sculptures shown in this post are discussed in the YouTube video referred to earlier.

Jael Hoffmann’s “The Hitchhiker”

To see more of her work, I suggest you check out Jael’s website at

Global Art Outside the Marketplace

Detail of Tingatinga Image from Tanzania

On Thursday of last week, I spent several hours at the Fowler Museum at UCLA viewing art that is outside the normal art marketplace. According to their website:

The Fowler Museum at UCLA explores global arts and cultures with an emphasis on Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and the Indigenous Americas—past and present. The Fowler enhances understanding and appreciation of the diverse peoples, cultures, and religions of the world through dynamic exhibitions, publications, and public programs, informed by interdisciplinary approaches and the perspectives of the cultures represented. Also featured is the work of international contemporary artists presented within the complex frameworks of politics, culture and social action. The Fowler provides exciting, informative and thought-provoking exhibitions and events for the UCLA community and the people of greater Los Angeles and beyond.

One gallery presented the work of Amir H. Fallah, a Persian-American, in an exhibit entitled “The Fallacy of Borders.” Then there were a number of Jain embroidered hangings from Indian shrines. There were a few Tanzanian paintings from the Tingatinga school left over from a larger exhibit that closed last month. Finally, there was the ongoing exhibit entitled “Intersections: World Arts, Local Lives” which included the following sculpture group from Mexico:

Calavera Sculpture from Mexico

Most of this art was not created for corporate conference rooms or major art museums. Much of it is folk art created to reflect a local culture. Some of it is commercial, but never for the art market of New York or London. All of it is outside European-American culture (except for some aboriginal American art).

When I visit the Fowler or other folk art museums, such as the Museo Mindalae in Quito, Ecuador, I see art that opens up other cultures to me. I am not just seeing another stale work of abstract expressionism created to make money in the New York market. I am seeing something that speaks for a people or for a religion. The result is utterly refreshing.

I hope in the weeks to come to reprise some of the folk art I have seen on my travels.

Hockney’s Pearblossom Highway

One of my favorite pieces of art is David Hockney’s “Pearblossom Highway, 11-18 April 1986, #2.” It is an almost perfect image of the Antelope Valley along the northern slope of the San Gabriel Mountains. I have driven that road a number of times on my way to Devil’s Punchbowl County Park, and even as far as Victorville—when I didn’t want to face traffic on the I-10 or the Pomona Freeway.

I am not always a fan of Hockney’s work, but this particular photo montage, in its own way, gives a better idea of the terrain than any single photograph would. It was originally created for Vanity Fair out of 800 photographs to support a story about the road trip that Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Humbert Humbert took to Death Valley. For the story of the creation of this image, click on this website by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.The actual site being depicted is the intersection of the Pearblossom Highway with 165th Street. The stop sign is no longer there, as a street light has replaced it. Also, the highway at this point has been widened to four lanes.

The Antelope Valley is still a desolate place, even though some half million people now live there, mostly along California Highway 14 as it wends north to join U.S. 395. The Pearblossom Highway (California 138) connects the Antelope Valley Freeway (California 14) with the I-15 at Victorville.

It’s a long and lonely haul, especially if one is behind a loaded big rig. But then, that is a good description of the L.A. experience.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s “The Story of Otomi and Yosaburo” (1885)

His working life spanned a period of cataclysmic change in Japanese culture. Japanese print maker Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) started out in the Edo Period before Commodore Perry opened his island nation to the Western world, and died during the Meiji Restoration, which saw Japan being increasingly influenced by American and European ways. Yoshitoshi himself was a traditionalist in a rapidly changing world.

The woodblock art form in which he worked was referred to as ukiyo-e, commonly translated as “pictures of the floating world.” According to John Fiorillo:

Yoshitoshi was arguably the finest ukiyo-e print designer of the late nineteenth century. His figures were vividly realized and invested with a realism that relied, not insignificantly, on superb drawing ability. As he broke away from stagnating convention, Yoshitoshi’s seemingly unfettered imagination found expression in many subjects: history, folklore, legend, warrior tales, women, daily life, and old and new customs. He was uniquely gifted as a visual artist and a connoisseur of stories about Japanese and Chinese history and legend. By bridging the transition from the feudal society of the Edo period to the enlightenment restoration of the Meiji period, he succeeded in revitalizing ukiyo-e in unexpected ways.

“A Young Woman from the Kansei Period Playing with Her Cat” (1888)

This print is from a series entitled Thirty-two types of Beauty in Daily Life (Fūzoku sanjūnisō).

“A Glimpse of the Moon” (1886)

This image is from a famous old tale. According to Scholten Japanese Art:

This composition presents a combination of stories and references. The tale originates from chapter 21 of the 14th-century historical epic Chronicle of Great Peace (Taiheiki). Lord Ko Moronao (d. 1351), a chief retainer of the Shogun Ashikaga Takauji (1305-1358), hears of a great beauty who happens to be the wife of another shogunal official, En’ya Takasada. Moronao arranges to see her after a bath and, even though she was without the feminine trappings of splendid robes and make-up, finds her irresistible. In an effort to take her for himself, he accuses En’ya of treason. But in a twist of fate, En’ya tries to flee and Moronao has the official and his family, including his wife, killed.

I decided to take a look at Yoshitoshi because he is not well known in the West, except to art specialists. His use of line and color in pursuit of traditional Japanese subjects during a period of transition makes him a great master in my book.


It all started with Edward Saidi (E.S.)Tingatinga of Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania (1939-1972). He painted a series of animal paintings that became wildly popular. Then he started training a number of other fellow Tanzanians to paint in his style. For instance, the image above is by Abdul Amande Makura (b. 1954).

Below is an original by E.S. Tingatinga himself of a zebra with various African birds:

After E.S. Tingatinga died in 1972, six of his associates formed a group called the Tingatinga Partnership to perpetuate their founder’s style. It is thought that the style goes back much earlier than the 20th century, but it has become known as the Tingatinga painting style. According to the article on the style in Wikipedia:

Tingatinga is traditionally made on masonite, using several layers of bicycle paint, which makes for brilliant and highly saturated colours. Many elements of the style are related to the requirements of the tourist-oriented market; for example, the paintings are usually small so they can be easily transported, and subjects are intended to appeal to Europeans and Americans (e.g. the big five [African animals] and other wild fauna). In this sense, Tingatinga paintings can be considered a form of “airport painting.” The drawings themselves can be described as both naïve and caricatural; humour and sarcasm are often explicit.

This afternoon, I took the bus to UCLA and visited the Fowler Museum of global arts and cultures. What impressed me today were the African exhibitions, which included not only Tingatinga art but Fante Asato Flags from Southern Ghana and the work of Kwame Akoto of the Almighty God Art Works in Kumasi, Ghana.

The vigor and color of the African works moved me immeasurably more than anything I have seen by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, or Piet Mondrian. I feel that we have arrived at an impasse with our art scene in the West.