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It's Carnaval Time 

Call it Carnival, Carnaval, Fasnacht or Mardi Gras, the annual winter festival is celebrated in various places throughout the Western world. Something of a Whitman sampler of exotica, this exhibition explores its sights and sounds in several European, Caribbean, North and South American cities where it remains one of the preeminent holidays. Omnipresent in medieval Europe, Carnival today is still celebrated only in the few places that are willing to devote a weekday to an event so irrational, even atavistic, as to defy most attempts at explanation. Ostensibly a prelude to Lent, it is an eternally controversial throwback to ancient pagan winter holidays such as the Lupercalia, events so obscure that their origins are lost in the mists of time.

Organized by the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, Carnaval provides a visual survey of how it is celebrated in eight towns and cities through masks, costumes, videos and photomurals. As a serious exploration of a little understood subject, the show raises questions of its own, for instance, why Oruro, Bolivia, is included while Rio de Janeiro, arguably the biggest celebration of all, is not. Even so, the inclusion of the quintessential festivities of Venice, Trinidad and New Orleans make for an insightful presentation, highlighting what this city has, or doesn't have, in common with Carnival in other places. If nothing else, it is nice to know that, when it comes to debauchery, we are not alone. (And no, you won't see much here -- this is a family exhibition -- but the gorgeous, spectacular and very comprehensive show catalog touches on such matters in an appropriately ginger, academic fashion.)

Despite Carnival's traditional if tenuous relationship with Roman Catholicism as the prelude to Lent, it has been universally irreverent wherever it appeared. Social and political satire, unabashed hedonism and the flaunting of the established order, preferably as flamboyantly as possible, have always been the order of the day in virtually all Carnival cultures. At the least, this show presents some interesting contrasts in styles, and delving a little deeper might possibly even shed some light on why those styles differ as they do. In that regard, Venice offers a case study in the morphing of the masquerade.

Elegant, surreal and cinematic, with its storybook architecture, canals, gondolas and extraordinary history, Venice is a natural when it comes to Carnival. Or is it? In fact, even as it inspired local Mardi Gras organizations such as the SocietŽ de Ste. Anne some 30 or so years ago, the Venice Carnival itself was fading into neglect. But everything changed in 1976 when the great Italian director, Federico Fellini, filmed Casanova there, opening with a scene in which a giant metal gorgon mask was hauled up by ropes from a canal. Suddenly, a rope snaps and the mask is lost forever. A scene fraught with symbolism and portent, it was allegedly the catalyst that returned masking to Venetian life in such spectacular and elegant, if self-conscious, fashion. A splendid opera set of a city, Venice lacks the raucous hoi polloi, the teeming masses that populate the samba parades of Rio and second lines of New Orleans, but what it lacks in grit it makes up for with style and imagination. This Venetian elegance contrasts with its equivalent in the Swiss city of Basel, where the celebration of Fasnacht is somehow startling, as if troops of colorful trolls had taken over the streets, where they parade with clockwork precision.

Elsewhere, in Brazil and Trinidad, Carnival is far less orderly, and it is there -- especially in Trinidad and other Caribbean cultures -- that we see the cousins of our own Zulus, Baby Dolls and even Mardi Gras Indians. Interestingly, New Orleans appears to almost unite these very differing visions of Carnival, melding the elegance and relative order of the European celebrations with the exotic wildness of Rio and the Caribbean. Any show that covers so much territory can offer only a taste of what each, including our own, has to offer. Even so, Carnaval not only complements the Louisiana State Museum's elaborate Louisiana Carnival expo at the Presbytere, it also offers some rare insights by placing our own celebration in a colorful global context.

click to enlarge Elegant, surreal and cinematic, Venice is an ideal setting for - Carnival.
  • Elegant, surreal and cinematic, Venice is an ideal setting for Carnival.
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