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The Los Angeles Times

Browsing Through Beliefs; 'Botanica' Delves Into Spirituality, Capitalism, Latino Street Shops And The Gods We Trust.

By David Pagel

23 September 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Los Angeles Times. All rights reserved. 

Over the last 20 years, museum gift shops have expanded from small counters selling postcards and catalogs to full-blown stores that include everything -- even kitchenware and designer clothing. For blockbuster shows, many museums transform galleries ordinarily earmarked for art into temporary salesrooms viewers must pass through to exit.

A recently opened exhibition at the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History turns the tables on these developments. "Botanica Los Angeles: Latino Popular Religious Art in the City of Angels" forces viewers to walk through a store on their way into the show.

Organized by guest curator Patrick A. Polk, the ambitious exhibition complicates the increasingly cozy relationship between nonprofit institutions and naked salesmanship by laying out some grass-roots links between belief and business.

Money and morality may not grab headlines the way sex and death do, but they go to the heart of what it means to be an American. These ideas take powerful shape in "Botanica Los Angeles," which presents a slice of life in an immigrant nation's attempt to answer big questions about the pursuit of happiness and every citizen's right to interpret it howsoever he or she sees fit.

Nothing is for sale in the store that forms the elaborately crafted entrance to the exhibition. That's because it's not a real store, but a life-size replica of one. It has more in common with a Hollywood stage-set than an actual botanica.

There's a counter, cash register and shelves on which products are arranged. These include candles, flowers, incense, tarot cards, beads, herbs and curative waters. Plastic statuettes represent Buddha, Winnie the Pooh, a Native American chief, Saint Jude, Jesus Malverde (a Mexican martyr who looked out for the underdog) and San Simon, the Guatemalan trickster.

More labor and expense, however, appear to have been lavished on the floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall facade in which the fake botanica is set. To the left of its front door is a typical taqueria, with a B grade from the Health Department signaling its authenticity. To the right is a typical toy store, its window filled with typical pinatas and its exterior walls hand-painted with typical, non-copyrighted images of Mickey, Tigger and SpongeBob SquarePants.

But all this typicalness backfires.

Rather than strengthening the exhibition's links to life on the streets of Los Angeles, it emphasizes the differences between the exhibition and the real thing.

Without the grit and grime of everyday life, or the faded paint and worn linoleum of actual botanicas, the simulated version is creepy. Plus, it lacks the abundance of a well-stocked store, its stingy inventory a far cry from the resplendent colors and richly scented atmosphere of the authentic. It's as if a visitor has fallen through the looking glass into a soulless doppelganger of a botanica -- or a generic one designed for Universal City Walk.

From Sylmar to Costa Mesa, and from Culver City to La Puente, botanicas in metropolitan Los Angeles are nothing if not idiosyncratic. Most are mom and pop shops or shoestring business ventures that provide spiritual sustenance to local communities. Face-to-face relationships are their specialty and modus operandi. They deliver one-of-a-kind services, and all bear the imprints of their proprietors.

At the Fowler, this side of the story takes shape in the space on the other side of the botanica. After passing through the store, visitors reach a room with five large alcoves built around its perimeter. Each contains an altar, shrine or throne fabricated by men and women who run botanicas or practice the faiths sustained by them.

Each piece is a unique mix of improvisation and tradition. Each of their makers was born outside the U.S. and now lives in Los Angeles.

Cuban-born Felipe and Valeria Garcia Villamil have crafted a throne for Elegba, the Santeria trickster spirit who facilitates communication between deities and adherents. It's a cornucopia of plastic bananas, pineapples, grapes, mangoes and cake, alongside real rum and cigars, all lavishly laid out before ritual objects festooned with beads and shells. The symmetrical arrangement is set in a forest of plastic plants and camouflage netting.

Charles Guelperin is an Argentine-born spiritualist with homes in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. His contribution is a pair of nearly life-size statues of the African spirit Manuel and his consort Francisca, seated in a naturalistic landscape that includes rocks, potted palm trees, a reed hut and clouds made of cotton. The big diorama usually adorns the front window of Guelperin's Hollywood shop, Botanica El Congo Manuel, where he draws on the strength of a variety supernatural entities, including Santeria orishas, Palo nkisi, Roman Catholic saints and Native American spirits.

The proprietor of Botanica y Templo San Simon de los Llanos, Carlos Arana Figueroa Martinez, cures physical, emotional and spiritual ailments by invoking the help of his legendary countryman, San Simon, the unofficial patron saint of Guatemala. His shrine resembles a formal side altar in a traditional Catholic church, although its cigar-smoking subject, who also drinks to excess, is hardly your typical saint.

A Puerto Rican Mesa Blanca spiritualist altar dedicated to Saint Michael features a seven-tiered table on which Catholic icons have been neatly arranged amid an assortment of candles, perfumes and flowers. The room-size installation has been borrowed from the Boyle Heights home of Ysamur "Sammy" Flores-Pena, who was born in Puerto Rico, and his Venezuelan wife, Dorothy L. Flores.

The smallest altar belongs to Sonia Gastelum, a Salvadoran who runs Botanica Orula in Lynwood. Adorned with peacock feathers, golden fabric, plastic sunflowers, jars of honey, gourds and oranges, her homage to various Santeria spirits is something of a self-portrait, its dolls, figures and pictures capturing defining aspects of her personality.

It's heartening to see so many different beliefs getting along so amiably. The do-it-yourself ethos, adapt-as-you-go pragmatism and democratic sensibility that are palpable in the five self-styled altars are profoundly American attributes. Absolutism is nowhere to be found in the cobbled-together belief systems the altars represent. As a group, their makers demonstrate a highly evolved capacity to hold competing ideas in their heads and complex emotions in their hearts.

The problem with the exhibition is that it's unduly academic, even prudish, in the distance it puts between itself and the cash-and-carry commerce at the heart of the cultural activities it addresses. The sacred and the profane mix much more promiscuously (and potently) in the fascinating catalog that accompanies the exhibition than they do in the galleries.

Part of this is due to institutional sterility, which makes the show's displays seem more like dead specimens laid out for dissection than ad hoc embodiments of living cultures. But it's also due to choices made by the curator, whose progressive intentions and original scholarship are undermined by hoary ideas about the sanctity of art.

"Botanica Los Angeles" would be better if it didn't segregate art and shopping, or put so much emphasis on five fabulous altars at the expense of the cheap little things in the store at the entrance.


'Botanica Los Angeles'

Where: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, UCLA Campus, Sunset and Westwood boulevards

When: Noon to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays and until 8 p.m. Thursdays. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

Ends: Feb. 27

Price: Free admission, parking $7

Contact: (310) 825-4361

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