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Science advances religious art

Santeria exhibit displays conservation techniques

It’s not often that things sacred can exist harmoniously with science. But the two mediums will do just that this weekend with the unveiling of “Santos: Substance & Soul (Sustancia Y Alma),” an artistic and scientific look into santeria, the age-old tradition of carving and painting wood saints, at Albuquerque’s National Hispanic Cultural Center.

The exhibition was organized by the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education and the Smithsonian Center for Latino Initiatives, both located in Washington, D.C.

The exhibition premiered in Washington, D.C., at the Smithsonian Institution’s Arts and Industries Building. Following its June 23-November 4 stay in Albuquerque, it will move on to the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico in San Juan.

Helen Lucero, director of visual arts at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, was instrumental in bringing the exhibition to the Duke City. She said she feels its time here will be too short.

“When we came to New Mexico to open the cultural center, when it came time for the exhibition to travel, we said we wanted it here, instead of the Albuquerque Museum or the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art — which were both viable options,” she said.

Rather than merely putting retablos and bultos on display, Lucero said, the exhibition attempts to highlight how conservators use modern techniques to give visitors a view beneath the object’s surface.

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For example, scientists used X-ray radiography to help reveal losses, replacements and methods of construction on these works, while xeroradiography was used on the painted wood to help reveal attachments and insect damage. All this information, Lucero said, is of particular use for practicing santeros, who can then know which woods and paints are best to use, and which woods age better than others. It can also help them understand the best methods for cleaning and maintaining their work.

“The issue of conservation has been in the world for many years,” Lucero said. “There’s been advances in the last century or so, with the Sistine Chapel or any works in Italy that were damaged by earthquakes. So, the exhibition is showing the public how conservators look at santeros and work they do to restore them.”

Works range in age from the 17th century bulto, Santa Ana Triple, made in Puerto Rico, to the 1998 bulto, Virgen de la Candelaria, also from Puerto Rico. Lucero said choosing the pieces was not an easy task.

“I’d say three-fourths of them are from the collection at the Smithsonian Institute,” Lucero said. “What they did was come to New Mexico and Puerto Rico for pieces that would tell the complete story. There are pieces from the Albuquerque Museum and the Spanish Colonial Art Museum in Santa Fe.”

Lucero also said the selection of pieces for this exhibition may have differed from the traditional.

“Most exhibitions I’ve seen of santos is to show the best, the ones in the best condition,” Lucero said. “Here that’s not the object. It’s to show the different parts of conservation and restoration.”

Lucero said this exhibition might also widen visitors’ perspectives by making them realize that santeria is not strictly an American art form.

“I think that for the lay people, they’ve not been aware that santos have been produced throughout the world, including Mexico, Latin America, New Mexico and Puerto Rico, so they will see the similarities and differences,” Lucero said. “And there are people that work with these images from the conservation end of it, as opposed to the way most of us in New Mexico are used to seeing.”

The exhibition opens Friday with a reception from 6-8 p.m. at the Intel Center for Technology and Visual Arts at 1701 Fourth Street in the National Hispanic Cultural Center. Jia-sun Tsang, exhibition curator and senior paintings conservator at the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education, will give a tour of the exhibition Saturday beginning at 2 p.m.

For more information, call the National Hispanic Cultural Center at 246-2261.

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