Mysterious Bread Sculptures: Masapán of Calderón, Ecuador

I’ve been processing late arrivals to the Cotsen collection: a small group of material that was once displayed in the Neutrogena Offices during Lloyd Cotsen’s tenure. As always, Lloyd’s collection habits were eclectic, and I’ve had a very fun time describing unique material. But the most unusual additions to the collection have to be our newest (and only) pieces of leavened folk art:

In-process item

In-process item

Described only as “bread sculptures” upon arrival from our friends in Los Angeles, everyone in Special Collections was immediately struck by the surprising choice of material. Initially, I was worried about the prospect of having food in the library! Don’t worry though, after a review from our colleagues in conservation, we have deemed the material safe from attracting pests (though, sadly, quite inedible for humans).

Tasked with describing such unfamiliar objects, I turned to the internet for help. After some diligent googling about bread art traditions, including a brief cul-de-sac in which I learned about the bread-art tradition in Russian prisons which inspired a contemporary bread sculptor, I found the origin of our new items. Our “bread sculptures” are masapán, from maize dough (masa) and bread (pan), a folk art tradition practiced uniquely in Calderón; a rural parish of Quito, Ecuador.

Contemporary masapán for comparison. The color palette is more pastel than our examples. But the floral motifs remain the same. Photo by Angie Drake,

The practice of making masapán figurines emerged in the 1940s. It grew out of the tradition of making guagua de pan, a sweet roll shaped “bread baby” decorated to look like a swaddled infant. Eaten and offered at graves on All souls’ Day, better known as the Day of the Dead, on November 2nd, the tradition is syncretic: eating T’anta wawa (Quechua for “bread” and “baby”) is an ancestral rite in many Andean regions of South America.

T’anta wawa with traditional pairing of colada morada: a drink made of local fruits, spices, and corn flour.

In Calderón, masapán expanded. It came to be used to create bread-based nativity scenes and Christmas decorations. As it’s popularity with tourists grew, masapán came to be produced year round by hundreds of local artists.

Masapán nativity ornaments

Masapán horse with small figures, a reoccurring motif.

Our exquisitely crafted examples seem to have been created in the traditional method: hand-rolled dough that is sculpted with hand-tools, air dried for days, carefully painted, and then lacquered for longevity. Our witch is perhaps Día de Muertos appropriate, while our horse with riders and small pony seem to follow a general horse-based theme.

Upclose shot of the 4 figures on the large horse. Perhaps featuring the three kings for a nativity scene?

This pony, though framed with our witch, was probably created as a standalone piece.

Though our examples are a little shaken from time and transport, they are still whole and fully display the craft skill and delicate touch used to create them. Once mysterious, I am happy to have learned so much about this unique tradition and to include these rare examples of folk art in the Cotsen collection. Cotsen is a truly appropriate home for such rare objects, since we celebrate all folk ways and stories, no matter what they are made of!

Banned Books Week 2019: And Tango Makes Three

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Today we are going to highlight the most frequently challenged book of the late 2000’sAnd Tango Makes Three (New York : Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2005).

Written by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson and illustrated by Henry Cole, this picture book tells the story of two male chinstrap penguins who adopt an egg together. Roy and Silo are a long time couple living and playing together with the other penguins in the Central Park Zoo. During mating season, they build a nest together, but they can’t lay an egg.

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The zookeeper Mr Gramsay notices them and decides to take action! He knows another penguin couple has recently laid an extra egg they can’t take care of (chinstrap penguins tend to lay and care for one egg at a time). So he puts the egg in Roy and Silo’s nest. After they take turns sitting on the egg:

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Tango is born!

Roy and Silo raise their adopted daughter Tango (it takes two!) as a happy penguin family.

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The book was very popular and won multiple awards including: the ALA’s Notable Children’s Book Nominee in 2006, the ASPCA Henry Bergh Book Award in 2005, and was named one of the Bank Street Best Books of the Year in 2006. It was lauded as a great book for parents and educators to use for introducing children to diversity of families and to the idea of homosexual couples. Part of appeal of And Tango Makes Three is that it is based on a true story. Parnell and Richardson (a gay couple themselves no less!) were inspired to write the tale after reading about Silo and Roy in a New York Times article.

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Two real chinstrap penguins with a chick. Roy and Silo? A heterosexual couple? If you can’t tell the difference, does it really matter?

But at the same time it was objected to by numerous detractors for, well, many of the same reasons. In fact, objections were so sustained and diverse that in 2011 Dr. Martha L. Magnuson published a study analyzing the motives behind the numerous objections to And Tango Makes Three.

But the impact of the book goes far beyond children’s reading and the “culture war” debates about what to expose our children to. At the time of release, the book became part of an ongoing zeitgeist of interest and controversy regarding homosexuality in animals. The book helped spark debates about “natural” behavior, inspiring research in the scientific community and interest in the general public. Not bad for a picture book…