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West Allis — An art exhibit based on Puerto Rican folk art and made from recycled aluminum cans will open with a 7-10 p.m. reception Friday, Jan. 27, at Inspiration Studios, 1500 S. 72nd St., West Allis.

The exhibit by emerging artist, Jose Pischke-Maxwell, titled Modern Vejigantes features colorful masks of all shapes and sizes. The vejigante is a folkloric figure whose origins trace back to medieval Spain. The term vejigante derives from the Spanish words vejiga (bladder) and gigante (giant), due to the old custom of blowing up and painting cow bladders. Legend has it that the vejigante represented the infidel Moors who were defeated in a battle led by Saint James.

To honor the saint, the people, dressed as demons, took to the street in an annual procession. Over time, the vejigante became somewhat of a folkloric demon.

In Puerto Rico, however, it took on a new dimension with the introduction of African and native Taíno cultural influences. The vejigante costumes are often linked to many festivals that continue today, especially in the cities of Loiza and Ponce in Puerto Rico.

“I am a fiercely proud Puerto Rican,” says Maxwell. “Growing up in the Caribbean, surrounded year-round by my island’s natural resources and beauty, I was constantly inspired to create and to add to it.”

Cans all around

“However, six years ago, I was living a life of excess, making reckless decisions" he said. "Literally having to clean up my life’s mess, I found that most of it consisted of cans and bottles.

"During that cleansing period, I saw that my neighbor had a pinwheel. It was made of aluminum and that really drew my attention. So here I am today—six years of making vejigante masks with aluminum.”

Why modern vejigantes?

Currently, these masks (caretas) are typically made from papier-mâché or coconut husks and even gourds. They sport a colorful and fearsome assortment of horns, fangs and beaks, and are often polka-dotted. Maxwell’s masks, however, are made entirely of recycled aluminum cans, including twisted and spun horns and fangs. He also has developed a way to make these intricate features detachable, making them convenient to package and mail.

“Sadly, this consumerist world of ours is constantly overrun by our waste,” he said. “By reclaiming wasted materials and fashioning them to inspire upcycling and repurposing, I strive to be original and uniquely innovative.

"I won’t make art unless it has something to do with upcycling/recycling. I breathe new life into ordinary trash that has passed its original purpose and would otherwise overrun our beautiful planet.”

All sizes

While most of Maxwell’s exhibited masks range in size, including miniatures that fit in the palm of one’s hand, a few are large enough to be worn on the human body. His exhibit will include ornaments, jewelry, head wear and wall hangings. Most items will be available for purchase.

Maxwell encourages viewers, “Please look at the many objects that are taken for granted and see them in a different light and possibly for a different purpose.”

For those unable to attend the opening, the Modern Vejigantes exhibit will be open for public viewing from 4-6 p.m. Tuesdays in February.

More information and photos of Maxwell’s art can be seen at www.jgtupacdesign.com or www.inspirationstudiosgallery.com

Contributed by Erico Ortiz, founder of Inspiration studios

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