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Curating Gloom

Forthcoming exhibits will delve into the community’s relationship with Zozobra

Not even a gloomy late-season bit of snow could stop collectors of Zozobra ephemera from visiting the New Mexico History Museum on Monday morning to loan or donate items for use in upcoming exhibits hosted between the History Museum, the New Mexico Museum of Art and Santa Fe Kiwanis—the org that puts on Zozobra each fall. By the time the dust settled, according to Curatorial Assistant Delaney Hoffman, the drop-off hours had helped bring the number of potential exhibit-ready items to roughly 60 and, with two more drop-off days left, she expects more to come.

Hoffman is part of a curatorial team aiming to complete a trio of as-yet unnamed exhibits with Zozobra-themed objects and artworks. Hoffman says she knows folks have cool stuff in their homes and garages.

“We want to see the objects of people’s lives that are tied to Zozobra and have meaning to them,” Hoffman says. “Part of it is the persistence I see across Santa Fe communities—my mom is from here, I’ve been around Santa Fe since I was born—and I think there’s something very valuable to having a place like Zozobra to put all the bad stuff.”

For the uninitiated, Zozobra, aka Old Man Gloom, is that semi-debaucherous annual affair in Santa Fe during which most of the city descends upon the Fort Marcy baseball field to burn the manifestation of gloom and doom (a puppet, essentially) to the ground, thereby symbolically exorcizing woe. It’s wild if you’ve never been. But, Hoffman says, time has diluted Shuster’s initial message when he and his buds first unveiled Zozobra in 1924.

“The real root of Zozobra was as a counter-Fiestas,” Hoffman explains. “Shuster and his buddies thought Fiestas was a little too serious and didn’t reflect all the people who actually lived here. They wanted to come up with something that was fun.”

Of course, over time Zozobra did wind up linked to Santa Fe Fiestas and the Entrada, the strange pageant claiming the 1692 reconquest of the Santa Fe Area following the 1680 Pueblo Revolt was bloodless. The Entrada was removed from Fiestas celebrations in 2018 following years of protest and a momentous coming-together of the All Pueblo Council of Governors.

Back on the Old Man Gloom tip: Cue the screaming puppet; fire dancers; ghost dancers; pageantry; watermelon juice; local music and, perhaps most notably in the lead-up to the Aug. 30 100th Burning of Zozobra, the Decades Project, whereby organizers in recent years decked out our main man Zozo in garb reflective of the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s and so on. Last year, organizers dressed Zozobra to the nines for the aughts. This year, he’ll return to his roots, at least from an outfit perspective.

As for that trio of exhibits—dates pending—Kiwanis Event Chair Ray Sandoval echoes Hoffman’s sentiments about finding paraphernalia.

“What we’re looking for is memorabilia,” he tells SFR. “A gloom doll from the 1950s, a ribbon from a fire dancer’s costume—people used to scavenge Zozobra’s corpse after he burned, so maybe they have a burnt eyeball? Will Shuster would send out a Christmas postcard with a drawing of Zozobra; do you have one?”

For the New Mexico History Museum exhibit slated for sometime in August, Sandoval says, organizers are seeking the aforementioned bric-a-brac, and they needn’t be straight-up donations—loans are OK, too. For the also as-yet unnamed New Mexico Museum of Art exhibit, would-be participants have a little more leeway.

“We’re looking for Zozobra art as well,” Sandoval tells SFR, “and it can be new. What a cool thing to have on your resume: that you had artwork in a show at the New Mexico Museum of Art. And, since that space isn’t huge, we’ll also be hanging works in City Hall.”

For the annual ZozoFest party, which goes down the weekend before the big burn, Kiwanis will accept artwork submissions as per usual, so now’s probably the time to start putting pen to paper or brush to canvas.

To have your items evaluated, donors and loaners can visit burnzozobra.com/lend, or visit the New Mexico History Museum with items in tow during specified drop-in hours (Noon-2 pm Saturday, March 30 and 10 am-noon Monday, April 1, 113 Lincoln Ave., (505) 476-5200).

“I have this hope that we can get archival audio, too, like people recounting their experiences from the last 100 years, and we’re aware there’s a hole around Indigenous participation, so even if those perspectives are or were critical, good,” Hoffman adds. “I want to hear from students who helped build Zozobra; we have some great stuff from the Museum of International Folk Art’s archives, too. In my book, it’s a huge measure of success having people actually willing to share where these items are coming from, and that they cared enough to bring them in.”

These days, she notes, “Zozobra has spread all over the world, but it’s uniquely informed by Santa Fe and all the hands that build it every year.” And the annual conflagration keeps Santa somewhat tethered to its roots, even as the city grapples with “ongoing gentrification, the influx of the wealthy into the city, lack of access to things like appropriate mental health care,” and other sundry glooms.

“I think we love Zozobra so hard because Santa Fe is still scrappy,” she says.

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