Nicho Nativity was a magical Mexicana diorama, amplified in scale to become a sparkling, participatory grotto hosted in the newly relaunched basement and gallery space at Oklahoma in Manchester’s Northern Quarter during Christmas 2013.
Just as the store and cafe above are renowned as a kaleidoscopic experience for customers, dripping with fringed parasols, wind-up tin toys and fortune telling fish, so a giant, pointing finger will led the way downstairs into the basement gallery for a dose of fabulously over-the-top Latino obscuria.
Working with photographer Elle Brotherhood, fashion design student Natalie Dawson and artist Bryony Jackson, a shrine the size of a quadruple wardrobe took shape to offer an alternative tableaux for the festive season; a period that over the general city offer has become predictable in recent years.
A nicho is a form of Latin American folk art in the shape of an open wooden box containing miniature tableaux, or sometimes hinged panels that stand open. Nichos are combined from mixed media such as dried flowers, sugar skulls, paste jewels, photographs, found objects and clay figures, and traditionally combine elements from Roman Catholicism, mestizo spirituality, local customs and popular culture.
Subjects typically range from the Madonna and Sacred Heart to family members, pop culture icons (such as Elvis, Mohammad Ali and Michael Jackson), the ever- popular monobrowed Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, sports stars, family ancestors, Dia de los Muertos characters and figures and symbols from the Loteria card deck – a game of chance containing pictograms similar in style to the classic tarot suite.
The inspiration came from attending Natalie’s nicho making workshop at Gaslamp, Manchester. Subjects amongst the wider group that first night included Tina Turner, David Bowie and Manchester’s own Messiah, Morrissey. For myself, I glued together an altar to Karen Carpenter featuring the bleached white skeleton of a sparrow (sourced from eBay in advance), finished off by novelty erasers in the shape of milkshake, burger and fries for a post-purgatory binge, should she so wish.
Additional support came from Edinburgh-based prop maker and regular collaborator Kev Thornton, who hand carved a man-sized cactus in the shape of a prickled, winged angel, plus vintage lighting from Brighton’s Lost and Foundry, specialising in rough-Lux upcyled lighting, including shot glass garland lights.
My intention was for visitors to step into the scene and re-write their primary school past. Only a chosen few ever got top billing in the annual nativity productions, the rest of us being relegated to dressing gown draped villagers, wordless livestock or sniffling stars. This was our chance to reclaim the spotlight.
WIth this in mind, illustrator Simon Misra provided table-top prompt cards to offer a visual menu of suggested poses from the traditional natiivty roster… from the flute playing shepherd to a buck-toothed donkey. But flip them over, and there was instead a choice of photobomb alternatives: including Madonna’s ‘Vogue’, Zoolander’s ‘Blue Steel’ or Munch’s ‘The Scream’.
Visitors were encouraged to take their own digital pictures, tag these and upload to Nicho Nativity on Facebook and Twitter (#nichonativity), or take advantage of the opportunity to take away an instant portrait.
The launch night included traditional Mexican snacks, live performance from Tilly Skreams and Cheddar Gorgeous as the dual-spirit of Carmen Miranda, singing nun Sister Sledge, plus a Frida Kahlo transformation station.
A Cornerhouse Micro Commission supported by The Paul Hamlyn Foundation.