Caganers in America – A Personal Perspective
By Daniel L. Lisuk
 

 

I try to make them understand. Sometimes I succeed, other times I just give up, frustrated. But not embarrassed. Slowly my friends, my students and my colleagues are beginning to understand my affection for the squatting little statues I collect. As one of two American members of "els Amics del Caganer", I am proud to be associated with the Catalan culture.

The book "Barcelona", by Robert Hughes, first introduced me to the caganer. I thought little more of it until I visited my sister, Cindy, in Barcelona in 1992. She told me about the tradition of the little fellow and I became very interested in this cultural expression, unique in the entire world. Cindy began sending them as an annual Christmas gift, and I acquired some on my two visits to Barcelona. My collection has expanded to eighteen or twenty of the figurines – a humble beginning, but a source of great pride.

I have two favorite caganers, although I enjoy them all. One is a small well-worn plastic "peasant" type – covered with teeth marks and missing a certain pile on the ground. A wonderful woman, Señora Carmen Llavador, gave it to me. Over a lovely Catalan dinner she had prepared for my family we talked about the caganer and she seemed pleased that I was so interested in Catalan culture. She told me that the teeth marks were from her children when they were young. What an honor to have such a piece of her family history! My other favorite is wearing a Football Club Barcelona uniform and holds a newspaper. I like the colors, the expression, and the identity with local sports activity. I could go on about the others, and on any given day, my favorites will change, I’m sure.

In December, as the season of the Nativity approaches, my wife Laurie and I get out the decorations for our house. Before I put them up, I always take my caganer collection to the high school where I teach art. I tell my students about the strong and important symbolism of the actions of the caganer as showing us our reliance on the earth, the need to appreciate what we have been given and the need to return something to the earth and protect it. This symbolism easily extends to our many other interrelationships and can be expressed in many other ways. But it is the Catalans that have taken a very basic and universal activity and elevated it to honorable status through the caganer and his participation in the Nativity. Reaction among my students is mixed, but in artworks done afterward I usually see many works using the theme of cyclical relationships or a heightened respect for our place in the world. With the many permutations of the caganer, my students also learn that one can insert humor into some very deep and universal subject matter. Actually I often have a more difficult time with other instructors, as they come to the caganer with stronger preconceived notions of basic body functions. Many school colleagues, however, enjoy the caganer for its full symbolic worth and anticipate my showing the next acquisition.

Meanwhile, as my wife and I decorate our home, we debate the appropriate placement of the caganer. Somehow the caganers seem to have become magically animated: one day I put them in front of the crèche, but the next day I find them hidden from view behind the stable….

As an artist, I find that the caganer fits in with many issues of contemporary art: Why are the cycles of nature so profound in our lives? What is the relationship of man to nature and man to God? How can humorous imagery be used with profound subject matter? How do we show the stabilizing role of strong tradition in a rapidly changing society? In many galleries and museums one sees the artist dealing with these very important questions. The contemporary sculpted or painted image is filled with symbolic meaning, often lost to those who do not take time to examine art beyond the preconceived ideas they bring to it.

Life is filled with deep meaning, but is also filled with warm humor. The ability of man to examine himself and his place in the universe and to occasionally laugh very loudly at himself makes this a wonderful world. These are the ideas I see in the caganer and the meaning I hope he demonstrates to my students, friends and colleagues.