Metamorfosis Documentation Project

- March 29, 2012

" A shared belief in the richness and importance of cultural traditions..."

This community is so rich in talent and yet I am always amazed when I meet new (new to me) artists who bring the richness of their talents to important cultural endeavors. Recent additions to my personal list of these unique individuals are Armando Espinosa Prieto and Craig Johnson of Metamorfosis Documentation Project. Over coffee, which I let go cold while listening to these two vibrantly articulate artists, I learned about the powerful documentary projects they pursue – identifying, then documenting unique cultural traditions in the Americas and giving the fruits of their labors back to the communities from which they emerged in order to keep a sense of cultural purpose alive in these places where global homogenization threatens at the community’s doorstep.

So many cultural anthropologists document cultural traditions quite well and this work has great value. But, often, there is only a preservation quality to these efforts. The people, the traditions, the rituals, the cultural expressions are frozen in time like the photogravures of Edward Sheriff Curtis. Financed by J. P. Morgan, Curtis’ images of North America’s native cultures were important chronicles of the people they represented, but gave no assistance in support of a continuation of these cultures and traditions. The images, though quite exquisite and moving, are merely a “moment in time.” The approach of Armando and Craig is deeper and, I believe will have a more lasting effect on the cultural traditions they document and the people who practice them.

Armando and Craig share a belief in the richness and importance of cultural traditions, focusing on cross cultural rituals and dances in the Americas. They believe that valuing historic cultures and rituals is necessary for these societies to survive and thrive in the modern world. The shared passion of these two is infectious, as they finish one another’s sentences and thoughts. It came at me in such a rush that I had to go to their website to grasp it all.

On the website, Armando lists himself as artist, videographer and editor and Craig Johnson self identifies as sound technician, photographer and assistant community liaison. Together they form a powerful team of adept storytellers. Only the stories they tell are not their own, but often the powerful rituals and cultural traditions of people in far-flung corners of our western hemisphere. These are places where myth and daily life merge into traditions, whose origins are either long forgotten or so much a part of daily life that the patterns of cultural expression cannot be separated from the seemingly mundane aspects of village life. And, yes, the settings of these stories are often tiny villages – often in remote regions.

As a documentary team of two, they identify a locus of ritual and tradition — be it a single village or a region — and set about to bring it to a larger audience and back to the locale, itself. And, therein lays, I believe, the importance of their work. When they leave a location at the end of a project they leave behind solid, useable reference materials, collections and a film about the elements that drive the cultural traditions surveyed. In this way, a community’s shared cultural history and tradition is both shared with a larger world and preserved for future generations in its unique location. They began documentation of cross-cultural rituals in 1998 in Basíhuare, a small Tarahumara village in Copper Canyon in Chihuahua, Mexico.    

Their latest venture, "La Danza de la Plum"a (The Feather Dance) was a project in collaboration with the Museo Comunitario "Balaa Xtee Guech Gulal" of Teotitlán del Valle. "La Danza de la Pluma" is a cross-cultural conquest dance, part of the cycle of conquest dances, and closely related to the Matachín dances. La Danza de la Pluma was a multifaceted endeavor that, in cooperation with the local authorities and the dance group, Grupo de Promesa, documented the dance itself, produced a video documentary and established a permanent Dance Exhibit in the community museum of Teotitlán del Valle.  Metamorfosis Documentation Project.donated the rights to the reproduction of the documentary to the community museum for its sole benefit.

Armando and Craig have embarked on a new project, Todos Santos, to explore the relation between the living and the dead. The cult of the dead is celebrated throughout Latin America in indigenous and mestizo communities, often known as Dia de Muertos or Todos Santos. These celebrations have roots in the cult of the dead of pre-Hispanic indigenous cultures and in pagan and Catholic rituals. Each ethnicity, region or country has different ways of honoring its dead – all based on the same sense of responsibility and reciprocity to the ancestors. The project will document and preserve these values and the various rituals about the proper way to honor the dead, the preparations for the celebrations, the altars and how the communion with the dead strengthens family and community ties and is meant to bring about a sense of belonging and well being.

From Wikipedia: Crowdsourcing – a distributed problem-solving and production process that involves outsourcing tasks to a network of people, also known as the crowd.

In my conversation with Armando and Craig, I was interested to hear that these two documentarians and cultural entrepreneurs were using crowdsourcing in support of their project. 

Whether it be the tongue-in-cheek instant musical renditions of Ravel’s “Bolerlo” or Bizet’s “Carmen” in settings as divergent as a train station or a farmers market or the “frozen” performance art of Improv Everywhere at Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal, I have come to appreciate the power of real-time access to a multitude – whether to produce/attend/view one of these unique events or to seek support for a project. In fundraising, one of the marvels has been Kickstarter®. This humble website has assisted many great projects of all stripes – environmental, social, artistic – to achieve modest goals to finance the start or the finish of a project.. The artists’ goal is to complete its Todos Santos project and to bring the documentary film back to its origins in South America. Check out their Kickstarter project at: