WHO WOULD YOU like to be this weekend? A Latino socialite or perhaps a famous general? An ancient dignitary wearing a feather-laden cape?
These and other subjects depicted in "Retratos: 2,000 Years of Latin American Portraits," an exhibition at the Smithsonian's International Gallery, will come to life Saturday when visitors don intricately detailed costumes and pose for photos in front of painted backdrops. The activity is one of several scheduled for Retratos (the Spanish word for "Portraits") Family Day, held in conjunction with the traveling exhibition, sponsored by the Ford Motor Co. Fund and organized by the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, the San Antonio Museum of Art and El Museo del Barrio in New York City.
Family Day is designed "to help families experience the exhibit outside the gallery [and] make it a little more meaningful," says Geraldine A. Provost, the National Portrait Gallery's youth and family program coordinator. In addition to dressing up for living portraits, visitors can do art projects, listen to a storyteller and watch a performance of Spanish music. Most activities relate to the day's theme, "Ancient Civilizations of Latin America -- Moche and Maya Cultures." (The Moche culture flourished in Peru between 100 B.C. and A.D. 700; the Maya culture thrived in Yucatan, Belize and northern Guatemala long before the arrival of Europeans early in the 16th century.)
During a recent Family Day, women wearing flouncy white dresses stomped assertively as they demonstrated dances from various regions of Mexico. Visitors of all ages lingered over making blossoms from colorful tissue paper. At another craft station, kids made miniature portrait boxes by decorating tiny tin boxes with gold frame-shaped stickers, floral-print paper and little cut-out pictures.
Family Day activities are giving the public a taste of what the National Portrait Gallery will offer at its new education center when the museum reopens July 4 following a six-year renovation.
"We really have the philosophy that you learn by doing," says Carol Wyrick, the director of education at the National Portrait Gallery. The education center will include a costume corner similar to the Ford ArtReach Van's "Portraits in Motion," the Latin American attire available for dress-up play at Family Days and during school tours.
Using a grant from Ford, the museum commissioned costumemaker Sahara Peerzada to construct four outfits resembling those worn in selected works in the exhibition.
"She didn't want it to be 'sort of like' -- she wanted it to be 'exactly like,' " says Tia Powell Harris, associate director of education programs, noting that Peerzada believed that children would notice even minute details in the portraits. Hence, the designer tried to duplicate the ensembles, from fabric patterns to such accessories as jewelry and flowers. Powell Harris, who created four costumes featuring simpler styles, said she worried that fabrics Peerzada chose might feel too heavy and uncomfortable on youngsters. However, as Peerzada predicted, the fabric weight makes the ensembles feel more authentic.
"Every girl that tries it on [says], 'Ohhh, it's real!' " Powell Harris says of one of the collection's popular skirts. Girls love to model the full black and white number seen in Diego Rivera's 1946 painting of glamorous socialite Elisa Saldivar de Gutierrez Roldan and a bright red skirt resembling that worn by a teenager who posed for a portrait before entering a convent.
Briana Zavadil White, the museum's school and teacher program coordinator, says the costumes -- which range from a Maya dignitary's bulky cape of brown and rust feathers to Gen. Simon Bolivar's military uniform to business-like attire worn by a Spanish author -- attract adults as well as children.
"Everything is really meant to fit all ages," says Zavadil White, noting that most pieces include elastic or ties to make the fit adjustable. A miniature version of the feather cape enables even infants and toddlers to dress up. All decked out in their portrait finery, folks can pose in front of a modern, traditional or commemorative backdrop while Zavadil White or another staff member takes a picture to be printed moments later. Visitors also can pose behind an ornate gold frame in the hallway leading to the gallery.
Available at the exhibition's entrance and the Retratos Web site, a free bilingual family guide for parents and children to use together while exploring "Retratos" includes a gallery scavenger hunt for artwork from the five represented periods. The guide includes instructions for hands-on activities similar to those featured during Family Days.
Ironically, most kids visiting the "Retratos" gallery don't much care for the children depicted in the paintings, some of which memorialize dead youngsters and some of which feature primitive-style, distorted figures.
"They don't look like children," Zavadil White says of the subjects, who often resemble miniature adults. Most kids, however, do enjoy Fernando Botero's 1970 portrait of "Joachim Jean Aberbach and His Family," featuring stylized, outrageously rotund parents, three children and a menagerie of pets.
"Everyone flocks to that one," says Powell Harris, who considered including a Botero-inspired costume in the "Portraits in Motion" collection but worried that a "fat" outfit might offend some people.
"RETRATOS: 2,000 YEARS OF LATIN AMERICAN PORTRAITS" -- Smithsonian International Gallery, S. Dillon Ripley Center, 1100 Jefferson Drive SW (Metro: Smithsonian). 202-275-2617. www.retratos.org. Open daily except Dec. 25 from 10 to 5:30. Free. The exhibit runs through Jan. 8. Retratos Family Day, Saturday from noon to 4, features the following activities, held in the Discovery Theater adjacent to the exhibition unless otherwise noted.
Noon to 12:30 and 3 to 3:30 -- Storytime, featuring the book "Rain Player," by David Wisniewski inspired by ancient Maya culture.
1 to 1:45 -- In-gallery dramatic interpretations by the National Portrait Gallery's Teen Ambassadors.
2 to 2:45 -- Latin American songs by the duo Cantare.
2:15 to 4 -- Costume photo session.
Ongoing -- Maya and Moche art activities include clay head sculpting and headdress decorating.