Hands-on Toys

"Every culture seems to have toys that reflect its way of life," writes author Paul Trachtman. "Miniature clay knights on horseback entertained children in medieval Europe, and child's play during the French Revolution included little guillotines that beheaded aristocratic dolls. In this century, the culture of television images and other mass media is reflected in the reign of the Barbie doll and superhero action figures."

But in many parts of the world, it is the toy pieced together from the things made for mass consumption that turns out to be a symbol — albeit an ironic one — of late 20th-century life. Far from the junk piles that spawned them, a remarkable collection of such toys from every part of the world is currently on view at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, as part of its exhibition "Recycled, Re-Seen: Folk Art from the Global Scrap Heap." This exhibition runs until January 4, 1998, and then travels to four other museums in the United States over the next two years.

With imagination, ingenuity and skill, a toymaker in Haiti transforms a plastic bottle into a helicopter, armed with ballpoint pens for rockets. In Mexico, a boy uses flattened and folded bottle caps to make miniature sets of tables and chairs. Other toys are made of wire coat hangers and telephone wire, bits of metal cans and bicycle chains. The universality of commercial brand names and logos that turn up in these toys is evidence of an increasingly global village. "As if," writes Trachtman, "Coca-Cola and Nestlé and Mobil and Gillette have become icons that know no boundaries of culture or geography."

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