Tuesday, July 24, 2012

How the Indigenous saw themselves after the conquest

Chapultepec Castle is one of my favorite places and I was delighted to hear it would host the exhibit titled "Compared Views in the Viceroyalties of America, Mexico and Peru" (Visiones comparadas en los virreinatos de America.  Mexico y Peru).  Though scheduled through October 7, there is good reason to visit it today or tomorrow.  The most fragile pieces will not be on display for the duration of the exhibit. This touring exhibit, curated by Ilona Katzew, opened in 2011 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as "Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World".  

Though its name changed when it moved to Mexico City the exhibit is essentially the same, bringing together 170 items from collections in Peru, Chile, Spain, France, United States, and Mexico

In naming the exhibit, Los Angeles referred to Spanish colonial rule, Mexico uses the more correct reference to viceroyalty government in which, from a legal standpoint, New Spain and Peru were integral parts of Spain. 

At the exhibit I serendipitously encountered Salvador Rueda Smithers, Director of Chapultepec Castle’s National History Museum.  He told me “calling the exhibit 'Contested Visions' in Spanish would not have honored the purpose of the exhibit.  Compared Views encompasses finding opposing ideas as well as similarities inspired and compared through Indigenous eyes.  The exhibit focuses on the Indigenous as they saw themselves -- not as Criollos or Mestizos saw them.  This exhibit is basically the seed of ethnography… art and ethnography at a moment in time before they separated."

Through art, "Compared Views" gives us insights into the way Spain imposed itself on two powerful short-lived empires, Inca and Aztec, which, though unlinked, perhaps even unknown to the other, existed for less than two centuries prior to Spanish conquest.  

It is mainly through oil paintings on canvas or magnificent screens (biombos) that we are drawn into the rigid caste system of both cultures.  Paintings document the machinations families of influence undertook to preserve privilege.  Elaborately painted genealogies trace Indigenous ancestry in efforts to conserve property rights and to recall agreements and promises made by the conquerors.  Text on the paintings includes Indigenous names written in the Spanish style using first and second surnames.

This exhibit does not deal with the horrors of the conquest, smallpox, starvation, and slavery.  It is an exhibit of the view of survivors, mostly those of privilege who successfully adapted to the new order.  A particular 1734 portrait sticks in my mind.  Juana María Cortés Chimalpopoca is shown wearing an elegant huipil, taking vows in Mexico's Corpus Christi convent established ten years earlier for noble Indians or "Cacicas" (female Caciques).  Juana is portrayed alongside the shield of nobility awarded by Phillip II to Antonio Cortés Totoquihuaztli, governor of Tacuba (1550-1574).  Juana's father, José, thus documented his claim as a descendent of a prehispanic governor of Tacuba through the portrait of his daughter's entry into a convent for Indigenous nobles.

Interspersed in the exhibit are pieces of prehispanic art from Peru and Mexico -- three are special treats. On the back wall of the exhibit's first room is a Chimalli, an Aztec shield, decorated with feathers.  Along with Moctezuma's headdress Hernan Cortez sent it to his sovereign, Charles I, who marveled over how "brilliantly the use of feathers replaced that of the brush."  Emperor Maximilian returned the Chimalli to Mexico in 1864.  According to Professor Rueda, Maximilian wished to bring the headdress back as well but his brother Emperor Franz Joseph refused permission. 

If you go left from the Chimalli around the other side of the display case two dimly lit cases form a corner.  One contains a marvelous cotton Xicolli (ritual vestment), the other a mask covered with bark paper -- the only prehispanic bark paper other than in a codex that is still conserved.  Professor Rueda exclaimed, "I had never seen these before!  They have never been exhibited and they'll only be on display during the exhibit's first two weeks."  Hence my suggestion you drop what you're doing and visit the exhibit quickly.

About the mask, Professor Rueda went on to say, "I imagine the priest wearing a sacrificed person's skin, hands covered in blood, the mask over his face, thorns in his bleeding ears, holding in his hands the bloody heart of a still living sacrifice.  Though refined in many ways, the Aztecs were very cruel.  The demand for blood was high; this is a chilling piece."   

The Xicolli, with a black and white repetitive design of circles and squares, according to Professor Rueda, "is the only prehispanic textile design known to survive to our time.  We knew the varied designs from codices but had never seen a real one until this was found.  You can see the precision in the design, the importance of their geometry.  We realize it expresses something not yet understood about their technology, about prehispanic Mexican thinking…  Though we may not know how they thought, we do know their designs were done with great exactitude, geometrically perfect and with proportion.”

I hope you’re lucky enough to run into Professor Rueda on your visit.  Either way I’m sure you’ll be glad you went.  

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