Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Maya art at the National Palace

Mexico’s National Palace is hosting the grandest Maya exhibit I’ve ever seen. Mayas: Revelation of Time Without End brings together 470 pieces of ancient Maya art as well as a smattering of colonial and contemporary Maya art. Half the items on display are of recent discovery, many being displayed for the very first time. Many other items come from collections of Mexico’s various museums of Maya archeology. I was delighted to see so many pieces from museums I thought I knew well but where I never had access to what was in storage.

“They came out of storage rooms and have been cleaned and restored for this exhibit,” said Mercedes de la Garza, curator of the exhibit. Foremost among the storage rooms was the basement of the National Museum of Anthropology, which holds more items than are on display.

Every visitor will certainly leave with favorite pieces in mind. Stellar is the Tablet of the Throne, discovered in 2002 in Palenque’s Temple XXI. The exquisite detail, accompanied by hieroglyphic text, shows two deities along with Pacal Kin (the Palenque ruler buried in the tomb under the Temple of the Inscriptions) and two other governing dignitaries in a ceremony of blood-letting self-sacrifice.
I’m haunted by the life-sized sculpture in limestone of a man who has just offered his heart in sacrifice. It is on loan from the INAH’s regional museum in Campeche.

I was most intrigued by two figurines, each about six inches high, portraying a god embracing a woman. They are so similar that they must have come from the same potter’s workshop. However, one belongs to the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s (UNAM) Tlatelolco museum and the other to the Canton Palace museum in Mérida. They made me think of the technique developed by Dorie Reents-Budet of using neutron activation to determine if two pieces of pottery came from the same workshop or even from the same ball of clay.

A welcomed warming of international relations was palpable in last month’s inauguration ceremony as well as in the exhibit itself. French ambassador Elisabeth Beton sat on the speakers’ platform with President Peña Nieto, governors of states in the Maya area, and the heads of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) and Council of Culture and Arts (Conaculta). It was a subtle way to underline a warming in Franco-Mexican relations under Peña Nieto’s presidency. 

In his remarks President Peña Nieto said the Maya exhibit will travel to Brazil and France before returning to tour Mexico. I was pleased to hear President Peña Nieto recognize the importance of Mexico’s ancient history when he said: “This exhibit — along with all the other work we are doing — will be a stimulus projecting Mexico to the rest of the world. More importantly it will make Mexican’s pride in our roots and our identity flourish.”

Approximately 20 percent of the pieces on display are on loan from three Guatemalan museums. This confirms a thawing of relations in archeological circles where a longstanding irritant has been the display in Mexico’s Templo Mayor museum of the Nobel Peace Prize medal won by Guatemalan Rigoberta Menchu. Menchu deposited it there in 1992 saying: “It will be transferred to Guatemala when conditions of respect of human rights and peace exist. They do not exist at the present time.” The medal is still on display but that text has been removed from the plaque.

The National Palace is a wonderful place to house this magnificent exhibit. You enter and leave through side-by-side narrow doors, spanned by a single arch, between two of Diego Rivera’s murals in the National Palace’s central courtyard. Set in what seems like a rabbits’ warren of spacious galleries, with no view to the outside, the exhibit winds around another of the palace’s many courtyards not even visible to the visitor until the very end of the exhibit.

Rafael Tovar y de Teresa, President of Conaculta, described the layout of the exhibit’s division into six sections: the Maya relationship with nature; Maya community and daily life; the ceremonial heart of the Maya cities; the Maya relationship with time and astronomy; and Maya sacred forces — in which two burials are exhibited just as they were found. The exhibit ends with colonial and contemporary textiles, musical instruments, and items of religious nature produced as the Mayas blended with Christianity.

Tovar also gave us the wonderful news that this exhibit is the first of a series that will be held in the National Palace during this presidential administration. It will be followed by equally impressive exhibits of Mixtec and Zapotec cultures, Teotihuacan, the Aztecs, cultures of Northern Mexico, and the Totonacs. 

Mayas: Revelation of Time Without End lives up to Mexico’s enviable reputation for the quality of its museums — in content, quality of the displays, as well as a logical progression in the presentation of the displays. It exceeds other Mexican museums in its friendliness. Admission is free for all visitors and photography is welcomed (without flash or tripods). Its schedule brackets Mexico’s busiest family vacation times. It opened last month before the year-end holidays, and will close April 27, 2014, after Holy Week. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Mondays.

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