Monday, 9 February 2015

Ancient objects in Mexico as art and history

In 2012 I visited the Rufino Tamayo Museum in Oaxaca, a lovely colonial building that houses Tamayo’s collection of ancient American objects, mainly sculpture. The museum presents these ancient objects in colored niches, a different bright color in each room. I believe they are meant to be seen as art, rather than archaeological finds. 

In January this year I returned to Mexico City, for a conference of the Association of Art Museum Directors. We visited were the Museum of Anthropology and also Anahuacalli, a dramatic structure designed by Diego Rivera to house his collection of some 54,000 ancient American objects, primarily stone and clay sculpture and vessels. About 2000 are on view, in simple well-lighted niches with descriptive labels for each gallery and individual labels for only a few select objects.

Stone carving, Tamayo Museum, Oaxaca
At each of these museums I had the same unexpected experience: Looking at a single object, I was engaged by its specific expression and began to think of its personal history. Some 1500 years ago a person, probably a man, carved the stone  or modeled and carved and fired clay to make one of these figures. I don’t know if he made it for someone to use in daily life or not, but I’m pretty sure it ultimately landed in a tomb, where it would accompany the deceased person for eternity, in the dark and in private. Here he is now, alone, standing on a pedestal in a lavender exhibition case.

Stone sculpture, Anahuacalli
Now I look at these things in brightly lit museum cases, far from the locations and uses for which they were intended. Mostly, I wander past them, giving them a quick admiring or bored glance. But sometimes their intense expressions capture me and I find myself pondering the vicissitudes of their history. I think of them in the dark for 1500 years, then being dug or bulldozed out of their tombs and grabbed up by eager collectors. Treasured by artists who want to share them with everyone and left alone in clean, brightly lit vitrines for another eternity. 
Clay figure, Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City

Although there is information about the general types of the objects and the geographical area where they were probably made, there are no specifics about how and where they were found. At the time Tamayo and Rivera were collecting it was easy to overlook the possibilities that more detailed understanding of the history of the objects might offer. They bought or traded or cajoled these works as gifts, along with the silver entrepreneur William Spratling, the artist Miguel Covarrubias and many others living in Mexico during the 20th century. 

I understand that Rivera and Tamayo thought they were protecting these objects from being “stolen” and taken out of Mexico (while Spratling and other collectors sold some of them to museums in the United States) and indeed they probably were. But they also loved them for their age and beauty, but apparently not for any historical context. And so we don’t usually know much about where, why or how they were buried.

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