Beyond the Grave: The Twentieth-Century Afterlife of West Mexican Burial Effigies.

Author:Sund, Judy
 
FREE EXCERPT

In the 1890s, Norwegian anthropologist Carl Lumholtz set out to explore the Sierra Madre Occidental, a mountain chain that runs from Arizona to central Mexico. A committed practitioner of what James Clifford calls "salvage ethnography," Lumholtz was alarmed by the growing global scarcity of truly "primitive people" and intent on recording vanishing ways of life before they disappeared altogether. [1] In 1892 he set his sights on a region of the world so little visited by outsiders that he titled the two-volume chronicle of his journey Unknown Mexico. [2] Published by Scribner's in 1902, it details Lumholtz's encounters with the Tarahumara, Tepehuan, Huichol, and Cora and draws attention to an unanticipated by-product of the expedition: his "rescue for science" of a historic primitive, in the form of a group of Pre-Columbian burial effigies (Fig. 1).

Made between 200 B.C.E. and 400 C.E. for inclusion in elite burials in shaft tombs, the ancient figural sculptures described in Unknown Mexico had been gathered by locals after accidental unearthings and amateur excavations. [3] As Lumholtz traveled, he was invited to visit regional troves, and he eventually acquired several examples of the distinctive ceramic production he called Tarascan--a misleading label that stuck for decades. [4] In fact, the grave goods he collected were made by a constellation of cultures that predated the Tarascan kingdom by a millennium; today, they are broadly designated West Mexican. That label encompasses three cultures named for the modern states they once inhabited--Nayarit, Jalisco, and Colima--which in turn incorporate distinctive subcultures. [5] Living on the northwestern fringes of ancient Mesoamerica (those portions of modern Mexico and northern Central America that shared a common culture in the three thousand years prior to Spanish assault on the Americas), the people s called West Mexican produced no writings, pyramids, or monumental stone sculpture, but they built and stocked hundreds of shaft tombs. [6]

From the time they were unearthed, the grave goods from these tombs struck both Mexican and Euro-American sensibilities as the product and manifestation of a lower rung of the evolutionary ladder. Lumholtz, who valued the tombs' anthropomorphic effigies mainly as documents, [7] wrote that they were popularly dubbed monos (monkeys)--a nickname that remained in use even in the 1940s. [8] In 1957 artist/scholar Miguel Covarrubias, an early collector and chronicler of West Mexican ceramics, bluntly labeled Nayarit effigies from Ixtlan (Fig. 1) "subhuman monstrosities," and years later, eminent anthropologist Michael Coe dryly remarked that "it would be stretching a term unduly to call the various cultures of western Mexico... 'civilized.'" [9]

Well after a rail line linking Mexico's Pacific coast to its center was completed in 1927, West Mexico remained marginal and unknown, its tombs excavated by looters rather than archaeologists. The ceramic effigies they yielded began to attract notice in Mexico City about 1930--when Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo began collecting them [10]--but throughout the next two decades, as Mesoamerica's high cultures were reappraised for audiences in the United States against a backdrop of enthusiastic Pan-Americanism, [11] West Mexican clay production was consistently set apart. Holger Cahill, writing in the Museum of Modern Art's celebratory catalogue American Sources of Modern Art (1933), declared that while "ancient American art, in its best periods, cannot be called primitive," the archaistic ceramics of West Mexico were another matter, lacking the "refinement" of Maya sculpture and the "massive power" of Aztec carvings. [12] Similarly, when several "Tarascan" effigies were included in the Museum of Modern Art's exh ibition Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art (1940), Mexican archaeologist Alfonso Caso, having drawn a distinction between Mesoamerica's early cultures and the "Cultural Summit" that followed, noted the caricatural quality and "unexcelled simplicity and purity" of West Mexican production--aspects, he wrote, that recalled "the archaic." [13] Though scholars' burgeoning interest in ancient West Mexico was signaled by a Mesa Redonda (roundtable conference sponsored by the Sociedad Mexicana de Antropologia) on the region convened in 1946, its clay production--particularly "the uncouth art of Nayarit"--continued to register as authentically primitive. [14]

The term primitive, once a freely applied diagnostic of non-European ways of life and styles of art, is now seen to denote a Euro-American conceit: a discursive formation posed against what is seen, from a given subject position, to constitute cultivation. [15] Notions of the primitive vary with its framers, and it is alternately, even concurrently, vaunted and disparaged, desired and denigrated, as its "civilized" cartographers measure themselves and their cultures against the shifting parameters by which they mark its domain. [16] Frida Kahlo, for instance, suggested her own equivocal relation to the primitive embodied by a Nayarit effigy she owned in Self-Portrait with Small Monkey, 1945 (Fig. 2). One of a trio of satellites ranged about the artist's large, frontal form, the Nayarit figure is associated with the monkey and the native ixcuintli dog; all are markers of indigenous Mexicanness, here possessed, domesticated, and artfully displayed. Kahlo holds herself aloof from and superior (in position and s cale) to her pets and her primitive, yet at the same time she portrays herself literally tied to the periphery they occupy, a space at the boundary of nature and culture. The ribbon connecting her to that place of the primitive--at once suggestive of hangman's noose, subjugating leash, and the cord connecting fetus to food source--indicates the artist's unruly entanglement with it.

Diego Rivera's relation to the West Mexican effigies he and Kahlo collected was even more equivocal. Though he vaunted Nayarit's "ceramicas primitivas" [17] and collected West Mexican effigies by the dozens, allusions to this clay art rarely surfaced in his murals celebrating Mesoamerica's illustrious past, where references to the "high cultures" of the Aztec and Maya abound. [18] Still, Rivera usually is credited with sparking wider interest in West Mexican grave goods by way of his vast collection and its display. [19] In the 1950s, West Mexican effigies became hot commodities on the Los Angeles art market, promoted by dealers Earl Stendahl and Ralph C. Altman, [20] where they were snapped up by members of the movie colony as well as by collectors, including Jules Berman, a real estate developer and entrepreneur who found himself drawn to the "warmth and good humor" he found in West Mexican figuration. [21] Within a decade or so, prime pieces were in short supply in Los Angeles, and West Mexican-style fake s inundated the market. [22] Yet even as wary collectors shied away from them, the effigies' profile was raised in the 1960s as archaeological and anthropological interest accelerated [23] and--in an altogether different domain--Berman put his West Mexican ceramics to work in print ads for Kahlua, the coffee-flavored Mexican liqueur he had recently introduced to consumers in the United States (Fig. 3). [24]

From the mid-1960s until 1995, Kahlua's promoters used West Mexican ceramics to fashion an alluring primitive that audiences in the United States might wish to display and consume. The brand's Pre-Columbian campaign, which appeared in national periodicals, including Life and Esquire, probably introduced more norteamericanos to ancient Mexican art than any sort of scholarly, museological, or "high art" discourse, though the ads did not insist on the origins of the pictured artifacts. Instead, Kahlua advertising capitalized on the relative anonymity of West Mexican effigies to co-opt them as readymade mascots and played on their striking unfamiliarity to style the liqueur as exotic and its imbibers as adventurous. The appropriation Berman initiated was sustained and successful; over the course of thirty years, West Mexico's onetime grave goods came to connote Kahlua more readily than Mexico (let alone Nayarit, Jalisco, or Colima). [25]

When in 1998 Ancient West Mexico became the subject of an exhibition and catalogue (respectively organized and edited by Richard Townsend of the Art Institute of Chicago), the show was subtitled "Art and Archaeology of the Unknown Past," an indication that though any distant past is largely unknowable, West Mexico's has been considered especially so. The exhibition's wall and catalogue texts summarized the findings and reconstructions of archaeologists, physical anthropologists, and ethnohistorians who have worked in West Mexico for the last forty years, and when Art Institute director James N. Wood characterized his museum's undertaking as a "project of recovery," he presumably alluded to this scientific salvation of a West Mexican past, in addition to the exhibition's intellectual repositioning of a set of deracinated artifacts within an antiquity that is increasingly "known." [26] This essay, by contrast, makes little attempt to relocate Nayarit, Jalisco, and Colima ceramics in an actual past or rightful context. Instead, it examines the peregrinations resulting from these objects' detachment from their origins and explores a series of dislocations facilitated by their lack of contextual baggage. Clearly, West Mexico's "unknownness" rendered its grave goods malleable signifiers, and ironically, the ceramics' relative anonymity both led to and coexisted with regular appearances in twentieth-century visual culture. [27] In chronicling Kahlua advertising's recontextualizations of West Mexican grave goods, I explore ways in which the practices of collection and display emerge as imaginative enterprises and, in this vein, also examine the ways in which Rivera and Kahlo put the objects they owned into play...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP