Los Angeles County Museum of Art Opens Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World

. November 6, 2011 . 0 Comments

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in partnership with the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico, presents Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World, the first exhibition in the United States to examine the significance of indigenous peoples and cultures within the complex social and artistic landscape of colonial Latin America.

On view from November 6, 2011 through January 29, 2012, the exhibition offers a comparative view of Mexico and Peru, the two principal viceroyalties of Spanish America, from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries, and includes a selection of approximately 200 works of art, including paintings, sculptures, codices, manuscripts, queros (ceremonial drinking vessels), featherworks, and other extraordinary objects.

“This exhibition, which brings together a remarkable group of artworks from Mexico and Peru (two areas which were much larger than the countries known by those names today), provides a unique opportunity to examine the connection between ancient and colonial artistic traditions,” said Ilona Katzew, exhibition curator and department head of Latin American art.

“By taking into consideration the pre-Columbian (Inca and Aztec) origins of these two regions and their continuities and ruptures over time, Contested Visions greatly enriches our understanding of how art and power intersected in the Spanish colonial world.”

Exhibition Background
Following his conquest of the Mexica (commonly known as the Aztecs) in 1521, Hernán Cortés took possession of the heart of what would become the Viceroyalty of New Spain in the name of the Spanish king. Spain soon established a network of civil and religious authority that would effectively govern the immense territory, which encompassed present-day Mexico plus much of Central America and the Spanish borderlands that are now part of the United States. The viceroyalty’s capital, Mexico City, was built atop the ruins of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire.

The Viceroyalty of Peru was established in 1548 after Francisco Pizarro and his cohort, Diego de Almagro, invaded the Inca Empire in 1532 and violently defeated its last Inca ruler, Atahualpa. Unlike New Spain, where the capital was established atop the ruins of the Aztec Empire, the new capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru was built in Lima instead of Cuzco, the center of Inca authority, and the viceroyalty encompassed present-day Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile.

At first, the Spaniards, in their efforts to extract the mineral and agricultural wealth of the viceroyalties, instituted enforced labor that imperiled the indigenous populations, which were also devastated by disease and social and cultural disruption. Efforts to convert the native populations set in motion a complex historical dynamic involving the contestation and negotiation of power, which affected the art of Mexico and Peru in profound ways.

There has been—and to a certain degree there still is—a tendency to romanticize the Aztec and Inca empires as formidable entities that were vanquished by the Spaniards. The relationship between the indigenous peoples and nonnatives (Spanish invaders and other groups), however, was much more complex. Although the Spaniards referred to the native peoples of the Americas generically as “Indians,” (the Americas were called “las Indias” because Columbus initially thought that he had sailed to the Indian Subcontinent), these groups were not unified and did not share a common identity but instead identified with their ethnic states and ancestral roots. Their relationship to the conquerors cannot be reduced to one of victors and vanquished; it entailed a delicate process of cultural negotiation, mutual accommodation, and exchange, a dynamic that gave rise to vital works of art, rich in interpretative possibilities.

Exhibition Organization
The exhibition is organized into six broad sections. The first section, Tenochtitlan and Cuzco: Pre-Columbian Antecedents, brings together monumental sculpture for the Aztecs and textiles, feather and metalwork for the Inca, and presents key concepts integral to each society’s political and ideological structure that lays the foundation for understanding the role that indigenous artistic traditions played in colonial times.

The second section, Ancient Styles in the New Era, shows how pre-Hispanic styles and materials (e.g., textiles in Peru and featherworks in Mexico) continued in colonial times and were adapted to the creation of exquisite Christian objects.

The third section, Conquest and New World Orders, explores the depiction of the Spanish conquest in codices, paintings, and folding screens, and offers a three-fold perspective of this pivotal moment by Spaniards, Creoles (Spaniards born in the Americas), and Amerindians, showing the different and competing memories of this event.

The fourth section, The Devotional Landscape and the Indian as Good Christian, investigates the role of converted Indians in the creation of a uniquely Mexican and Andean religious pantheon, and their role in the invention of new devotions. Among the most noteworthy is the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico, but there is a host of lesser-known images that are also included.

The fifth section is titled Indian Festivals and Sacred Rituals. To sustain its power, the Spanish monarchy allowed the continuation of ancient traditions—such as dances and other festive rites—whenever they were incorporated into Christian rituals, and native groups resorted to their past to proclaim their rights as a polity. Depictions of Indian weddings, with all their festive paraphernalia, offer a brilliant glimpse into the topic.

The last section addresses the subject of Memory, Genealogy, and Land. During the conquest of Mexico, for example, indigenous groups formed alliances with the Spaniards to overthrow the Aztecs, which led to the concession of certain privileges. A series of paintings and illustrated manuscripts (e.g., techialoyans and lienzos), shows the need of the native communities to generate genealogies to retain their power. In Peru the indigenous elite also commissioned lavish pictorial genealogies of the Inca rulers to preserve their memory and stake out their place under Spanish rule and during the Republican period.

Image: Turquoise Mask. Mexico, Aztec-Mixtec, c. 1325-1521. Wood, turquoise, jadeite, shell, mother-of-pearl, coral, 9 7/8 x 5 7/8 x 3 1/8 in. Museo Nazionale Preistorico-Etnografico “Luigi Pigorini”, Florence.

Category: Exhibition News