Strong, exotic and enigmatic describe the solid and hollow ceramic figures from West Mexico. “West Mexico: Ritual and Identity” presents an innovative archaeology exhibition that also includes perspectives from contemporary art, art history, anthropology and various materials testing sciences.
The exhibition, which opened June 26 at Gilcrease Museum, sheds new light on one of Mexico’s sophisticated ancient cultures. Organized by Gilcrease Museum, the exhibition features a spectacular selection of ceramic figures and vessels from the Gilcrease collection, augmented by items from public and private collections.
Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo saw these and other prehistoric figures as symbols of the rich ancient cultures that provided the foundation of modern Mexico. As artists, they appreciated the strong features and ingenious forms used, and they incorporated these images in their own works.
Cultures such as the Olmec, Aztec, Maya and Toltec are widely known. They too have distinctive styles that depict the kings and gods of their own worlds. Perhaps because of their monumental stone architecture of the earlier cultures or direct contact with the Aztecs by Spanish conquistadors and chroniclers, these cultures are more familiar to today’s audiences.
The western region of Mexico, including Jalisco, Colima, Nayarit and portions of Michoacán and Sinaloa, is less familiar. Yet, this region was also the home of important and innovative ancient cultures. About 1300 , people began living in large towns as well as small farming hamlets. While the cultures of the central Valley of Mexico built square platform pyramids and temples, in western Mexico, towns and villages were designed on a circular plan. Circular pyramids were surrounded with a circular plaza, which was encircled by houses and temples on raised platforms. Long, narrow, stone-lined ball courts indicate that the inhabitants played a version of the Mesoamerican ballgame that was both sport and ritual.
For centuries, people thrived on the ecologically rich and diverse resources in the region. These cultures were already ancient and the sites were long abandoned by the time the Spanish soldiers, adventurers and priests came to the western lands.
In the last century and a half, local Mexican farmers found that ruins also included large and sometimes deep shaft and tomb complexes. As is true in many parts of the world, the dead sometimes were accompanied by many kinds of finely-made objects. Because of the elaborate tombs and the enigmatic ceramic figures found within, the cultures of western Mexico were called the Shaft Tomb Culture by 20th century archaeologists; a name that these ancients would not have used to describe themselves.
Ceramic human figures adorned with brightly colored clothing, tattoos and body paint provide an intimate look at men and women of the culture, along with a variety of animals, birds, fish and reptiles. In the 1940s and ‘50s, Thomas Gilcrease amassed a collection of more than 500 ceramic figures and vessels from West Mexico, including two significant human figures, each more than 30 inches in height, and among the finest figures from the region.
Recently, archaeologists from many countries, including Mexico and the United States, have begun to take another look at the people, sites and material cultures of this region. Archaeologists and other researchers are looking beyond the surface and asking questions about what these figures mean, and what they can tell us about these ancient societies.
Research in museum collections and from science labs – along with contextual data from archaeological excavations – provides new insights, yet there is still much that we don’t understand about how these people lived or why these cultures seemed to disappear.
As is true with virtually all archaeological research and exhibitions, there are ethical, legal and authenticity issues involved. This exhibition explores these sensitive issues and discusses how research, exhibitions and museum practices are impacted.
“West Mexico: Ritual and Identity” opens a new chapter in archaeological exhibitions. It incorporates multiple new research perspectives and techniques in the analysis of the artifacts in an attempt to shed light on the meaning and use of these extraordinary objects. The exhibition acknowledges the problems of working with objects that have been taken from their context and the difficulties thus created. It also acknowledges that in addition to complete and genuine objects, many archaeological objects, particularly ceramic figures, have been repaired, modified, altered or forged over the years. Yet, instead of dismissing these objects, these issues are seen as part of the exciting challenge of working with museum collections.
The third part of the exhibition highlights the ongoing link between antiquities and modern artists who are still awed and inspired to use the imagery, themes and forms from ancient times in their own works. This idea may have been new in Rivera’s and Kahlo’s time, but it is no less important today.
Highlighting the artistry, incorporating new research and connecting the past with the present are the ways that “West Mexico: Ritual and Identity” helps humanize the ancients and reveals the research behind the exhibition.
Title sponsor of the Gilcrease Museum 2016 exhibition season is the Sherman E. Smith Family Charitable Foundation. Generous support is also provided by: Mervin Bovaird Foundation, C.W. Titus Foundation and M.V. Mayo Charitable Foundation.
An exhibition lecture will be held from 2 to 3 p.m. on July 16 in the Tom Gilcrease Jr. Auditorium. Robert Pickering, Ph.D., and exhibition curator, will discuss “West Mexico: Ritual and Identity.” A book signing will follow in the museum store. A series of symposia is also planned during the run of the exhibition. For a complete list of events, visit gilcrease.org.