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The Art of Mestizaje

Fusion in Latin America

By Paulette W. Campbell | HUMANITIES, November/December 2003 | Volume 24, Number 6

In a painting of a Corpus Christi procession in Peru, descendents of Incan royalty wear native regalia and parade with Catholic saints. Korikancha Temple in Cuzco, once dedicated to the worship of the sun, the gods of thunder, and Incan rulers, is a Catholic church today.

Mestizaje, the fusion of European and indigenous cultures in Latin America, is a hallmark of colonial-era painting, architecture, and ritual objects. A new website and DVD, Vistas: Colonial Latin American Visual Culture, 1520–1820, unites high-resolution color images with primary sources in Spanish and English, and interpretive essays. “Vistas will bring the best of the archive, the museum, and the lecture hall into the hands and onto the screens of college teachers and students,” says Dana Leibsohn, an art historian at Smith College and project co-director.

Leibsohn is collaborating with Barbara Mundy, associate director of Latin American and Latino studies at Fordham University, to develop sections dealing with economics, iconography, and the historical meaning of Latin American objects and social practices. Music and video clips, bibliographies, timelines, and a glossary will provide context and suggestions for further research.

Vistas covers the period between the Iberian conquest of Latin America and the independence movement that would liberate all of the colonies except Cuba and Puerto Rico. “This period was the crucible for the formation of contemporary culture from Mexico to Brazil, from the Caribbean to the Andes,” says Mundy. “During this time, lasting links were forged not only with Europe and North America, but also Asia and Africa.”

In Corpus Christi Procession, San Cristóbal Parish, a painting dated circa 1680, members of the parish of San Cristóbal parade in a Catholic festival. Religious confraternities, religious orders, and the civil government follow a processional route toward the cathedral. Don Carlos Huayna Capac Inka, the cacique, or indigenous ruler of the region, is garbed in Quechua cloth worn only by the native elite.

The Corpus Christi painting is an important record of indigenous Catholicism and the hybrid of colonial religious practices, says Carolyn Dean, associate professor of art history at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “Descendents of the Inca royal dynasty are shown in the painting in their capacity as leaders of the parishes of Cuzco,” she says. “They wear royal Inca garments that have been modified according to Spanish tastes. For example, breeches have been added under indigenous tunics and lace sleeves have been added. They wear solar pectorals, which are a reference to the solar-worship of their royal ancestors. They are characterized in the painting as both rulers--they wear royal Inca regalia--and ruled--they escort Catholic saints--and are associated with both Inca and Catholic religions.”

The commingling of cultures is also seen in the Caribbean zemi, a deified ancestor worshipped by the Taíno, a group of Amerindians who inhabited the Caribbean at the time of the Spanish conquest. The zemi that appears on the website is two-faced-- part bat, part human--and is made of local shell beads, glass mirrors from Europe, and rhinoceros horn from Africa. It was most likely created for a cacique, who would have had access to European goods.

In the first few decades after their arrival, Europeans collected zemis and sent them back home as curiosities; but they ultimately came to view zemiworship as an obstacle to the Catholic conversion of the Taíno, and began to destroy the zemis.

“Making Sense of the Pre-Columbian,” one of Vista’s units, focuses on the ways in which people in the Americas and Europe collected, exhibited, and wrote about pre-Hispanic objects and sites. Antonio León y Gama’s 1792 drawing of Coatlicue--an Aztec goddess that symbolized the earth as creator and destroyer--is an example of how the interpretation of an object shifts with the political climate.

In pre-Hispanic times, the Coatlicue stood in the sacred temple precinct of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, where she was one of several female deities. Her face is comprised of two fanged serpents, and her skirt is of interwoven snakes, which symbolize fertility. Her breasts are slack and her necklace is of hands, hearts, and a skull. Her fingers and toes are claws, indicating, some scholars say, that she feeds on corpses.

The Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés razed the capital in 1521 and built a Spanish city atop its ruins, and the Coatlicue was buried. But almost three hundred years later, during the repaving of Mexico City’s main square in 1790, the Coatlicue was rediscovered and moved to the Royal and Pontifical University.

“It was eventually reburied because the Indians started making offerings to it, and the Catholic professors were afraid the practice might bring idolatry back,” says Elizabeth Boone, professor of Latin American Art at Tulane University.

But before they buried it, Antonio León y Gama, a Mexican astronomer, studied it. “The Europeans were saying that the Aztecs had no culture, that they were all barbarians,” Boone explains. “But Antonio--a Creole--wanted to prove to the world that the Aztecs had a great civilization and were intellectually sophisticated. He was not interested in the Coatlicue as the earth goddess; his curiosity was more scientific.”

In doing so, Gama became the first person to try to interpret the ancient culture of Mexico using ancient documents, Boone says. “His treatment marked the beginning of pre-Columbian studies.”

Vistas juxtaposes archival materials from cities and wealthy households in Spanish America with objects from rural regions and indigenous communities, ranging from California to Chile, and from the southwestern United States to the Caribbean. “There is a good body of literature and images that are strewn in different places. If you are in Bolivia, you are familiar with the resources there, but you don’t know what Davenport, Iowa has. And if you’re in Iowa, you don’t know what Chicago has,” says Leibsohn. “With Vistas, we’ve tried to pull together these rare and scattered resources--those that we thought would have wide interdisciplinary use and would address gaps in the field.”

Vistas was created for scholars of Latin American history and for academics interested in a fresh approach to art history, history, or regional studies. Miguel Cabrera’s 1752 portrait of Don Juan Joachín Gutiérrez Altimirano Velasco, a wealthy descendant of conquerors, is more than just an example of traditional European portraiture, says Mundy. “Students will be encouraged to think of the multiple meanings such a portrait would have had in early Latin America, meanings that went far beyond its faithfulness to the features of Don Juan Joachín,” she says. “We would not only examine its composition, style, and color, but also read a contract with an artist that gave rise to such a portrait, encounter an example of the Baroque carved table we see in its painted background, read an import record of the embroidered Chinese silk in which Don Juan Joachín is clothed, hear a description of the festival in which official portraits like this one were paraded through Mexico City’s streets, and see engravings of the festive arches under which they would have passed.”

She continues, “We would come to develop a more profound understanding of this portrait’s creation, use, and display, and the realities of the material world that it so lovingly represents.”

About the Author

Paulette W. Campbell is a writer in Burtonsville, Maryland.

Funding Information

The Vistas project has received $200,000 in NEH support. A pilot website can be found at www.smith. edu/vistas/vistas_web/index.html. The final website and DVD will be launched in spring 2004.