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Volume 64 / Humanities


Precolumbian and Colonial: General, Middle America, and the Caribbean

DANA LEIBSOHN, Associate Professor of Art, Smith College

OVER THE PAST 20 YEARS, scholarship on the visual culture of Spanish America has become significantly more vibrant. The number of scholars in the field has expanded, as has the breadth of images, objects, and topics considered worthy of study. Throughout the 1990s questions of indigenous agency and creativity, especially as related to the construction of ethnic and personal identity, grew in prominence. New ways of thinking about transatlantic relationships also developed, especially models of cultural exchange that lent Spanish America more responsibility for reworking and exporting, not merely absorbing, European ideas and traditions. More recently, as increasingly nuanced understandings of colonial processes have shaped the fields of history, anthropology, and art history, scholars are rethinking interpretive frameworks for Spanish America. Much research now focuses less on form and style, and more on the significance of occupying a space, producing an image, or wielding an object under colonial conditions. Several long-standing projects nevertheless hold sway. Iconographic analysis still represents a dominant strain of scholarship, and for scholars of ancient American visual culture, rulership remains a widespread concern. The entries in this HLAS volume span this whole range: some very fine work follows familiar lines of inquiry; other studies actively seek and advocate new directions in the field.

Regarding New Spain and the colonial period, painting remains the primary medium of study. The collections assembled by Kellen Kee McIntyre and Richard Phillips (item #bi2007002678#) and by Elizabeth Hill Boone (item #bi2007004895#) offer good examples; in both, a broad sweep of thematic concerns is addressed most often through studies of painting. Beyond these volumes, a substantial majority of books and essays focuses upon two-dimensional works, from the images of indigenous people featured in the volume by Elisa Vargaslugo and her colleagues (item #bi2008002467#), to scenes more firmly rooted in the urban culture of Mexico City. In terms of interpretive approach, analyses of social practice and the lived experiences of viewers rather than strict iconographic readings structure many of the most interesting recent works. This perspective surfaces in the works on casta paintings by Susan Deans-Smith and Ilona Katzew, which highlight patronage and viewership, shifts in imagery over time, and 18th-century constructions of racialized identity (items #bi2008002458# and #bi2008002464#). Equally as important, questions of visuality—the social, political, and cultural meanings attached to the viewing of images—have been taken up in Michael Schreffler's study of political imagery in Mexico City (item #bi2008002466#) and in several essays on santos in the volume by Claire Farago and Donna Pierce (item #bi2007004894#). Interest in indigenous painting has not waned; what is notable, however, is the shift in emphasis. The most compelling work now treats indigenous painting as a profoundly colonial mode of image-making with implications that stretch well beyond questions of prehispanic continuities or the appropriation of European forms. The work by Eduardo Douglas represents one example (item #bi2007005300#); even more ambitious in this regard are the studies of indigenous cartography by Alessandra Russo (item #bi2008002465#) and images from Tlaxcala by Jaime Cuadriello (item #bi2008002461#).

Scholarship produced in Mexico has often differed in theme and tenor, at times quite markedly, from that published in the US. This gap seems to be closing, yet certain distinctions remain. For instance, a strong strand of biographical and documentary scholarship from Mexico focuses on individual painters, sculptors, and architects. The testament and analysis published by Jesús Palomero Páramo represents one example of this genre (item #bi2007005456#). Also important are studies of specific objects and image-makers, such as the retablos described in the Armando Ruiz volume (item #bi2008002955#). One of the best overviews of Mexican scholarship, particularly as developed at the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas in recent years, appears in the homenaje dedicated to Elisa Vargaslugo and edited by Cecelia Gutiérrez Arriola and María del Consuelo Maquívar (item #bi2008002952#).

Serious research on architecture and the material culture of daily life can also be traced in the colonial field. Urban histories, such as that of Querétaro by Fernando Núñez and his colleagues, are not common (item #bi2007005062#), although church architecture remains a primary concern. Samuel Edgerton and Jaime Lara have both tackled monastic complexes and the intermixing of indigenous and European traditions (items #bi2008002462# and #bi2007004707#). Other strong new work focuses on northern New Spain: Edgerton's volume includes analysis of Pueblos in New Mexico; Clara Bargellini's book on the cathedral of Saltillo illuminates the architecture of a metropolitan setting (item #bi2008002460#); and Gloria Fraser Giffords' study takes a more synthetic approach, describing building techniques and church furnishings across the entire northern region (item #bi2007005450#). A simple but important point concerns the publication of images in these books. Giffords' book offers excellent drawings and diagrams, and Edgerton's displays extraordinary photographs. Given how many colonial sites remain poorly published; these visual contributions are significant. High-quality images also surface in two exhibition catalogs, The Arts in Latin America, 1492–1820 (item #bi2007005065#) and The Grandeur of Viceregal Mexico (item #bi2008002954#). The latter, although focused on objects in a single museum, highlights one of the best collections of colonial works in Mexico and provides solid, sharp analyses of elite social practice and material culture. The Arts in Latin America is broader in purview and deeper in its reference material, yet it, too, gives pride of place to high-status images and objects. Taken together, these volumes offer English readers an excellent sense of the scholarship on colonial objects in museum contexts.

In the ancient American field, work on Maya visual culture remains among the most dynamic, both in the numbers of publications and depth of analysis. Of increasing importance are studies of the shifting, prehispanic meanings of monuments, such as the essays on Maya sculptured objects by Adam Herring and Bryan Just (items #bi2007003445# and #bi2007004207#). Emily Umberger's reading of Mexica history, which explores visual and material references to factional strife and imperial memory (item #bi2008002958#), extends this theme well beyond Maya studies. Recent works of note also address regions long understudied, such as Izapa (item #bi2007005063#), and those such as Teotihuacán (item #bi2008002463#), now canonical in ancient American history. In both arenas, questions of rulership and its iconography are conjoined with recent archeological work. Comparative analysis, especially across cultures in Mesoamerica (although at times reaching into Europe and East Asia), also structures this research. Much of the recent art historical writing on Mesoamerica thus continues to draw heavily upon archeology and comparative anthropology. This influence holds true for exhibition catalogs as well: two volumes linked to the blockbuster show, The Aztec Empire, curated by Felipe Solís, underscore broad patterns in the Mesoamerican past and Aztec distinctiveness by juxtaposing Aztec objects, ritual traditions, and imperial ambitions with both earlier Toltec and contemporary Tarascan creations (items #bi2008002956# and #bi2008002957#).

Finally, several recent works strive, often quite explicitly, to open new modes of inquiry and new themes of study. The Farago and Pierce volume on santos (item #bi2007004894#) and the essay on grafitti by Alessandra Russo (item #bi2007004211#) both stretch traditional conceptions of "proper" art objects. They also pose pointedly theoretical questions about the work that colonial images and objects perform—in both past and present. The essays by Byron Hamann on Mixtec manuscripts (item #bi2008002953#) and Adam Herring on Altar Q at Copán (item #bi2007003445#) work along different yet no less compelling lines. Both call attention to the chasm between current modes of reading objects and those practiced by elite viewers of antiquity; the possibilities for bridging this chasm thus become a primary theme of their work. Three publications, in particular, align the scholarship on Spanish America with themes broadly debated elsewhere in art history and the humanities. Charlene Villaseñor Black's work on St. Joseph pursues themes dear to gender studies (item #bi2007005061#); in so doing it subtly encourages historians of gender to look beyond the depiction of women in art and the documentation of female patrons. Gauvin Bailey's book on Jesuit patronage is now widely read, making clear the importance of world geographies—particularly cultural exchanges across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans—to studies of early modern visual culture (item #bi2007004898#). Indeed, this theme occupies several recent, although not yet published, dissertations and conference proceedings. It also organizes Daniela Bleichmar's essay on 18th-century botanical projects (item #bi2007001954#), which opens onto another increasingly prominent field of study: the intersection of visual culture with the history of science. Perhaps most unclear as of this writing are the directions of scholarship on and from the Caribbean. Work on the 19th-20th centuries stands out, as evidenced by the fine essay on Cuban art criticism by Norys Martínez Flexas and Misael Moya Méndez (item #bi2006002952#). For the colonial period, architectural history represents the most vibrant part of the field, with numerous studies seeking to document forms of both public and private construction (items #bi2008001779#, #bi2008002964#, #bi2008001785#, and #bi2008002967#). Portable works from the colonial period, however, and the prehispanic period, more generally, still deserve—and await—sustained new research and study.

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