What does “art of the Americas” mean? What does “pre-Columbian” mean? “Art of the Americas” refers to art created by the indigenous people of North, Central, and South America. “Pre-Columbian” signifies the time before Christopher Columbus and the Spanish conquistadors who followed him, like Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro, reached the Americas in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. The indigenous peoples and their highly sophisticated and diverse cultures were significantly affected by the influx of Europeans. Some civilizations were completely destroyed; others were devastated by new diseases and the seizure of their lands. An estimated 90 million indigenous people died in the Americas as a whole during the 16th century. Missionaries from Spain arrived in the “New World” (the Americas), suppressed indigenous belief systems, and imposed Roman Catholicism. Yet, the people of the Americas have carried on their cultural traditions, adapting and incorporating outside influences in the process.
The people of Mesoamerica and the Andes created monumental ceremonial sites, monumental architecture, and monumental sculpture. They were highly skilled in stonework, textiles, ceramics, and metallurgy. The designs and forms of textiles and ceramics varied from culture to culture and from abstract to naturalistic. Many sculptures were brightly painted, as were the walls of some architectural structures, although much of the paint is no longer extant. Only a few books survived the Spanish invasion, but their elaborately painted narrative imagery suggests that many more were created. The cultures also developed highly sophisticated calendars and complex hieroglyphic writing systems. They were skilled in astrology and math as well. The Maya even conceived of the concept of zero.
The civilizations of these regions were hierarchical and ritualistic. Leaders, priests, shamans, and the elite were at the top of society; commoners were at the bottom. The hierarchy was reinforced through images of rulers dominating other people and resources. To appease the gods, which were visualized in human and animal form, and to ensure the continued existence of the universe, people, animals, and other goods were ritually sacrificed in ceremonies. The ritual sacrifices generally took place on top of pyramid-like temple structures in ceremonial centers laid out along astronomically-determined axes. Painted, carved, and sculpted images of the sacrifices presented them as necessary for the state’s survival. These images reveal the elaborate dress worn by royalty and priests during the ceremonies, such as headdresses made from the green feathers of the quetzal bird and gold jewelry. The people of Mesoamerica particularly valued green materials, like the quetzal feathers, jade, and turquoise. Gold was primarily valued for its symbolic and transformative power. The Inca, for example, considered gold as the sweat of the sun; silver was revered as the tears of the moon. Textiles were the most highly valued of the Incan arts because they were the most colorful, abstract, and portable, and because textiles with elaborate, symbolic designs adorned rules, both when they were alive and when they were dead. (Metalwork was the most restricted and mimetic; ceramics were the most standardized and practical.)
Much Pre-Columbian art reflects the diversity of wildlife, fauna, and topography. Geographically, the region varies from the mountains and tropical jungles to desert and the ocean coasts. In the Andes, where the rugged terrain and harsh climate greatly affected people’s daily lives, the art “reflects an understandable preoccupation with survival.” The art also reflects certain values that underpinned the Andean civilizations. The importance of collectivity is pictured in the focus on groups over individuals, the lack of portraiture (except by the Moche people), and the emphasis on showing people’s roles in society. Images of interlocking opposites, pairs, mirror-images, and doubling hint at a belief in reciprocity, where one part is simultaneously countered and connected to another. The principle of transformation is visualized in images that show the cycle of life and death, as well as in images of composite beings that look like they are in the midst of a metamorphosis. The desire to grasp the essence of someone or something is implied by the preference for images of symbolic reality, rather than of realistic outward appearances.
- Is the work realistic, mimetic, or abstract? Why do you think the artist chose this particular style?
- If the imagery depicts a narrative, what story is told? How does the narrative unfold? Are there both images and hieroglyphs?
- In addition to the imagery and/or form, do you think the material had a symbolic value for the people who made the work? Why do you think this?
- Do you think the work is more didactic, symbolic, or illustrative? What makes you believe this?
- Do you think the work suggests a concern for survival? For whose survival? Why do you think this?
- What culture or civilization created the work? Where did the people of this culture live?
- What was the original function of the artwork or object? Who used and/or looked at it? Where was it originally used and/or located?
- How do you think the work reflects the concerns, values, and/or beliefs of the culture that created it? (Consider the imagery, form, and materials.)
- Who do you think was the intended audience? Why do you think this?
Works in the Nasher’s Collection
Exhibitions at the Nasher
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Carrasco, David, ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures: The Civilizations of Mexico and Central America. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2001.
Evans, Susan Toby, and David L. Webster, eds. Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America, An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2009.
Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies. www.famsi.org.
Lucie-Smith, Edward. Latin American Art of the 20th Century. London: Thames & Hudson, 2005.
Mesoweb: An Exploration of Mesoamerican Cultures. www.mesoweb.com.
Miller, Mary Ellen. The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec. Fourth edition. London: Thames & Hudson, 2001.
Poupeye, Veerle. Caribbean Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 1998.
Stone-Miller, Rebecca. Art of the Andes: From Chavín to Inca. London: Thames & Hudson, 2002.