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Traducciones y Transiciones: Mexican and Central American Independence at The Walters

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Every work of art contains a story, but it often takes curatorial research and context to translate its meaning. Especially with historic pieces, the complex symbolism and materials can be difficult to decipher without professional intervention, and this is especially true at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, which boasts a historic collection from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, Medieval ivories and manuscripts, Chinese ceramics and bronzes, Art Deco jewelry, and objects from the ancient Near East, Mesopotamia, and Middle East.

What many museum patrons don’t realize is that the Walters is home to a growing collection of ancient art of the Americas, started when founder Henry Walters collected close to 100 gold artifacts in 1911 from the Chiriqui region of western Panama. Since that time, the museum has added pottery and stone pieces from Mexico, Central America, and South America, encompassing works from the Mesoamerican Olmec, Aztec, and Maya cultures, as well as the Moche and Inca of South America.

At a time when Baltimore City’s population continues to decrease, it’s worth noting that the Latino population rose from 4% in 2010 to 8% in 2020, from 25,960 to 45,927 according to 2020 census data. Although Baltimore is not typically associated with Latino culture, our shifting demographics are reflected in burgeoning cultural diversity and output, with specific neighborhoods, festivals, art forms, foods, and contemporary artists becoming more familiar and enriching the cultural ecosystem. Recognizing the historic impact of Latino culture in Baltimore is essential, and the Walters collection has a significant role to play in educating and shaping perception about who we are as a diverse multicultural population and assigning credit where it is due, especially in placing contemporary artists in conversation with classical works.

Tucked into a dark alcove on the Walters’ fourth floor, a small but complex exhibition celebrates the cultural achievements of the indigenous societies that grew and prospered over thousands of years in what is today Mexico and Central America. Curated by Ellen Hoobler, the exhibit Traducciones y Transiciones: A Celebration of Mexican and Central American Independence (1821–2021) accomplishes two corresponding goals: It commemorates Mexican and Central American independence from Spain and it explores the cultural exchange of influence that occurred between indigenous people and Europeans during centuries of occupation.

The exhibition features seventeen works of art including books, gold adornments, and ceramic vessels, and it features a contemporary, Baltimore-based counterpoint with a painting by Mexican-American artist René Treviño, which seeks to reclaim Indigenous astronomical knowledge through a creative reimagining of 16th-century European star charts.

After a tour of the exhibition in-person with Hoobler, where she patiently explained the significance and history of each object in the exhibit, she agreed to a follow up discussion of the show.

 

Gallery View at The Walters, Translations and Transitions

BmoreArt: Your title at the Walters is Curator of the Americas. What exactly does this mean in terms of geography and history? 

Ellen Hoobler: We have often wondered what we should call this curatorial position! Some possibilities are curator of Art of the ANCIENT Americas—but the collection I oversee includes examples from the colonial period, and even into the 19th century; or Art of the INDIGENOUS Americas. Since my collection includes our few Native American works, that seems most appropriate, but again, as the collection encompasses works from colonial Latin America that were used and perhaps even made by people of a mestizo, or mixed racial background, that is not quite accurate either. 

So we have settled on “Art of the Americas,” which I like because it reminds people that although many people in the US call themselves Americans, the continent we inhabit includes people of many other nationalities as well, who are also Americans. However, most of the artworks that I curate are from North, Central, and South America, ranging from Mexico to Peru, and date from as early as about 2000 BCE until the Spanish invasion ca. 1520.

What’s your professional and educational background that led you to this point in your career?

I studied Latin American Studies in college, worked at the auction houses in New York briefly, had a stint with Latin American clients in private banking, and also used to run a small company that offered tours focused on folk and fine art in Oaxaca, Mexico. But eventually I went back to graduate school to focus on ancient art of the Americas. During grad school, I had the opportunity to study the Zapotec language of Oaxaca for three summers and then to live in Mexico City for two years to conduct archival research. I have also traveled to Guatemala, Belize, Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Ecuador, and hope to travel again as the pandemic begins to ease.

The goal for this “small but mighty” exhibition is to celebrate the rich cultures of Mexico and Central America—including Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. Given Baltimore’s most recent census data showing that the Latino population is our fastest growing segment, Traducciones Y Transiciones seems like a perfect opportunity to reach out to Baltimore’s immigrant community and reflect a shared history, specifically around independence from Spanish domination. Can you talk generally about this exhibit and how it is a moment to learn more about history and culture—as Americans and as immigrants?

This exhibition was a great opportunity for the Walters to show a commitment to presenting the histories of different peoples in our local community, in this case to show an aspect of Latin American history. Preparations for the show included working with our amazing Adult Programs Team to plan a lot of virtual programming from many perspectives—how complex the idea of heritage is in Mexico, the challenges and joys of teaching Mayan languages in Guatemala, how mapping makes tangible the experiences of Native American and Black communities in Maryland—which supported the exhibition but also are available for the future on our social media channels.

How do you ensure that immigrant populations and non-English speakers can access the exhibit?

We tried to make the show fully accessible to different people by offering Spanish-language versions of the labels, so families with a range of language preferences could all feel comfortable with it.

I see the show as one form of reaching out to the Latino/a or Latinx population in the city and region, and it’s part of a larger initiative we’re undertaking as we begin preparations for a broader installation of the Latin American collection, due to open in 2024. We’re forming a community advisory group, and to undertake focus groups to understand what people would want to see in a larger exhibition.

However, this exhibition is not happening in isolation. In 2018 and 2019, we also put on two other small shows, Crowning Glory and Transformation, which showed us that there was a hunger for more exhibitions of works from these areas.

I remember particularly a time when we had a group of students from the Wolfe Street Academy, and the docent touring them through the show said that when they came into the exhibition, they immediately congregated in front of the exhibition’s map, showing Latin America, and proudly pointed out to her the countries where their families had come from. There were comments like, “Mi abuela es de allí!” (My grandmother is from there!) That showed this was personally important to our public. The works in that show, and others we undertake, will of course mean different things to different people—some will see artistic inspiration for their own works, others experience objects of curiosity, or of sublime beauty that uplift their everyday experience. But some people will experience belonging within the community by seeing their own ancestral traditions reflected in the space of the museum, and that’s really important for me.

Although a struggle for independence occurred over centuries, Mexico and Central America won their freedom back from Spain officially in 1821, which is the year designated to commemorate independence. After self-governing nations were established, a new appreciation emerged for indigenous culture and knowledge as well. Can you talk about the six major themes that organize the show and how you have organized the objects to present a story about Indigenous roots, Spanish influence, and eventual independence from the conquistadors?

The show is organized around six forms of Indigenous knowledge: 1.) Indigenous languages; 2.) foodways, specifically use of chocolate; 3.) forms of mapping the physical environment; 4.) knowledge of animals, especially jaguars; 5.) deities and belief systems; and 6.) mastery of astronomy. 

The exhibition explores how those inventions, worldviews, or shared understandings were created during ancient times, developed over hundreds or thousands of years, and then were radically transformed after the Spanish invasion of the Americas circa 1500. In some cases, European conquistadors tried to suppress these ways of knowing, or to radically transform them for new purposes, but they survived and evolved during about three centuries of colonization, and have continued to endure (and in some cases to thrive) since independence from Spain in 1821. 

 

Vocabulario en lengua castellana y mexicana (Dictionary in Spanish and Mexican languages). Author: Alonso de Molina (Spanish, ca. 1513–1579); Printer: Antonio de Spinosa, Mexico City, 1571. Printed book, ink on paper. Bequest of Henry Walters, 1931, acc. no. 92.498.
Lidded Vessel for Chocolate. Maya culture, Guatemala, 250–550. Earthenware, slip with incising. Gift of John Bourne, 2009, acq. no. 2009.20.39

One topic the show addresses is Indigenous languages, many which are being spoken by millions of people across the world today. Can you talk about how the exhibit touches on language?

For the theme of Indigenous languages, one of the works we have in the case is a bilingual  dictionary that is translated between Spanish and the Nahuatl language. This is the mother tongue for the people we would call the Aztecs, who controlled much of today’s central Mexico in the 16th century when the Spaniards invaded. To evangelize them, to dominate them politically and economically, the Spanish first had to be able to communicate with them, and so these 16th-century dictionaries that were produced represent ways to control people, not just to learn their language. 

However, although these dictionaries have their roots in control and subjugation, in the 20th and 21st centuries, Indigenous peoples and the general public have been able to reclaim them. There are already over a million people in Mexico itself that still speak variants of the Nahuatl language, but there are lot more in Mexico and in the Mexican diaspora in the United States that are interested in learning it. Many YouTube videos that teach Nahuatl actually urge people to learn from these kinds of colonial documents, because they reflect a pure, unified form of the language. So in a way, these documents have been transformed from colonial tools of control to means of revitalizing traditional knowledge.

What about the topic was food, specifically chocolate, which boasts a fraught history despite being incredibly popular across the globe?

Another case deals with the idea of Indigenous knowledge about plants, and specifically cacao, the tree from which chocolate is made. Not everyone knows that chocolate is one of the Americas’ many culinary gifts to the world, along with other plants such as potatoes, tomatoes, peanuts, chilies, and avocados. 

Unlike those other fruits and vegetables though, cacao needs extensive processing to become chocolate, which is perhaps why it was such a prestige commodity in the ancient Americas, and really in the world, until about the 20th century. However, over 2000 years ago in Central America, Indigenous peoples worked out the complex process of fermenting, drying, roasting, and grinding cacao to make a beverage not too different from modern-day hot chocolate. This beautiful ceramic vessel was made by Maya peoples of Guatemala circa 250-500 of the current era, to hold and serve drinking chocolate. 

People who are familiar with cacao pods will see that there are little molded ceramic representations of them all over the lid and around the surface of the vessel. And the artist of this also incised a complex picture of a deity on panels on the side of the vessels, depicting a variant of the corn god known as the “chocolate god”—you can see abundant cacao pods in his headdress as well! What’s really neat is that although most cacao growing has today shifted to West Africa, climate change is endangering supplies of this plant through increasing temperature and dryness. Because of this, scientists and chocolate companies are now working with Indigenous peoples to look again at some ancient or less-cultivated forms of cacao in Guatemala, Mexico, and other parts of the Americas to increase cultivation of hardier forms of cacao. Farmers who grow these rare, often organic, forms of the plant are both raising the profile of American chocolate, and making a good living for themselves and their families.

Astronomy, star charts, and mathematics are another topic in the show. Can you talk about the objects that explore this?

Many people know that ancient American peoples were expert skywatchers. They had a more accurate reckoning of the 365-day solar calendar than Europeans did in the 16th century, and in some cases, oriented shrines and pyramids to different celestial bodies so that on the solstices, the sun would rise exactly on line with a temple or its skylight. Yet we know little about precisely how that knowledge was transmitted because so many Mayan codices, or written manuscripts, were burned by Spanish friars after the conquest. 

This beautiful incense burner, made probably in Mexico, shows the face of the “Jaguar God of the Underworld,” a deity that personified the Mayan idea of what happened to the sun during the night. In their conception, the sun was transformed into a jaguar that stalked through the Underworld before reappearing in the sky in the morning. 

I love how this personalizes what we actually know to be true, that the sun passes around the other side of the Earth during the night. While this is an astronomical story that is quite ancient, in more recent years, anthropologists have gathered more information about traditional astronomical knowledge, and it’s starting to be re-valued, in Latin America and even in the US. In 2020, NASA gave a grant to an organization called Native Skywatchers to collect and compile Indigenous knowledge about the Earth and sky. This additional layer of knowledge is now being presented as part of tours to visitors to places like the Mesa Verde National Park in the US, but it’s long been a part of night tours in the Maya area, where ancient peoples tracked phases of the moon, the planet Venus, and even stars like the Pleiades.

 

René Treviño, Reclaiming the Constellations (Jaguar), 2019, acrylic and rhinestones on wood panel. © 2020, René Treviño

You selected one Baltimore-based Mexican-American artist as a flashpoint for this exhibition—René Treviño, a good friend of mine and one of my favorite artists. What about his work relates to the exhibit and how does it expand the conversation into contemporary life in Baltimore?

I actually want to quote from René’s artist statement, which we print in the gallery label. This painting is part of his series called Reclaiming the Constellations, and he explains that, “This work plays on the subjectivity of the past, which is seen through the lens of those with the power to write it. Who gets to name the constellations? Why do they have Greek names like Cassiopeia, Andromeda, Perseus, when they had been named previously by other cultures? In renaming the constellations, I strip them of their Greek/Western mythos.”

This really relates directly to the discussion of Indigenous knowledge of astronomy—there would have been different images seen in the stars and conceived of as constellations. René explores his own Mexican heritage to ask, ‘What would Nahuatl or Maya or Zapotec peoples have seen in the skies, and what would their names have been for those constellations?’

René’s practice draws on research that he has been doing to consult ancient and colonial codices, or manuscripts, and to consider and remix ancient works of art—he’s come in several times to visit our storage and to get “up close and personal” with works in our collection. What I also love is that René is one artist in an increasing number of Latino/a or Latinx artists in Baltimore, and the DMV region more broadly, who are finding new ways to insert their own experiences and histories into the rich tapestry that is Baltimore life and experience. I am really looking forward to working with many more of these artists, as well as to continuing the rich relationship that René and I have been building through his visits and our discussions over the past few years.

 

Header Image: Incense burner, Maya culture, Mexico or Guatemala, 600–900. Earthenware. Gift of John A. Stokes, Jr., 2003, acc. no. 48.2770

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