Urban Impulses: Latin American Photography 1959-2016 @ the Photographers’ Gallery

The history of Latin America has fascinated observers as much as it has mystified them. There is something apparently alien about the continent, an exoticism that derives perhaps from it having once been perceived as a ‘new world’, although there survive monuments and relics of ancient societies whose cultures remain poorly understood by us even today. This elusiveness – hinting simultaneously  at a former state of grace and some original corruption – has rendered interpretation of Latin American history peculiarly vulnerable to speculation and myth-making.
(Edwin Williamson in the introduction to his Penguin History of Latin America, 1990 revised 2009)

Urban Impulses

This is an epic exhibition, if not quite in scale, then certainly in scope. Across four rooms and two floors, the Photographers’ Gallery is showcasing some 200 works by 73 photographers from all across Latin America.

They use a wide range of techniques and approaches to chronicle every aspect of the continent’s violent politics and conflicts, its transition from a predominantly rural to a mostly urban population, its music and fiestas and cultures and traditions, its signs and streetlife, its nightclubs and dancehalls.

Most of the photographers are represented by only one or two images and so as you move from photo to photo, you are presented with a blizzard of names and biographies, not to mention a bewildering variety of countries and decades, which I found it quite challenging to get a handle on.

Cuba in the 1950s was very different from Nicaragua in the 1980s, and different again from Mexico now.

(N.B. In this review the texts in italics are copied from the thorough and very useful free handout which accompanies the exhibition.)

Calle Alameda, Santiago, 1983 by Álvaro Hoppe © Álvaro Hoppe. Courtesy of the artist

The history of Chilean photography over the past thirty years is above all that of a rupture, or a ‘tectonic shift’ caused by the military coup of 1973. Until that time, democracy had allowed the history of the medium to evolve without major disruption, but what happened in September 1973 created a generation of photographers committed to documenting the urban tragedy that subsequently emerged on the streets of Santiago during the 1970s and 80s.

As I wandered among this cornucopia of images and histories and countries and events, it struck me that there are many ways to group and arrange it – by subject matter, grouping together themes such as politics, street activism, street scenes, commercialisation, religion and, of course, every curators’ favourite topics, gender and identity.

Or you could divide them up by technique – grouping together black-and-white photos (most of them are, in fact, in black and white), colour photos, montages, collages, photojournalism, photocopies, and art works made of photos chopped up and attached to canvases. The curators back up the visitor’s sense of an impressive diversity of medium and approach:

Here a hybrid iconography emerges where photography exists in tandem with other media of mass circulation such as graphics, photo-copying and print media, often involving the marking, cutting and defacement of images where the notion of appearance and disappearance exist in tandem.

Take this striking artwork which features a collage of commercial adverts cut with urgent news photos, and then treated and painted over.

Equis (1985) by Herbert Rodríguez © Herbert Rodríguez. Courtesy of the artist

Rodriguez denounces the injustices suffered by the populations of the Andean and Amazonian regions, dominated by a process of gradual urbanisation, and, more generally, the exploitation of one part of Peruvian society by another. The approach is experimental, the materials – often salvaged from public spaces – are banal, and the collage technique allows them to be gathered together and reordered in different ways.

Another approach would be to zero in on a handful of the most famous photographers who won international reputations during the period and seek them out first – such greats as Alberto Korda from Cuba who created the iconic images of Che Guevara, or Graciela Iturbide (b.1942) from Mexico, or Sergio Larrain from Chile.

Again you could group the photographers by country because many of the photos are political, in the broadest sense, and require a knowledge of the political history of the country in question, foe xample the military dictatorships in Chile or Argentina.

In fact I realised I needed to stop and remind myself just what countries actually make up ‘Latin America’. Upon looking into it I discovered there’s a surprising amount of ambiguity about defining and framing the geography.

The term ‘Latin America’ can be taken to refer solely to ‘South America’, or to also include the many nations of Central America and the Caribbean. (Cuba always gets included, despite not being in South or Central America.)

Nations of South America by population

  1. Brazil
  2. Colombia
  3. Argentina
  4. Peru
  5. Venezuela
  6. Chile
  7. Ecuador
  8. Bolivia
  9. Paraguay
  10. Uruguay
  11. Guyana

We know these nations all have one big thing in common which is that they were colonnised by Spain or Portugal in the 16th century, and administered for centuries as key parts of their empires. So they speak the ‘Latin’ languages of Spanish and Portuguese, and hence the umbrella term ‘Latin’ America – as opposed to ‘Anglo’ America, settled by English speakers in the later 17th and 18th centuries.

Flying low, Mexico City, 1989 by Pablo Ortiz Monasterio © Pablo Ortiz Monasterio. Courtesy of the artist

Mexico is a post-apocalyptic city. It has refused to accept the many declarations of its death. it survived the devastating earthquake of 1985, and has withstood overpopulation and pollution beyond the assumed threshold of human tolerance. The country has attempted to enter the twenty-first century without yet having solved the problems of the sixteenth. – Mexican poet, essayist, novelist and short story writer José Emilio Pacheco Berny

To my surprise there’s debate about whether Mexico should be included in Central America, with lots of people, including many Mexicans, considering themselves part of North America. Incorrectly, I have included Mexico in this list of Central American nations.

Nations of Central America by population

  1. (Mexico)
  2. Guatemala
  3. Honduras
  4. El Salvador
  5. Nicaragua
  6. Costa Rica
  7. Panama
  8. Belize

Maybe the curators should have included a map, a big map, to help remind us of the precise location of all these places. (But then I’m biased. I love maps.)

Most of these nations gained their independence in stormy conflicts against the colonial powers in the early 19th century only to find themselves saddled with legacies of huge inequality and grinding rural poverty.

It was the enduring legacy of these inequalities which led to the revolutions, counter-revolutions, and military coups of the twentieth century. I well remember the era of military dictatorships in Argentina (1976-83), Brazil (1964-85), Chile (1973-90), and Paraguay (1954-89). Back in the 1970s we associated Latin America (and Greece and Spain and Portugal) with semi-fascist military dictatorships such as the notorious rule of General Pinochet of Chile. In one sense, then, many of these images fro the 1970s felt nostalgic to me.

Pinochet, 1987 by Fernando Bedoya © Fernando Bedoya. Courtesy of the artist

Fernano Bedoya is a key figure in the artistic activism of Peru and Argentina, involved notably in the latter country in the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, a group formed by mothers of young men who went missing during the military dictatorship. An irreverent artist, he plays with mass production – photography, screen printing, photocopying – and employs a hybrid iconography strongly influenced by pop culture. Committed to the democratisation of art, he has worked with several artists’ collective on participative projects with a distinctly political focus.

The nations of Latin America all have ethnically diverse societies, beginning with the fact that the native peoples of most of the colonised countries lived on, working as serfs or slaves for their European overlords, sometimes interbreeding with them, a racial mix which was then added to by large-scale importation of African slaves from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and then by migration from other, non-Iberian European countries – mostly in the 19th century.

This much most of them have in common. But each of the countries has its own geography and history and ethnic mix and traditions, which are hard to capture in such a variegated display. That’s the problem talking about this ‘region’, it’s so big and encompasses such a confusing diversity of peoples and places that it’s too easy to fall back on casual stereotypes – machismo, military dictatorships, Che Guevara guerillas, remote villages up the Amazon, the destruction of the rainforest, oh and a collection of cheesy dances that your grandparents used to like – the foxtrot, the tango, the cha-cha-cha.

In fact three or four of the photographers here are represented by pics they’ve taken of more or less the same scene, namely unglamorous, middle-aged couples from back in the day, dancing in (presumably hot and sweaty) dance halls. It’s a recurring topic.

Untitled, from the series Tango (1988) by Paz Errázuriz © Paz Errázuriz. Courtesy of the artist

‘The tango image of Paz Errázuriz, without words, music or movement, frozen at one of those key moments when the dance danced by the dancers comes into its own, affirming the authenticity of the representation of a representation.’ – Chilean poet, playwright, and novelist Enrique Lihn

In fact all this pondering and wondering how to make sense of the profusion of countries and images and artists which I spent some time trying to group or arrange, has already been partly done by the curators themselves. They have divided the exhibition up into just two big parts (one on each of the two floors across which the show is presented), and titled them Shouts and Pop-ular.

1. Shouts

To quote the curators:

Shouts considers photography’s role not only in documenting identities and presences, but also to explore absences: in the face of kidnappings and forced disappearances carried out by authoritarian regimes, photography has been a weapon against silence. Public spaces and the city walls have also played an important role: when pen and paper, laws and rights, courts and judges have failed to obtain justice, the walls of the cities have taken on a life of their own. And photographers have portrayed these walls, covered with the slogans and cries of protest of those demanding political, social, and economic recognition, and reflecting the anger and cynicism, the hopes and frustrations of the cities’ residents.

Thus a raft of images depicting street protests, street fighting, street riots, protesters fighting cops. This is one of the rare colour photos in the show.

The Battle of the Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires, 20 December 2001 by Eduardo Longoni © Eduardo Longoni. Courtesy of the artist

Longoni documented in colour the disturbances that took place in 2001 in response to the economic crisis and the measures taken by the government of Fernando de la Rúa, which limited cash withdrawals from the banks to 250 pesos a week. The Argentinians, with humour and irony, soon found a name for the policy: the corralito (the diminutive form of the Spanish word for ‘corraling’, which also designates, in popular Argentine Spanish, a tollders’ playground.) On 19 December 2001 a state of emergency was announced. On 20 december, early in the evening, President Fernando de la Rúa resigned. The suppression of the disturbances had taken a toll of thirty-eight deaths all over the country, including seven in Buenos Aires.

2. Pop-ular

To quote the curators:

In Pop-ular, artists’ mine the tropes of mass media and their manifestation in public spaces. Since the 1960s, as Latin America has undergone rapid development, advertising images have diversified and multiplied, marked by the rapid transition to a consumer society. The first widespread use of colour photography was in advertising, and the richness of pop culture imagery, often associated with commerce and advertising, marks the visual identity of the Latin American metropolis. Signs, patterns and typographies, often created by self-taught hands, confer on the display windows an almost innocent beauty.

Thus there are quite a few photos depicting the most obvious aspect of a consumer society, shop windows, featuring shop window mannequins, or surreal subversions of them like the shapely, naked, young woman posing amid mannequins by Jorge Vall.

This all feels very retro since, as we know, the era of physical shops is on the decline.

Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski

This is the place to point out that the selection hasn’t been made from all the photographs taken by all 73 of these photographers from their entire careers. That would be an epic, maybe impossible, task.

No, this selection has been made from the large, but finite, collection of Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski, who collected original prints throughout the period in question. 

Maybe this explains why, when I tried to link to some of these images, I couldn’t find any of them on the internet. Maybe they are very tightly controlled – although I did find plenty of other images by many of these photographers. As usual an exhibition like this makes a good starting point to go off on explorations of your own. But the fact that this is a selection from a selection explains some things.

Fifteenth Birthday Party in Ciudad Neza, Mexico City, Mixtecos Norte/Sur series (1989) by Eniac Martínez © Eniac Martínez. Courtesy of the artist

Produced for the Instituto Nacional Indigenista, the series Mixtecos Norte/Sur consists of photographs taken in Oaxaca and along the US-Mexico border. ‘It is the story of Mixtec indigenous people who leave their increasingly unproductive lands in the state of Oaxaca to enter the industrialised world of the United States.’ A girl’s fifteenth birthday party is a cultural milestone, not only in Mexico but all over Latin America. It involves a highly codified celebration, often accompanied by a religious ceremony, at which friends and relatives are given a lavish demonstration of the host’s generosity.

Alongside the street scenes and riots and cops and sex workers there was also a stream of images various different photographers had taken of the eerie beauty of details of Latino urban architecture – the pattern of cobbles in the street, or stripped posters on peeling walls.

Several photographers had captured the distinctive patters of tiles or brickwork to be found in local buildings, some of which harked back, maybe, to ancient Mayan or pre-Colombian sensibilities. For example, the attractive suite of photos by Pablo López Luz entitled Neo Inca.

Neo Inca LVIII, Pisac, Perú, 2016 by Pablo López Luz © Pablo López Luz. Courtesy of the artist

In the localities near Andean tourist destinations, Pablo López Luz photographs the doorways and facades of buildings and houses, adorned with the stucco relief work of Inca walls. The visual repertory drawn up in this way reflects the local taste for Inca motifs and shows how these have been grafted onto the urban context and brought up to date.

The photographers

So who exactly are the 73 photographers represented here? I’m glad you asked:

  • Carlos Aguirre (b.1948, Mexico)
  • Luiz Alphonsus (b.1948, Brazil)
  • Édgar Álvarez (b.1947, Colombia)
  • Yolanda Andrade (b.1950, Mexico)
  • Jaime Ardila (b.1942, Colombia)
  • Ever Astudillo (1948-2015, Colombia)
  • Álvaro Barrios (b. 1945, Colombia)
  • Juan Enrique Bedoya (b.1966, Peru)
  • Fernando Bedoya (1952, Peru)
  • Enrique Bostelmann (1939-2003, Mexico)
  • Bill Caro (b.1949, Peru)
  • Anselmo Carrera (1950-2016, Peru)
  • Jesús Reyes Cordero (b.1956, Mexico)
  • Armando Cristeto (b.1957, Mexico)
  • François Dolmetsch (b.1940, UK/Colombia)
  • Felipe Ehrenberg (1943-2017, Mexico)
  • Virginia Errázuriz (b.1941, Chile)
  • Paz Errázuriz (b.1944, Chile)
  • María Elvira Escallón (b.1954, Colombia)
  • José Alberto Figueroa (b.1946, Cuba)
  • Fernell Franco (1942-2006, Colombia)
  • RenéFreire (b.1952, Mexico)
  • Carlos Gallardo (b.1954, Chile)
  • Héctor García (1923-2012, Mexico)
  • Paolo Gasparini (b.1934, Venezuela)
  • Lourdes Grobet (b.1940, Mexico)
  • Billy Hare (b.1946, Peru)
  • Alejandro Hoppe (b.1961, Chile)
  • Alvaro Hoppe (b.1956, Chile)
  • Helen Hughes (b.1948, USA-Chile)
  • Graciela Iturbide (b.1942, Mexico)
  • Beatriz Jaramillo (b.1955, Colombia)
  • Mario García Joya (nee Mayito, b.1938, Cuba)
  • Alberto Korda (1928-2001, Cuba)
  • Sergio Larrain (1931-2012, Chile)
  • Adriana Lestido (b.1955, Argentina)
  • Diego Levy (b.1973, Argentina)
  • Eduardo Longoni (b.1959, Argentina)
  • Marcos López (b.1958, Argentina)
  • Héctor López (b.1955, Chile)
  • Pablo López Luz (b.1979, Mexico)
  • Ayrton de Magalhães (1954-2017, Brazil)
  • Eniac Martínez (b.1959, Mexico)
  • Agustín Martínez Castro (1950-1992, Mexico)
  • Sebastián Mejía (b.1982, Colombia)
  • Ernesto Molina (b.1952, Mexico)
  • Luis Molina-Pantin (b.1969, Venezuela)
  • Pablo Ortiz Monasterio (b.1952, Mexico)
  • Mario Cravo Neto (1947-2009, Brazil)
  • Viki Ospina (b.1948, Colombia)
  • Adolfo Patiño (1954-2005, Mexico)
  • Claudio Pérez (b.1957, Chile)
  • Ataúlfo Pérez Aznar (b.1955, Argentina)
  • Jaime Razuri (b.1956, Peru)
  • Santiago Rebolledo (b.1951, Colombia)
  • Miguel Rio Branco (b.1946, Brazil)
  • Herbert Rodríguez (b.1959, Peru)
  • Miguel Ángel Rojas (b.1946, Colombia)
  • Jesús Ruiz Durand (b.1940, Peru)
  • Osvaldo Salerno (b.1952, Paraguay)
  • Francisco Smythe (1952-1998, Chile)
  • Carlos Somonte (b.1956, Mexico)
  • Milagros de la Torre (b.1965, Peru)
  • Nicolás Torres (b.1957, Peru)
  • Juan Travnik (b.1950, Argentina)
  • Sergio Trujillo (b.1947, Colombia)
  • Jorge Vall (b.1949, Venezuela)
  • Pedro Valtierra (b.1955, Mexico)
  • JoséLuis Venegas (b.1944, Mexico)
  • Leonora Vicuña (b.1952, Chile)
  • Jaime Villaseca (b.1949, Chile)
  • Enrique Zamudio (b.1955, Chile)
  • Helen Zout (b.1957, Argentina)
  • Facundo de Zuviría (b.1954, Argentina)

And where would any exhibition of modern photography be without images of transvestites and transgender sex workers?

From 10 to 11 p.m., Mexico City (1985) by Agustín Martínez Castro © Agustín Martínez Castro Estate. Courtesy of the artist’s estate

In the photographs of Agustín Martínez Castro, the city is embodied in the anonymous inhabitants of its nights. The photographer is one o the most sensitive and profound chroniclers of the world of transvestism. Far removed from all sense of visual pathos, Martínez Castro offers an dmirable photo essay on private life, understood as a realm of intimacy, which is celebrated here, and on the stripping away of that intimacy, which is denounced. – Art historian, curator, and editor Roberto Tejada

Summary

If I’m honest, I didn’t like many of the photos in this exhibition. There are lots of them, and I suppose there’s lots of variety, but somehow I found the sheer number, and the hopping from one country to another, and from one decade to another, diluted and lessened their impact.

Hardly any of them have the standout lyricism and compositional genius of the thirteen prints by Manuel Álvarez Bravo which are currently on display down in the basement of the same building. Each one of those took my breath away.

And after reading and rereading the handout which includes almost every photo in the show, I realised that I was bored. There’s certainly an impressive range of technical diversity – many collages and montages and artistic treatments of photographic images, incorporating them into multi-media artworks. And ten or fifteen of the images did really stand out.

But almost all of these photos are images taken on the street. They almost all have a scrappy, hand-held quality. There isn’t a single one composed in a studio, and not a single one of a landscape, to give two types of photo which are completely absent. It’s shabby, urban sprawl everywhere you look.

Rough street people in rundown looking slums and dodgy neighbourhoods. Scary street punks, one or two convicts in prison. And plenty of scenes of cops and soldiers policing the street, and riots, and people getting beaten up. Grim-faced soldiers. Grim-faced dictators. Grim-faced revolutionaries. Grim-faced prostitutes. Grim-faced hoodlums, tearful mothers protesting against the disappearance of their sons, photomontages commemorating people killed in riots, tattooed gang members.

Untitled (Aquileo Valtierra González), Prisoners series, Mexico (1997) by Carlos Somonte © Carlos Somonte. Courtesy of the artist

Again I was reminded that the whole exhibition is taken from the private collection of Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski. In other words – far from being a representative survey of all Latin American photography, this is a selection from a selection. A personal selection. A personal view of the politics and history of this continent and this era.

After a while it dawned on me that what was oppressing me was there was no joy or happiness in any of the photos. Surely someone, somewhere, in all these 20 or so countries, in the long period between 1959 and 2016, surely someone, somewhere, smiled. Maybe even laughed. Looked at the blue sky, the river, the trees and the exotic flowers in the botanical garden, and was happy? Is Copacabana beach not in Latin America? And hundreds of sun-kissed Caribbean beaches? Have there been no tourists in Latin America, no beaches and parties?

Not in these photos. Not in this exhibition. Glum and grim and earnest and embattled everywhere you look.

Curators

The exhibition is curated by María Wills and Alexis Fabry.

Demographics

The exhibition is divided between two rooms on floor 3 of the Photographers’ Gallery, and two rooms on the floor below. I visited about noon on a Wednesday. On one floor there were four teenage girl visitors. On the floor below there was just one middle-aged woman. That was it.

Shame. This exhibition deserves more visitors than that.


Related links

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec by Mary Ellen Miller (1996)

Two things about this book:

  1. It is very academic and scholarly. I imagine its main audience is university students. It spends more time explaining the academic debates surrounding dates and discoveries and conflicting interpretations of the archaeological evidence than in presenting a clear narrative.
  2. Which makes you realise that this is a fast-moving field, with new discoveries being made all the time, and that these discoveries sometimes significantly alter our understanding of timeframes and influences. I picked up the second (1996) edition in a charity shop, but realise now I should have bought the fifth edition, from 2012, because knowledge about the subject is changing all the time.

Chronology

The book opens with a daunting chronological table which has six columns, one each for Central Mexico, Oaxaca, Gulf Coast, Maya Highlands, and Lowland Maya – and 10 rows indicating time periods from 1,500 BC onwards.

Chronology of Mesoamerica by Mary Ellen Miller

Chronology of Mesoamerica by Mary Ellen Miller

Apparently, early archaeologists named artefacts from around 600 AD ‘classic’ and the name, or periodisation, stuck, despite not really fitting with later discoveries, so that successive archaeologists and historians have had to elaborate the schema, to create periods named ‘Proto Classic’, and then, going back before that, ‘Formative’ – which itself then turned out to need to be broken down into Early, Middle and Late Formative. At the other end of the scale they suggested a ‘Post-classic phase’, but over time this also had to be fine-tuned to include Early Postclassic and Late Postclassic.

I found it a big challenge to remember all the dates. Roughly speaking 600 AD seems to be the height of Classic and the period 300-900 includes Early, Mid and Late Classic.

Geography

When you look at a map of all the Americas, Central America quite obviously links the United States and South America. But it’s not quite the simple north-south corridor you casually think of. When you really come to consider the area in detail you realise it is more of a horseshoe shape, with the Yucatan peninsula forming the second upturn of the shoe. So the spread of influences, architecture, language and other artefacts wasn’t north to south but more along a west-east axis.

Map of Mesoamerica

Map of Mesoamerica

The book takes you slowly and carefully through the art and archaeology of Mesoamerica in nine chapters:

  1. Introduction
  2. The Olmecs
  3. The Late Formative
  4. Teotihuacan
  5. Classic Monte Alban, Veracruz and Cotzumalhuapa
  6. The Early Classic Maya
  7. The Late Classic Maya
  8. Mesoamerica after the fall of the Classic cities
  9. The Aztecs

On the face of it the book is a history of the peoples and cultures which inhabited the region of central Mexico stretching across to the Yucatan Peninsula and down into modern-day Guatemala and Belize, with most of the focus on the architecture, sculpture, friezes, pottery and (rare) painting which they produced…

But in fact, alongside what you could call the main historical narrative, runs the story of the discoveries  upon which all our knowledge is based, a sequence of archaeological finds and decodings of lost languages which have a disconcerting tendency to overthrow and revolutionise previous thinking on lots of key areas.

The Olmec people carved massive stone heads

The Olmec people, the first really definable culture in Mesoamerica, carved massive stone heads

What I learned

There’s no point trying to recap the massive amount of information in the book. The key points I learned are:

Mesoamerica refers to the diverse civilizations that shared similar cultural characteristics in the region comprising the modern-day countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. The area was in continual occupation from 1500 BC to 1519 AD when the conquistadors arrived, but with a continual flux of peoples, tribes or nations in each region, marked by the rise and fall of cities and entire cultures.

The geography of Mesoamerica is surprisingly diverse, encompassing humid tropical areas, dry deserts, high mountainous terrain and low coastal plains.

Many cultural traits were present in the earliest, archaic peoples, then continued right through all successive cultures, including:

  • a bewildering pantheon of deities, often with multiple identities – two which appear in almost every culture are the storm/rain god and a feathered serpent deity; the Mexica called the rain god Tlaloc, and the feathered serpent deity Quetzalcoatl
  • similar architectural features, especially the importance of stepped pyramids, often with nine levels
  • a ballgame which had special ‘courts’ built for it in all the major cities of all the different cultures
  • a 260-day calendar
  • clothes which were elaborate and featured huge head-dresses often of feathers, alongside body painting

The key peoples or cultures are the Olmec, Maya, Zapotec, Toltec, Mixtec, and Mexica (or Aztec).

But there is still a lot which is unknown. For example, Miler devotes a chapter to the spectacular remains at the city of Teotihuacan (see below) but explains that we don’t know, to this day, the name of the people who built it!

Teotihuacan

Teotihuacan

The Aztecs didn’t call themselves Aztecs, they called themselves Mexica. They spoke a language called Nahuatl, which is still spoken to this day by some Indian groups. There were as many as 125 languages spoken in this region over this period. Some cultures developed rebus writing, i.e. writing which used images of the thing described rather than collections of letters. These images went on to have multiple meanings, and are also called pictographic, ideographic, or picture writing.

The ballgame

Peoples across Mesoamerica, beginning with the Olmecs, played a ritual sport known as the ballgame. Ballcourts were often located in a city’s sacred precinct, emphasizing the importance of the game. Solid rubber balls were passed between players with the goal of hitting them through markers.

But it wasn’t what we think of as a sport. The game had multiple meanings, including powerful religious and cult purposes. It appears, from a number of carved stone reliefs, that war captives were somehow made to play the game before being ritually beheaded or tortured.

Carved panel, South Ballcourt, El Tajin. A loser at the ballgame is being sacrificed by two victors while a third man looks on. A death god descends from the skyband above to accept the offering. Late Classic.

Carved panel, South Ballcourt, El Tajin. A loser at the ballgame is being sacrificed by two victors (at bottom right) while a third man looks on (far right). A death god descends from the skyband above to accept the offering. Late Classic.

Two calendars

The calendar and numbering systems were complex and elaborate, although based around astronomical events and periods. There’s much evidence that key buildings, including many pyramids, were built in line with astronomical events such as equinoxes. They developed two parallel calendars: a 260-day one and a 365-day one. The 260-day calendar was a ritual calendar, with 20 months of 13 days. It is first recorded in the sixth century BC, and is still used in some parts of Guatemala today for ritual divining.

Based on the sun, the 365-day calendar had 18 months of 20 days, with five nameless days at the end. It was the count of time used for agriculture. Every 52 years the two calendars completed a full cycle, and during this time special rituals commemorated the cycle.

Blood sacrifice

Blood seems to have played a central role in numerous cultures and cities. We know that the Aztecs prized prisoners taken during battle because they could tear out their beating hearts from their bodies to sacrifice to the gods. But there are also plentiful wall art, carvings and frescos showing people who aren’t captives drawing their own blood using a panoply of utensils: sometimes, apparently, in order to have religious visions.

Another theme is piercing the tongue, or even penis, with a needle, thread or rope, apparently for cult or religious reasons.

A carved lintel from a building at Yaxchilan depicts a bloodletting ritual. The king of Yaxchilan, Shield Jaguar II, is holding a flaming torch over his wife, Lady K'ab'al Xook, who is pulling a thorny rope through her tongue. Scrolls of blood can be seen around her mouth.

A carved lintel from a building at Yaxchilan depicts a bloodletting ritual. The king of Yaxchilan, Shield Jaguar II, is holding a flaming torch over his wife, Lady K’ab’al Xook, who is pulling a thorny rope through her tongue. Scrolls of blood can be seen around her mouth. (British Museum)

Visual complexity

But the single biggest thing I took from the book is the extraordinary visual complexity of many of the images from these varied cultures.

The big stone Olmec heads, and many examples of pottery, are simple and easy enough to grasp visually. But there are also thousands of frieze carvings, free-standing stelae, even a few painted frescos have survived, and just a handful of manuscripts written in pictogram style – and almost all of these display a bewildering visual complexity. Clutter. Their images are immensely busy.

This is a drawing of the carved decoration found on a stela (i.e. an upright freestanding carved stone) at the city of Seibal.

Drawing of Seibal stela 10

Drawing of Seibal stela 10

Most of the friezes and stela and many of the manuscripts show a similar concern to cover every inch of the space with very characteristic style that’s hard to put into words, apart from clutter. The figures are so highly embellished and the space so packed with ornate curvilinear decorations (as well as rows of rectangular glyphs, a form of pictogram) that I had to read Miller’s descriptions of what was going on quite a few times and work really hard to decipher the imagery.

In this and scores of other examples, it takes quite a bit of referring back and forth between text and illustration to decipher what Miller is describing. For example I would only know that a death god is descending in the Ball park frieze [above] because Miller tells me so.

In many of these Mesoamerican carvings, it is impossible to distinguish human figures from the jungles of intertwining decoration which obscure them. 

So I was struck that, for most of the peoples of the region, their public art was so complex and difficult to read.

By contrast, pottery by its nature generally has to be simpler, and I found myself very drawn to the monumental quality of early Olmec pottery.

Olmec fish vessel (12th–9th century BCE)

Olmec fish vessel (12th–9th century BC)

Many fully carved sculptures from later eras manage to combine the decorative complexity of the friezes with a stunningly powerful, monumental presence.

There is a class of objects known as hachas, named after the Spanish term for ‘axe’. Hachas are representations of gear worn in the ballgame and are a distinctive form associated with art from the Classic Veracruz culture, which flourished along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico between 300 and 900 AD.

A Hacha in the Classic Veracruz style. It would have had inlays of precious materials, such as jade, turquoise, obsidian or shell. Middle to Late Classic (500-900 AD)

A Hacha in the Classic Veracruz style. It would have had inlays of precious materials, such as jade, turquoise, obsidian or shell. Middle to Late Classic (500-900 AD)

In three-dimensional sculpture the addiction of interlocking curlicues works, but in almost flat carvings or reliefs it can be impenetrable.

Can you make out a human figure in the complex concatenation of interlocking shapes on this stela? (Clue: His right hand is gripping a circle about two-thirds up on the far left of the stone. Even with clues, it’s not easy, is it?)

Stela 31 from Tikal depicting the ruler Stormy Sky, Mayan, AD 445

Stela 31 from Tikal depicting the ruler Stormy Sky, Mayan, AD 445

Places

  • Bonampak – Late Classic period (AD 580 to 800) Maya archaeological site with Mayan murals
  • Cacaxtla – small city of the Olmeca-Xicalanca people 650-900 AD, colourful murals
  • Cerros – small Eastern Lowland Maya archaeological site in northern Belize, Late Preclassic to Postclassic period
  • Cópan – capital city of a major Classic period Mayan kingdom from 5th to 9th centuries AD
  • Chichen Itzá – city of the Toltecs tenth century, site of the biggest ball park in Mesoamerica
  • Cotzumalhuapa – Late Classic major city that extended more than 10 square kilometres which produced hundreds of sculptures in a notably realistic style
  • *El Tajín – one of the largest and most important cities of the Classic era of Mesoamerica, part of the Classic Veracruz culture, flourished 600 to 1200 CE. World Heritage site.
  • Iximché – capital of the Late Postclassic Kaqchikel Maya kingdom from 1470 until its abandonment in 1524, located in present-day Guatemala
  • Izapa – large archaeological site in the Mexican state of Chiapas, occupied from 1500 BCE to 1200 AD
  • Kaminaljuyú – big Mayan site now mostly buried under modern Guatemala City
  • Mitla – the most important site of the Zapotec culture, reaching apex 750-1500 AD
  • *Monte Alban – one of the earliest cities of Mesoamerica, the pre-eminent Zapotec socio-political and economic centre for a thousand years, 250 BC – . Founded toward the end of the Middle Formative period at around 500 BC to Late Classic (ca. AD 500-750)
  • Oxtotitlan – a rock shelter housing rock paintings, the ‘earliest sophisticated painted art known in Mesoamerica’
  • *Palenque – Maya city state in southern Mexico, date from c. 226 BC to c. AD 799, contains some of the finest Mayan architecture, sculpture, roof comb and bas-relief carvings
  • Piedras Negras – largest of the Usumacinta ancient Maya urban centres, known for its large sculptural output
  • Seibal – Classic Period archaeological site in Guatemala, fl., 400 BC – 200 AD
  • Tenochtitlan – capital city of the Aztecs, founded 1325, destroyed by the conquistadors 1520, now buried beneath Mexico City
  • *Teotihuacan – vast city site in the Valley of Mexico 25 miles north-east of Mexico City, at its height 0-500 AD, the largest city in Mesoamerica population 125,000. A World Heritage Site, and the most visited archaeological site in Mexico.
  • Tikal – one of the largest archaeological sites and urban centres of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization, located in northern Guatemala. World Heritage Site.
  • Tlatilco – one of the first chiefdom centres to arise in the Valley of Mexico during the Middle Pre-Classic period, 1200 BCE and 200 BCE, gives its name to distinctive ‘Tlatilco culture’.
  • Tula – capital of the Toltec Empire between the fall of Teotihuacan and the rise of Tenochtitlan. Though conquered in 1150, Tula had significant influence on the Aztec Empire. Associated with the cult of the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl.
  • Tulum – Mayan walled city built on tall cliffs along the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Maya, at its height between the 13th and 15th centuries.
  • Uaxactún – an ancient sacred place of the Maya civilization, flourished up till its sack in 378 AD
  • *Uxmal – ne of the most important archaeological sites of Maya culture, founded 500 AD, capital of a Late Classic Maya state around 850-925, taken over by Toltecs around 1000 AD. World Heritage Site.
  • Yaxchilán – Mayan city, important throughout the Classic era, known for its well-preserved sculptured stone lintels and stelae bearing hieroglyphic texts describing the dynastic history of the city.

Another map, with pictures

Map of Mesoamerica showing the most important cities and historical sites. Red shading shows area of Aztec influence, green shading for the Maya region

Map of Mesoamerica showing the most important cities and historical sites. Red shading shows the area of Aztec influence, green shading for the Maya region

PBS Documentary

The sense of a double narrative – the way we not only learn the history of the Mesoamericans, but also the history of how we found out about the Mesoamericans – is well captured in this American documentary.


Related links

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