When Ilonakatzew arrived at the Los Angeles Museum of Art (Lacma) as the first curator of Latin American art in 2000, she noticed a gaping hole in the collection. “I saw that we had a pre-Columbian collection and this collection of modern Mexican art, but there was a whole lot missing in between,” she says. What was missing was the art of Latin America under Spanish colonial rule, also known as the viceroyal period. “I was given the responsibility of sorting this collection and removing superfluous work,” she says of her mandate when she started.
Two decades later, a new exhibition at Lacma shows how busy she was. Archives of the World: Art and Imagination in Spanish America, 1500-1800 (until October 30) is showing around 90 artworks, objects and furnishings that describe a rich and surprisingly diverse, albeit controversial, era. They reflect new hybrids as European culture mixes with Asian, African and indigenous cultures. Twenty of the works are new acquisitions and are being shown in the museum for the first time. The exhibition, writes museum director Michael Govan in the accompanying catalogue, “reflects our longstanding commitment to Latin American art. Our commitment to this area embodies our firm belief in the artistic and historical sophistication of the material and the importance of providing visitors with more opportunities to view and study these works as part of global art history.”
Since 2015,katzew has accompanied the purchase of around 100 properties in this area. That may not sound like much, but the curator has chosen carefully, both because of the limited number of high-quality objects coming to market and because there is no readily available acquisitions fund at the museum. New acquisitions are usually made as gifts or cash donations from patrons, or a combination of both. There was another source for these acquisitions: According to the object list, many works were acquired with “Funds made by the Bernard and Edith Lewin Collection of Mexican Art Deaccession Fund”.
During a recent tour, Katzenw spoke about some of the highlights of the exhibition. The Catholic Church features prominently in the devotional paintings and objects that fill the first few galleries – not surprising given that the Church was directly involved in the colonization process. A display case in the center of the first gallery displays one of Lacma’s most prized objects, the 16th-century silver ‘Hearst Chalice’, one of the few objects already in the collection when Katzenw arrived. It was a gift from newspaperman and voracious collector William Randolph Hearst.
“It draws on very deep-rooted ancient traditions to create this new type of Christian object,” sayskatzew. The chalice borrows its form and decoration from European models, but this one also features iridescent feathers that form the background of miniature scenes at the bottom of the chalice. The curator emphasizes that the use of feathers was a pre-Columbian practice.
In the next gallery are several occupation (box) painting. These showed couples – for example a white Spaniard and his half-breed wife – and their children. Although they were created to show “New World” exoticism and to codify racial differences for European audiences, they were also particularly sympathetic to multiracial families, probably because they were made by local artists.
An 18th-century painting on a scroll, By Spanier and Morisca, Albino Girl (1763), by Miguel Cabrera, was famously discovered curled up under a sofa in a Bay Area home and eventually acquired by Lacma. This is a genre of painting in which Katzenw has long been interested, and Cabrera is probably the most accomplished practitioner. The man is wearing the uniform of a Spanish soldier, a cigarette between his lips. He is seated prominently with a pistol by his leg, while the woman stands in front of him, wearing a woven shawl and calico skirt printed with a native floral design. In between, they lovingly hold their albino child, who looks very blonde and rosy.
Nearby is the first object Katzenw acquired for Lacma, which is also one of the most significant objects in the exhibition, a 17th-century folding screen from Mexico depicting an indigenous wedding. On the right, the bride and groom leave the church, while in the center local celebrations are taking place – including the mitoteor Moteuczoma dance, and the palo voladorwhere men “fly” around a pole, their feet tied to the top, a ritual practiced to this day.
“So you have the screen that has an Asian format,” sayskatzew, “you have it [painting] Style that’s very western, and then you have an indigenous wedding with all these different games or performances.” Meanwhile, Spanish guests in European costume gather in the bride’s left-most house. “I love this object because you really have the whole world in it.”
When asked if she will be adding more objects to the collection, Katzenw is quick to reply, “Yes, if I can. Always more.”
- Archives of the World: Art and Imagination in Spanish America, 1500-1800through October 30, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles.