Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 14, 2020
Sanja Savkić and Hannah Baader, eds. Culturas visuales indígenas y las prácticas estéticas en las Américas desde la antigüedad hasta el presente / Indigenous Visual Cultures and Aesthetic Practices in the Americas’ Past and Present Estudios Indiana 13. Berlin: Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut and Gebr. Mann Verlag, 2019. 438 pp. Paper €34.00 (9783786128311)

Sanja Savkić and Hannah Baader offer a fine collection of edited essays dedicated to the question of aesthetic practices in the cultural traditions of indigenous America. The volume seeks to participate in “the praxeological turn” across “a plurality of fields” in the humanities and human sciences: its intention is to explore “the emancipatory capacities of aesthetic experience” and the “practical reflection” occasioned by artistic experience (429). The collection’s overall vision amalgamates continental theories of practice (Pierre Bourdieu, Theodore Schatzki) with “the biography of objects” (Arjun Appadurai, Nicholas Thomas) and object-agency (Alfred Gell, Timothy Ingold, Ian Hodder), although this characterization is perhaps too narrow, given the range of disciplinary perspectives among the volume’s contributions. One of the great strengths of the volume is its frank allegiance to interdisciplinarity and an attendant disinterest in hardened theoretical polemic.

The volume includes an essay by the distinguished Peruvian anthropologist Verónica Cereceda, a figure all too underacknowledged outside the field of South American ethnohistory. Cereceda is the author of seminal works on traditional Andean thought and practice; her analyses collapse base and superstructure, braid material economy with ideology. For instance: what color is considered most beautiful among the weavers in the Atacama highlands of far northern Chile? It is “two-tone,” the contiguity of two colors across a crisp line of demarcation. Cereceda allied this compositional meeting-and-conjoining with traditional Andean understandings of binarism and complementarity, demonstrating their play across Andean language, myth, social organization, and ritual, as well as weaving and craft-production. “Two-tone” (tinkuy) is not just a textile composition’s organizing principle, or a weaver’s formal-stylistic preference, but a moral principle and tenet of social order (Verónica Cereceda, “Aproximaciones a una estética andina: De la belleza al tinku,” in Thèrése Bouysse-Cassagne, ed., Tres reflexiones sobre el pensamiento andino [La Paz, Bolivia: Hisbol, 1987], 133–231). That and other of Cereceda’s scholarly contributions are classics in Andean studies.

Uniformly, Cereceda’s analyses attend to the technical intricacy of weaving as an art form; at the same time, she recognizes in the works a cultural thickness that explodes the boundary-marking art historical construct of “weaving tradition.” Her research pushes against the old compartmentalization of artistic genre and aesthetic judgment. That revisionist stance strikes the keynote for this thick volume of twenty-one essays. All its contributions are carefully crafted, substantive works of scholarship. With apologies I will touch on only a few of its essays, in order to demonstrate the collection’s range of critical interest.

Cereceda’s own essay in this volume examines the weavings of Jalq’a, Bolivia. Woven designs on Jalq’a textiles draw upon the remarkable ancient petroglyphs and cave art found in that region of south-central Bolivia. By deploying figural images from the caves on their woven textiles (pallay), Jalq’a weavers do not simply appropriate iconographic motifs, Cereceda shows. Rather, Jalq’a weavers effect an alignment of disparate spaces: the demonic zone of the cave’s inner recesses, on the one hand, and, on the other, the space of the adult woman’s costume (aqsu) as worn in communal life. The connective tissue in this operation is the gaze—sight, vision—which serves both as a faculty of human perception and as an embodied means of communication with the spiritual realm.

Sanja Savkić opens the volume with a reexamination of the indigenous central Mexican (Nahuatl) understandings of the vital image and a discussion of the complexity of “being and presence” outside the Judeo-Christian tradition. María Alba Bovisio extends this line of inquiry with a consideration of native Andean (Quechua-language) constructs of “sacred presence” (wak’a) and “sign” (unancha)—that is, something akin to “presentation” and “representation”—and their relevance to the monumental architectural-sculptural ensemble of the Old Temple at Chavín de Huantar, Peru (after ca. 1200 BCE).

Els Lagrou examines key motifs in Amazonian art, including abstraction, the double figure and image beings, and motifs of transformation, building her analysis from Warburg’s foundational recognition of the image as “sign-concept” in Hopi visual expression. Bianca Monserrat Castillero Vela addresses the “framed language” of textile design among the Mazahua people of San Cristóbal de los Baños, Ixtlahuaca (State of Mexico), while Debra Nagao examines the sculptural program of the Temple of the Feathered Serpent at Xochicalco, Morelos, Mexico (650–900 CE). Across the pyramid’s superimposed platforms, she shows, the contingency of human time was situated within the order of cosmological time.

Johannes Neurath offers an analysis linking themes of hunting, warfare/sacrifice, and visionary experience in decorated works identified with the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex of Late Mississippian Culture (1200–1350 CE). Next Ruud van Akkeren traces the dynastic history of Kaminaljuyu, the first-millennium CE highland Maya center outside (now beneath) Guatemala City. Drawing on epigraphic and paleographic sources, as well as Guatemala’s colonial archives—particularly the heretofore unpublished Testamento y título de los señores de Cagcoh, San Cristóbal Verapaz of 1785—the author makes a strong argument for Kaminaljuyu’s ancient identification as Chiih Wits’, or “Maguey Mountain.”

Arianna Campiani looks to return embodied perception to the urban precincts of ancient Maya Palenque and Chinikhá. Drawing on Kevin Lynch and Gyorgy Kepes’s pioneering 1960 inquiry into the visual gestalt of urban landscapes, her analysis considers the “communicative capacity” of sequential visual experience (nodes, milestones, and routes) in those ancient Maya centers. With a fascinating consideration of the European devotional motif of the “ladder of life” on a colonial-era native Andean drinking vessel (kero), Andrew D. Turner provides an important contribution to the growing literature on those objects. Julie Nagam offers a fascinating analysis of the “dis(rup)tive” strategies of Saulteaux First Nation artist Robert Houle in Toronto, Ontario. Remapping indigenous forms onto Toronto’s urban spaces, Houle seeks to undo and remediate the dispossession of the Anishinaabe people of their ancestral lands through the Toronto Purchase of 1806.

The volume’s critical orientation marks a useful departure from dominant modes of US anthropological archaeology and art historical inquiry. The essays gathered here are unconcerned with the technocratic and administrative exercises of archaeological excavation, object curation, and museum programming. Thus, they are less entangled in the politics that accompany those assignments, from politically instrumentalized claims to the past, to geographies of institutional power, to the neoliberal art system. Bringing the German idealist philosophical tradition to intersection with ethnohistory and Latin American social history, the volume offers welcome perspective. And, as it is freely available for download as a PDF, it is hoped that it will find wide dissemination among scholars.

Adam Herring
Emily Rich Summers Endowed Professor in Art History, Southern Methodist University