Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 20, 2003
Cecelia F. Klein, ed. Gender in Pre-Hispanic America Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2001. 397 pp.; 118 b/w ills. Cloth $40.00 (088402279X)

Feminist art history is now a well-established subfield of Western art history, but until quite recently those studying gender in pre-Columbian art had to rely on a slim bibliography. Today, several contributions focusing on the pre-Columbian and early colonial world have appeared, including one on women throughout the ancient Americas (Karen Bruhns and Karen Stothert, Women in Ancient America [Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999]), another on gender in Mesoamerica (Rosemary Joyce, Gender and Power in Prehispanic Mesoamerica [Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000]), and two volumes on Maya women (Traci Ardren, ed., Ancient Maya Women [Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2002]; and Lowell S. Gustafson and Amelia Trevelyan, eds., Ancient Maya Gender Identity and Relations [Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey, 2002]). Almost all were written or edited by archaeologists, so a book edited by an art historian is a timely addition to the gender bookshelf. Gender in Pre-Hispanic America, though, is as much a book about theory in pre-Columbian studies, or the perceived lack thereof, as about gender. In introductory and concluding chapters, Cecelia Klein provides useful and frank summaries of gender studies in pre-Columbian archaeology and of the state of the field of pre-Columbian art, confronting the acknowledged divide between archaeologists and art historians. She has long advocated theorizing pre-Columbian art studies and readily admits that for the symposium engendering this book she sought theory-oriented contributions that might draw an interdisciplinary audience of scholars of gender issues worldwide. Archaeologists and anthropologists were the obvious candidates; this volume may be less appealing to art historians, given that only two of eleven participants, Klein and Carolyn Dean, were trained in art history.

The title of the book is a bit misleading, since two essays deal primarily with the colonial period and one is ethnographic, although all three present important implications for understanding the past. Two contributions are based directly on archaeological excavations. Joan Gero attempts to locate gender in the archaeological evidence available for the Recuay culture of Peru (ca. 200 B.C.–A.D. 600), where investigations at Queyash Alto reveal the presence of women in various ways. These include metal tupu pins (used even today by Andean women to fasten clothes), spindle whorls, and exclusively female burials under house floors. An examination of eleven hundred unprovenanced modeled and painted Recuay vessels shows women and men distinguished from each other by dress alone, although they may be shown in different settings: llamas, for example, appear with men only. While being cautious in linking the archaeological evidence with ceramic iconography, Gero notes that both the development of elaborate Recuay pottery and the feasting and drinking practices documented at Queyash Alto coincide with increasing political stratification. Elite males and females operated in different social arenas, the women struggling to maintain their traditional role as bearers of social prestige through membership in important lineages in the face of a changing social system based on increased male competition and warfare.

Mari Carmen Serra Puche’s excavations at Xochitécatl in Mexico found compelling evidence that between A.D. 650 and 850 the site was dedicated to a feminine cult. Within the largest pyramid were burials—some sacrificial—of mostly women and children, as well as figurine offerings representing women at every stage of life, suggesting use in rituals for both human and agricultural fertility. Hundreds of spindle whorls within the structure and a staircase made of stone tablets for grinding corn may refer to traditional Mesoamerican female activities. The pyramid, itself an artificial mountain, was deliberately aligned with a female-gendered volcano. Although neither the specific deity worshiped at Xochitécatl nor the nature of the cult and its participants can be determined, there is rich archaeological and ethnohistorical evidence for deeply-rooted, female-centered religious cults prior to the Spanish conquest.

Like Gero, Elizabeth Brumfiel asks questions about women’s participation in domestic and extradomestic economies as well as their relationship to the state, in this case for the Aztecs. Her article highlights the pitfalls of relying exclusively on either ethnohistorical or archaeological sources: the former are limited to a relatively short time period and tend to reflect a male, usually Spanish, bias, while the more neutral material culture is inevitably an incomplete record of past human behavior. Brumfiel relies on spindle whorls found in archaeological context to reconstruct the Aztec gender system. The quantity, size, decoration, and context of such whorls, coupled with ethnohistorical information regarding textile production, suggest that women continued to produce high-quality cloth even in the face of heavy demand from Aztec and later Spanish overlords. The archaeological record reveals a subtle change in the role of spinning between the Middle and the Late Postclassic periods of Aztec dominance in Central Mexico, from being an integral part of female identity to having a strictly economic role as large amounts of tribute cloth were woven in commoners’ households. Significantly, less is known about nonelite male roles, since no single artifact is emblematic of Aztec males the way spindle whorls embody femaleness.

In what is arguably the most theoretical of the papers, Rosemary Joyce, drawing on Judith Butler’s work on gendered performance, describes Mesoamerican concepts of gender as fluid rather than fixed. Gender duality and ambiguity characterize both Mesoamerican supernatural beings and cyclical phenomena such as the phases of the moon and the growth of corn. Nevertheless, fixing adult sexual identity and quite literally shaping bodies (exemplified by the widespread practice of cranial deformation) were concerns from the earliest times to the conquest. Classic Maya figurines depict women engaged in activities like weaving, but in monumental art female sexual characteristics are muted to the point that women went unrecognized by scholars until the 1960s. Observing that all-male scenes are common in Maya art while women are never depicted in groups without men, Joyce argues that the display of the body in male performance—whether in battle or ritual—was essential to constructing Maya male gender (and may even have had homoerotic overtones). Less convincingly, she asserts that for women, the wearing of woven cloth, the product of female group labor as described in sixteenth-century sources, was crucial to the formation of female identity during the Classic period.

Working with early-seventeenth-century images by native chroniclers, as well as ethnohistorical and ethnographic accounts, Dean demonstrates that gender complementarity was of utmost importance in the Andes. Some of her conclusions are predictable: boys and girls were socialized into different social roles, with both sexes moving toward androgyny late in life. But femininity and masculinity were embodied in unusual ways in Peru. Dead bodies (including mummified corpses) were feminized and viewed as inactive, dormant seeds. Masculine energies, including those of ancestors, were contained within sacred objects, often of stone, a material associated with maleness. The earth itself was conceptually female. Even the cosmos itself was defined in terms of gender: a seventeenth-century drawing by a native artist shows an unsexed creator deity flanked on the left by feminine phenomena (moon, ocean) and on the right by masculine ones (sun, mountains). At the bottom of the four-layered cosmos, on the earth, is a human couple. In Andean languages, the term “man-woman” refers to a single social unit: in indigenous society, past and present, unrestrained masculine power could only be contained by female forces.

Like Joyce and Dean, Klein addresses the ambiguity and mutability of sex and gender in her aptly titled and wide-ranging essay, “None of the Above.” Although her research centers on Late Postclassic (1250–1521) Nahuatl-speakers of Central Mexico, she draws extensively on other Mesoamerican groups, most notably the Maya, and cites many parallels between past and present beliefs. Although the Nahuas viewed those who were not clearly male or female with fear and anxiety, they were able to manipulate ambiguous gender for positive ends. Particularly at the transition between one season and the next, it became a symbol of inversion and reversal and served to restore order. Comparing the Aztec deity Tezcatlipoca to the hybrid Maya/Christian supernatural named Maximon, worshiped today in Guatemala, Klein notes that both are missing limbs, are hyper- and transsexual tricksters, and are honored at the end of the dry season (coinciding now with Holy Week). Klein concludes that those whose behavior or appearance contradicted social norms, particularly sexual ones, were instrumental in curing and purifying rituals and in reestablishing social and cosmic order.

Among Klein’s goals in organizing the symposium was “to generate debate and controversy.” Her concluding essay, as well as archaeologist Margaret Conkey’s article, confirms that there was indeed heated discussion, even after the conference had ended. Klein deliberately avoided any attempt to provide a unilateral definition of “gender,” with the result that authors interpreted and used the term in different ways. All seem to be in agreement, however, that “gender” is a social rather than a strictly biological construct and that it is a fluid and often-ambiguous concept. Conkey, the outside commentator, specializes in the archaeology of gender in Late Paleolithic Europe as well as gender theory. As both she and Klein acknowledge, there was a great deal of resistance, particularly from art historians, to her call for pre-Columbianists to engage more fully in theoretical approaches to their material. Like gender, the term “theory” is difficult to define and means different things to different people. Given the topic of the conference, discussions of feminist theory took center stage, although practice, discourse, queer, and postcolonial theory were also introduced in the closing essays as useful and underused tools for understanding gender in ancient America.

Conkey pronounces the conference contributions to be undertheorized and levels criticism at what she perceives as the misuse of the direct historical approach, the most frequently used methodology in pre-Columbian art history, cautioning against conflating several centuries in order to draw conclusions about the distant past. This is not a new debate among pre-Columbianists. As Klein points out, art historian George Kubler, citing Erwin Panofsky on renascences in Western art, was the most articulate advocate of the idea that art should be studied within its own cultural context, without recourse to ethnographic analogy. She comes to the defense of the cautious use of ethnographic analogy, while explaining why Americanists generally have eschewed the kind of cross-cultural comparisons Conkey suggests they should engage in. Given the richness of data available to pre-Columbian scholars, in contrast to its scarcity for Paleolithic Europe, as well as the difficulties inherent in applying theories developed for one field to another, Conkey may continue to meet with resistance from Americanists. But this volume is a reminder that, as Conkey suggests, when undertaking new investigations it is sometimes less necessary to collect new data than to reconceptualize the information we already have.

Virginia Miller
Associate Professor Emerita, Department of Art History, University of Illinois, Chicago

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