Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 20, 2006
Alessandra Russo El realismo circular: Tierras, espacios y paisajes de la cartografía indígena novohispana, siglos XVI y XVII México City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, 2005. 250 pp.; 351 ills. Paper $36.00 (9703209831)

In the last fifteen years, scholarship on indigenous imagery from colonial Latin America has grown substantially in breadth and sophistication. Across the 1990s, as scholars rejected the dichotomy of resistance to colonial rule versus acquiescence, studies of indigenous agency and creativity became prominent, as did analyses of visual culture and ethnic identity. Recently, as more nuanced understandings of colonial processes have developed (especially in the fields of anthropology and history), interpretive frameworks have again begun to shift. Less crucial is indigenous agency, pure and simple; more pressing questions now concern indigenous practices as constituent of, and pivotal to, colonial society. Alessandra Russo’s El realismo circular represents a good example of this current work. It builds upon some of the sharpest earlier scholarship, yet proposes new ways of thinking about indigenous painting—in this case, maps from Mexico.

The maps Russo examines were originally bureaucratic documents created between 1540 and 1660 as part of the land grant (merced) process in New Spain. Her book represents the first extended study to focus explicitly upon indigenous merced maps, some eight hundred of which are currently housed in the Archivo General de la Nación (AGN) in Mexico City. Russo works across this archive and raises issues relevant to art historians, anthropologists, and historians—particularly those interested in the early modern period and its colonial enterprises. Russo’s thinking takes form along two lines: the first part of the book presents interpretive arguments; the second offers close readings of selected maps in a catalogue format. A conclusion and an appendix illustrating key iconographic elements from the maps (i.e., churches, mountains, rivers, and roads) fill out the volume.

While paintings of territory form the visual crux of El realismo circular, Russo’s interest in interpretive practice is one of the book’s strengths. She reads images very well, yet reminds us that conceptual and sociological (some might say philosophical) matters are no less crucial. Early on, for example, she asks what significance an advance into unknown territories had for Spaniards in the sixteenth century. And, for indigenous people, how was the passage of foreigners into their lands conceptualized? Russo does not answer every query she poses, but this is not her goal. Instead, she shows how both visual analysis and broad conceptual thinking can and should shape understandings of the colonial past. In fact, this is one of the distinguishing characteristics of El realismo circular. It inspires us, as students of cartography and colonization, to take seriously not only the objects of our analysis but also what is at stake in the work we do.

Russo’s first chapter is entitled Tierras, which translates literally as lands, as in the lands mapped by indigenous painters. Yet Tierras is also the AGN designation for documents concerned with land management, including the maps studied here. This range of meanings does not escape Russo; rather it lends force to one of her primary arguments: the territories described by indigenous maps were actual physical entities, but they were also entities shaped by the rituals of daily use and the histories of their description. Russo makes this point by explaining the merced process and the roles played by indigenous maps in juridical and administrative settings in New Spain. Here, her work is particularly good on recent scholarship, especially Mexican studies that do not often receive the attention they should. Russo does not work strictly on the past, however. She also engages modernity by considering how institutional arrangements influence current thinking about images. Today, the maps in the AGN seem to form a corpus, preserved as they are in a single archive. But what kind of conceptual unity existed in the colonial past? Russo’s question, which juxtaposes present circumstances with those of the past, reveals an intellectual commitment to contend with the history of documents as well as any narratives embedded in these paper works. This position, perhaps familiar in some circles, is not one that scholars of colonial Latin American painting have often adopted.

In Espacios (spaces), Russo’s second chapter, strategies of representation and indigenous constructions of space become central. In addition to maps, this chapter discusses petroglyphs, pre-Hispanic ceramics, images of markets in Mexican codices, and modern volador performances. Specifically, Russo argues that a “circular dynamic” organizes key elements of indigenous life and thus indigenous representations. What emerges in this chapter is a provocative hypothesis about how cultural and ritual expressions create deep structures that persist across time but are not immutable. Russo’s analyses, while attentive to iconographic and formal detail, do not favor positivist argumentation. For this reason I suspect some will not find her claims fully convincing. Yet her ideas are evocative, her logic consistent. And there is much here to spark the imagination.

Paisajes (landscapes), the book’s last main chapter, takes the form of a catalogue. The thirty images Russo explicates represent compelling examples; although given the range of maps known from the AGN, her selection tends to privilege the visually complex over the schematic, and (to modern eyes) rather more beautiful maps over the plain. In each entry, Russo summarizes the historical setting in which the map was created and analyzes the image’s representational strategies. Theme rather than chronology organizes her presentation. This stems from and supports Russo’s conviction that one cannot read these images via teleology: earlier maps were not somehow more “pre-Columbian” or “indigenous” than later images. Among the themes Russo investigates are liturgical hierarchy, political territory, calligraphic space, and the tension between subjective and objective vision. She also considers each painter’s composition and use of color. By reading the maps thematically, historically, and formally, Russo provides an excellent view onto the ways mimetic and epistemological spaces were drawn together.

To my eye, El realismo circular is much more than a book on cartography. Scholars interested in maps will find a great deal of rewarding material. Indeed, Russo’s work contributes substantially to conversations about indigenous mapping in the Americas. At the same time, this book also intervenes in current interpretive debates on visual representation and colonial history. For example, Russo finds fault with postmodern thinking on cartography from the 1990s that reduced maps to mirrors of community identity. In so doing, she advocates for new models of writing about the relationships between representation and identity. Russo also proposes an expanded historical context for indigenous maps of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Local conditions and circumstances are important to her, but so too is the global reach of European conversion projects in early modernity. Indeed, Russo argues that by looking strictly at New Spain or even New Spain and Europe we miss key yet unobvious ideas in the history of indigenous map-making. For Russo, then, studies of colonial Latin America must be grounded in local practices and knowledge but also within ones that are more diffuse.

El realismo circular is without doubt an ambitious and very smart book. In a few places, however, Russo might have pushed her thinking a bit further. For instance, much has been done in recent years on Mixtec, Nahuatl, and Maya documents, but Russo works very little with indigenous written vocabularies. Her main project, of course, concerns pictorial expression, but I wondered if the conceptual structures she describes have parallels in indigenous written records. Beyond this, Russo articulately critiques the scholarship on indigenous painting that tightly binds ethnicity to style and iconography. Yet a perennially vexing problem remains. In the absence of signatures and/or corroborating evidence from written documents, how do we, today, know which maps were painted by indigenous hands? Russo is right to eschew any simple parsing of European from native, foreign from local. Nevertheless, to understand indigenous imagery and its conceptual apparatus, we have to distinguish such things from those of other people. If iconography and style cannot support such distinctions, then we must find something else. On this conundrum, I wished Russo had more to say.

In raising these points, I seek to underscore how complex the topics Russo engages. This book addresses significant issues in its field—with eloquence and theoretical sophistication. Specialists will want to read what Russo says about representations of territory and the meaning of indigenous imagery created in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century New Spain. For those unfamiliar with indigenous representations, this book introduces the fundamentals, both conceptually and visually. It thus offers good comparative material for scholars of cartography and the visual culture of early modernity. El realismo circular also opens more than a few avenues for future research. This is an impressive piece of work from a young scholar, and I look forward to hearing more from Alessandra Russo.

Dana Leibsohn
Department of Art, Smith College

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