Two exhibits now on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) highlight the impact on both the art and natives when the Spanish arrived in the Americas. Whether originally intended to be shown simultaneously or the timing is a result of COVID delays on the museum calendar, the juxtaposition is startling. The two LACMA exhibits show the changes wrought by explorers and colonization in different ways:
- “Archive of the World: Art and Imagination in Spanish America, 1500–1800,” and
- “The Portable Universe: Thought and Splendor of Indigenous Colombia.”
The overarching theme of the former, according to LACMA, “is the interconnectedness of cultures and ideas in the early modern world.” However, the displays ultimately show how the Spaniards wielded their influence and religion on the locals. The latter exhibit, by contrast, highlights the various indigenous cultures and their art, which the Spanish dismissed as crude because it did not perpetuate their “modern” beliefs.
“Archive of the World: Art and Imagination in Spanish America, 1500–1800” features over 90 works, mostly from LACMA’s collection. The museum significantly added to its Spanish American art collections during the past 15 years. In fact, the exhibition includes more than 20 recent acquisitions on view for the first time.
The Spaniards began colonizing the “New World” in the late 15th century. Their conquest of the Philippines in 1565 inaugurated a commercial route between Asia, the Americas, and Europe. Artists working then depicted the spread of Christianity. However, they also showed the cultural interconnectedness of Latin America and its role as “the archive of the world.” Residences and institutions in the region featured a mix of local and imported objects, and the art reflects the social dynamics. The church played an important role in spreading religious subjects, but area artists maintained significant agency.
“Spanish America was neither a homogeneous nor a monolithic entity, and local artists were not passive absorbers of foreign traditions,” said Ilona Katzew, curator and LACMA’s Latin American Art department head. The exhibition illuminates the intricate social, economic, and artistic dynamics involved in the area.
One interesting section of the exhibit features 18th-century Mexican casta (caste) paintings. These works show the racial mixing of natives, Spaniards, people from the Caribbean, and slaves from Africa. With racial integration, skin color was not a reliable marker of social status. So, clothing became an essential feature to reflect one’s role or wealth. Several of the casta paintings shown portray the mixing and also the fact the law forbade those of African descent to wear Spanish-style attire. A folding screen, from 1660-90, shows indigenous wedding festivities with native dancers performing and the Spaniards in their 17th-century garb looking on as the newlyweds leave the church.
A desire for luxury items reflected the influx of Asian goods to Spanish America. Craftsmen there also created new luxury furnishings modeled after European prototypes that incorporated religious images along with mother-of-pearl, ivory, and shells inlaid.
Native Works Relate to Nature
The second of the LACMA exhibits reflects the art of natives in Colombia, without the impact of the Spanish religious and cultural influences. “The Portable Universe” showcase is “designed to be compatible with indigenous concepts, rather than Western cultural-historical narratives,” according to Julia Burtenshaw, Assistant Curator, LACMA’s Art of the Ancient Americas department. It features approximately 400 pieces, including figurative ceramics, ritual items, textiles, metalwork, and more. It is presented with the Museo del Oro, Banco de la Republica, Bogota, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston as co-curating partners.
There used to be countless indigenous peoples throughout the Americas. In modern Colombia, there are still more than 90 recognized groups. Some items in the exhibit are recent works. The older native pieces reflect the indigenous beliefs that the items were more than just objects; they have a spirit and serve as messengers between the past and present. One indigenous principle is to recognize how inward thoughts reflect outward actions, particularly in interacting with the world.
The Spanish conquerors were known to seek gold in the New World. However, the native people used Tumbaga, an alloy of gold and copper (mixed sometimes with other metals) that can shine brilliantly. Tumbaga was actually in widespread use in Central and South America before the Spanish conquest. It is malleable and ideal for intricate designs. The people used it for pendants, breastplates, small votive offerings, and as golden ornaments for burials.
Both exhibits on the art of Spanish America and the art of Colombian natives will be at LACMA all summer. “Archive of the World” will be on display until Oct. 30, 2022. “The Portable Universe” will be at LACMA through Oct. 2, 2022. It will be at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston from Nov. 6, 2022, till April 16, 2023. Then it will be on display at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts from May 29 to Oct. 8, 2023.
Written by Dyanne Weiss
Visit to LACMA exhibitions
LACMA Exhibition Advisory: “The Portable Universe: Thought and Splendor of Indigenous Colombia”
LACMA Exhibition Advisory: “Archive of the World: Art and Imagination in Spanish America, 1500–1800”
Photos by Dyanne Weiss