Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Colón Cancer

by Drew Martin

I had such a fulfilling three-day weekend, that it feels like a year has passed since Friday. Much of this had to do with going to the Atlantic Ocean and swapping the bounded density of the city and the looping of specific thoughts for the expanses of sand and water, and the openness of the brilliant, sunny sky.

I finished off Columbus Day yesterday by popping in on an evening lecture my mother was giving at a nearby college, where she teaches (in retirement). She was stepping in for a colleague and was showing that graduate class images surrounding the events of Christopher Columbus (aka Cristoforo Colombo, aka Cristóbal Colón) and Hernán Cortés, whose diaries they were reading.

It was really quite amazing and the students sat mesmerized for over two hours for this unbiased presentation on the day of an ambiguous "holiday", explaining why the visual culture of the Mexicans has been overwhelmingly pro-Aztec since the beginning of the 16th century, while in Peru, the Europeans were often shown as angels despite the more brutal and devastating attack by Francisco Pizarro and his men on the Incas.

The slideshow included maps of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) as depicted by Cortés as well as early 16th century engravings and prints of the natives by European artists such as Albrecht Dürer, who had seen Aztecs "on tour" when the natives were brought back to show off, often merely to perform acrobatic tricks and to satisfy an insatiable western curiosity of all things "savage".

If you overlook the live sacrifices (cutting out of pumping hearts) and cannibalizing (barbecuing arms and legs) of their neighbors, the Aztecs had a very advanced civilization and many of the slides were devoted to the precolumbian artwork, including the gorgeous stone carvings and other craftwork of the feathered serpent deity, Quetzalcoatl, the sun god, Tonatiuh, and the rain god, Tlaloc (pictured right). When my mother mentioned Tlaloc's name, it started pouring outside, on cue, with thunder and lightning.

One treat for me was that the LCD PowerPoint projection was mixed with an old-school 35mm slideshow...using my mother's slides from numerous trips to Spain and Mexico. Every once in awhile my father would pop up in a plaza in Salamanca or by a pyramid in Teotihuacan.

I think what the students appreciated most, in addition to simply "seeing" certain relevant locations, was the visual narrative offered by artists such as José Clemente Orozco (pictured top). Indeed, these can be heavy-handed and obvious, but that's the point...that's why they are poignant. He used them as a public art to tell his version of the story of his people, just as the Catholic Church used frescoes and stained glass to proselytize and promote its own stories. The difference is, Orozco is always rawer, exposing history and turning it inside out.