Feathers and Colonialism

"The Mass of Saint Gregory," 1539

Over the past few days I’ve been thinking a lot about Amerindian featherwork and colonialism. Probably the best-known examples of featherwork are the “feather paintings” produced by Nahua featherworkers (who were called amanteca). The Aztecs, a branch of the Nahua people, used featherwork for a wide range of prestigious items, including tapestries for their palaces, capes, and head crests.

I’m particularly interested in what happened to featherwork after the Europeans came to the Americas. For one thing, Aztec artisans were commissioned to create “feather paintings” in the European style. A Nahua ruler, Diego de Alvarado Huanitzin, commissioned The Mass of Saint Gregory (shown above) as a gift for Pope Paul III.1 From a postcolonial standpoint, it’s interesting to see how the use of European style can be interpreted as an expression of European control. Gauvin Alexander Bailey points out that European “friars wanted to harness this native tradition in the service of Christian propaganda and benefit from the prestige enjoyed by such featherwork in the pre-Hispanic era.”2

Along these lines, Europeans also were fascinated with feather paintings, not only for their technical skill, but apparently for their delicacy.3 I think that this idea of delicacy and fragility is very interesting, given the context of colonialism. With the European mindset of conquering the Amerindians (in terms of politics, culture, and religion), it doesn’t seem surprising that the Europeans would be drawn to imagery that reinforces the delicacy and fragility (in other words, the weakness) of the Amerindians. And I think it is especially interesting that the this idea of fragility is not necessarily embodied in the subject matter for the imagery, but in the artistic medium itself.

Undoubtedly, the feather medium also was a source of exoticism to European viewers. The feathered cloaks of the Tupinambá people (an indigenous group of Brazil) “were collected as objects of curiosity and wonderment by Europeans.”4 No doubt that this sense of wonderment was brought about by the “difference” and “Other-ness” of these objects. Even today, these cloaks continue to instill a sense of awe in European viewers by virtue of their rarity – today only seven such objects remain in European museums. (An image and discussion of the cloak in the Royal Museum of Art and History (Brussels) is found here.)

In fact, the act of collecting featherwork also can be connected to the conquering mindset of Europeans and colonists. One can argue that Europeans were able to “own” or “control” Amerindians through the collection and ownership of feather art. Works of art can be transported, manipulated, bought, contained (think of the Cabinet of Curiosities in the 16th and 17th centuries), and sold – similar to how the Amerindians were treated by various European groups.

1 This feather work copies the composition and details of a 15th century German engraving, Mass of Saint Gregory by Israhel van Meckenem.

2 Gauvin Alexander Bailey, Art of Colonial Latin America (London: Phaidon, 2005), 104.

3 Ibid., 105.

4 Edward J. Sullivan, “Indigenous Cultures,” in Brazil: Body and Soul (New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2001), 78.

Image credit: Public domain image via Wikipedia.


Similarities in Polynesia and Mesoamerica!

It just occurred to me that the Atlantean warrior figures from the Temple of the Morning Star (Tula, Mexico) and the figures from Easter Island (Ahu Nau Nau, Easter Island, Polynesia) were created roughly around the same time but on different sides of the world.

Atlantean warrior figures, c. 900–1000 CE. Stone. Temple of the Morning Star (Tula, Mexico). Average height approx. 15′ (4.5 m). You can get a sense of scale for the Toltec statues here.
Image from Wikipedia via Luidger.
Moai figures, Ahu Nau Nau, Easter Island, Polynesia, c. 1000–1500 CE. Volcanic stone. Average height approx 36′ (11 m).
Image from Wikipedia via Ian Sewell
The Toltec statues are quite a bit smaller and contain more detail in bas relief (see more images here) than the Easter Island figures. These two statues also had different functions. The Easter Island figures might have served as memorials for dead leaders. In contrast, the Atlantean warriors served both as columns for the temple roof and as temple guardians.
Although there are definite differences, it is interesting to observe a few similarities between these monuments. Both are placed in an elevated area (the warrior figures are placed on top of a pyramidal base, whereas the Moai figures are placed on platforms.1 Decorative headdresses were originally found in both groups as well. The warriors wear feather headdresses and the Moai figures would have originally worn red tufa headdresses (read an interesting article about the how these red hats may have been rolled down an ancient volcano).
I also see some similarity in the frontal, rigid stances for both these sculptural groups. The linear arrangement of the statues is also similar, although that similarity more easily observed today since the warrior figures no longer function as columns. It’s interesting to see how a few similarities were appearing at the same time across the world. Perhaps we could chalk up these similarities to Hegel and his Geist theory?

1 I should point out, though, that most of the Moai figures are still located in the quarries instead of platforms. It is unclear why some figures were left in the quarries as opposed to those that are on platforms. However, there are some distinct differences between the two groups. The figures on the platforms are stockier, less angular, and have less accentuated features than those left in the quarries.

New Find: Terracotta Warriors in "Rich Colors"

A couple of months ago I posted about how much I want to see the terracotta soldiers in Xi’an. And now, after reading this recent post by CultureGrrl, I’m even more excited to see these soldiers. It was recently reported in China Daily that 114 new terracotta warriors have been unearthed, with most of the warriors painted in rich colors.

How cool! The China Daily report mentions that the warriors have “black hair; green, pink, or white faces; and black or brown eyes.” I wonder if the different face colors have any significance. (Do I have any readers with a background in Chinese art or culture?)

Pictures are supposed to be available within the month, but China Daily does have photos available here and here.


Maya Lin and "Eleven Minute Line"

Last week, I heard Maya Lin speak at the university where I work. Her lecture was uncannily appropriate, since I had planned for my students to learn about Lin last week (before realizing that she was coming to speak). Minutes after the lecture began, I had two distinct impressions: 1) Lin is extremely tired of speaking about the Vietnam War Memorial and 2) Lin has a lot of flexibility in her career, since she established fame and recognition so early in life. Really, because Lin already has public attention and a fan base, she can create whatever she wants; she isn’t like many other contemporary artists, who seem to feel the need to be shocking or controversial in order to get attention.

One of my favorite parts of the lecture was when Lin discussed her ideas behind her earth art Eleven Minute Line (2004). This squiggly line is 1600 feet long and 12 feet high. And here’s the awesome part: it’s located in a cow pasture in Sweden. The first time I saw Lin’s piece, it immediately reminded me of the Serpent Mound (c. 1070 AD) in Adams County, Ohio (shown below). The Serpent Mound is the largest effigy structure in the United States, and it is thought to have been built by the the Fort Ancient people. (It was originally thought that the structure was built in prehistoric times, but carbon dating of the mound revealed a much later date.)

My suspicions regarding the connection between Eleven Minute Line and the Serpent Mound were confirmed during Lin’s lecture. The artist is from Ohio, and she has always been struck with the story of the Serpent Mound. When Europeans came to America and discovered the Serpent Mound, they concluded that an earlier group of Europeans must have made the structure and then traveled back to the Old World. Basically, these European explorers could not conceive that Native Americans could have built something so complex and monumental. Lin decided add a subtle element of irony with Eleven Minute Line by turning the tables a bit: she brought a design that was inspired from the New World back to the Old World (i.e. Sweden).

It was a real privilege to hear such a well-known artist speak. I was glad that she discussed her more recent art, too. Are you familiar with Maya Lin’s work (aside from the Vietnam War Memorial)? I think her interests in environmental/landscape issues are really interesting.


Terracotta Warriors

My friend rachsticle just got back from a trip to China. I am really, REALLY jealous that she got to see the terracotta warriors at Xi’an. These warriors are placed to protect the tomb of the emperor Qin Shi Hugandi, who proclaimed to be the first emperor of China in 221 BC.

So, what’s the big deal about these warriors? Well, first off, it’s estimated that there are about TEN THOUSAND of them. These warriors were discovered in 1974, and over the past thirty-five years only about an eighth of the warriors have been excavated. Some of these underground vaults and pits are very hard to access (there are around 600 pits that cover a 22 square-mile area), but excavations are still in progress.

Huangdi arranged a mass-production project to create all of these warriors. Almost in assembly line fashion, artisans cranked out bodies and then customized them with ears, mustaches, hats, shoes, etc. Many of the figures appear strikingly individualized, but it’s not likely that they were modeled after real people. Instead, it’s more probable that the workers were instructed to represent different regional types of Chinese people.

If you don’t have plans to go to China soon, you could still see some of these statues in Washington DC. Next month, terracotta warriors will be on display in the National Geographic Society Museum, as part of an exhibition series which features the largest collection of these statues to ever leave China. You can read more about these statues and the upcoming exhibition in this Smithsonian article.

Sadly, I don’t have plans to go to China or DC in the near future. If you’re like me, then feel free to content yourself with some of rachsticle’s pictures (thanks, friend!):

It appears that the artisans had different molds for body types.
Look at how some of the bodies are skinnier than others.


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.