As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
The Practice + Theory series is sponsored in part by the Frances Dittmer Family Foundation.
Virginia Fields’s success as curator of the Pre-Columbian collection at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is the result of a long interest in culture and systems of visual communication. While studying for a Master’s degree in anthropology and archaeology at San Francisco State University, Fields traveled to the University of Texas at Austin for a weekend workshop in Mayan hieroglyphic writing. She was captivated by the ancient writing system as well as by Linda Schele, a scholar on the cutting edge of Maya hieroglyphic decipherment whose contagious enthusiasm and passion for the field extended to Maya art. Fields entered UT’s PhD program in Latin American Studies in the mid-1980s. Her timing could not have been better. The early ’80s represented a watershed in Maya hieroglyphic decipherment. Little was known of the nature of Maya writing until the ’80s, when international collaborative efforts on the part of linguists, epigraphers, and iconographers greatly accelerated the process. Lively debates over the meaning of symbols resulted in announcements of new “readings” on almost a weekly basis. Since then, more than 90 percent of the known texts have been deciphered and integrated into the social and political models being generated by archaeologists and anthropologists. Equally significant, as more became known of the ancient Maya, contemporary Maya ritual and belief systems were better understood as extensions of ancient practice.
Virginia Fields has been involved in many “blockbuster” exhibitions that present the art and culture of ancient Mesoamerica. Breathtaking objects, sometimes over 3,000 years old, compel the viewer to wonder about the spiritual and practical needs of these cultures. At the same time, many of the ancient motifs and practices embedded in the objects find their voice in ritual practice and belief systems of contemporary Latin American indigenous cultures. We cannot help but feel a resonance with our own culture, and ask questions about how we as contemporary people construct, either consciously or unconsciously, our relationship to the world around us. What is our worldview and how is our universe reflected in utilitarian objects or objects and practices that we hold sacred? By crafting such thought-provoking exhibitions, Fields draws attention to a basic and important aspect of human behavior. Bridges of understanding between one culture and another are built. One wonders if such “blockbuster” exhibitions should be referred to as “bridge-builder” exhibitions.
My interview with Virginia Fields occurred on a Sunday in August 2006 in Santa Fe. We had both traveled to New Mexico to attend a memorial service for Luis Jimenez, a contemporary Chicano artist and teacher well known for his ability to combine contemporary media and popular culture with imagery derived from the Pre-Columbian and Colonial past.
Constance Cortez Your initial encounter with Mesoamerica and its ancient and contemporary cultures was during the ’70s. Who introduced you to this subject?
Virginia Fields Karen Bruhns, an archaeologist who has worked in El Salvador for many years, gave me my first archaeological fieldwork experience in Latin America—very exciting—in 1978. The culture we were studying was actually Pipil—Nahuatl speakers who occupied this site known as Cihuatan during the Early Postclassic period (around AD 900–1200). [Archaeologists have defined Mesoamerican chronology over the span of 3,000 years, with a Formative or Preclassic period beginning around 1500 BC and the final, or Postclassic period culminating with the defeat of the Aztecs in AD 1521.] I went primarily to get the fieldwork experience. When I moved back to Humboldt County, I started working at the local history museum in Eureka, which has an enormous collection of Northwestern California material culture: primarily baskets and regalia, clothing, that kind of thing. They were in the process of acquiring a very important local collection of Karuk baskets for which I wrote the exhibition catalogue. It was a wonderful experience. The museum’s director, Coleen Kelley, and I visited towns up and down the Klamath and Trinity rivers and talked with Karuk, Yurok, and Hupa basket makers. It was my first experience working with living artists, I guess. (laughter)
CC Some of the earliest baskets date to the 18th century, the 17th?
VF Baskets don’t survive for long periods of time because they’re made from organic materials. But the Humboldt County area was not impacted by Europeans or Americans until the mid-19th century. Humboldt Bay is long and skinny with a very narrow opening, generally obscured by fog. Nobody could really figure out how to get into it. However, due to the discovery of gold to the east, increased attention was paid to the coast, and explorers eventually mapped the bay and established the city of Eureka with devastating impacts on the local peoples, especially the Wiyot. The basket makers that we met, many of them 80, 90, and older, had very strong memories of their parents and grandparents and those traditions. Basket makers began weaving new forms to appeal to the Victorian market, and there are wonderful examples of basketry teacups and saucers, fruit compotes, bottles, and other late-19th-century objects.
CC Did they pass this tradition on to the younger members of their culture?
VF In the early part of the 20th century the Bureau of Indian Affairs sent children away to distant boarding schools to disrupt these patterns. Their children, the people of my generation, were involved in restaging the annual World Renewal ceremonies, learning from their grandparents the proper songs and dances, behaviors and traditions. So it was a renaissance of traditions that had been quieted down, but were still available. And in this generation there are some wonderful basket makers. These baskets carry the essential elements of culture, tradition, and belief within their form, their use and design, and the materials used to make them. Baskets are made from materials that literally grow out of the earth on which the people are living; they embody aspects of people’s lives by serving as cradles, cooking vessels, hats for work and special occasions, ceremonial containers, and so on. This accumulated knowledge came down over the course of many generations of women, and concerns when to gather and process the specific materials that work best for the different baskets, the designs that adorn the surfaces, and the techniques of weaving.
CC It’s cosmology.
VF Yes! That’s what I call the baskets—cosmograms.
CC How did you make the transition from Native American to Latin American indigenous cultures? It seems that what’s driving you is an interest in recovering the past of indigenous people.
VF I haven’t thought of it that way. It’s more: How do objects express history, philosophy, cosmology? How can you read these things? I actually went from Latin America to Native America back into Maya, because my studies were focused on ancient Mesoamerica, but it was this experience of working with living artists that made me realize that very strong, deeply rooted aspects of daily experience and their expression are in these objects. It’s not always something the basket maker can articulate; it’s inherent in why she makes a certain form, or uses a certain design. Design names have changed over the generations, but reflect elements of daily life. Enduring forms include the parallelogram-shaped “flint mark,” most commonly found on hats, and the isosceles triangular form known as “snake’s nose,” which can be combined with other triangles to create other configurations.
CC You talk about your interest in the visual as it pertains to ritual. Is there any relationship between your decision to foreground ritual and lived experience, and the fact that you have an Irish Catholic background, a lived experience of ritual?
VF Well, maybe Irish history is what got me interested in the hieroglyphs, the love of the word. Certainly being part of ceremonial functions as I was growing up made me better able to recognize the sacred and experience it in other contexts. Julia Guernsey, who is at the University of Texas and also of Irish Catholic descent, and I had the same experience in going into the newly discovered building in Guatemala with this beautiful, painted mural describing, pictorially—
CC Ah, the San Bartolo mural! And this is a Maya building.
VF Yes, early Maya, 100 BC. The mural at San Bartolo records very important symbolic actions, including ornately costumed men sacrificing creatures associated with the three levels of the Maya cosmos: a fish, aligned with the watery underworld; a deer, associated with the surface of the earth; and a bird, actually a turkey, for the celestial upper world. These actions relate to the creation of the world and kingship, adding a sense that we were in the presence of something like the Last Supper by Da Vinci, this sacred depiction with very deep ramifications.
CC This sacred space is also an elite space.
VF Yes. This particular chamber is on the back of an enormous pyramid. Archaeologists haven’t figured out the function of the building, but the murals that cover the surviving north and west walls are a visually stunning record of the ritual that accompanied a young king’s accession to office.
CC The setup reminds me of a church. The closer you get to the altar, the more the spaces become restricted. As you go down the aisle in Catholic churches, you have private chapels, and of course, the altar area is restricted, and behind that you have sacristies. In Maya archaeology as well, there is this notion of elite and sacred space as you make your way through its world. Did you ever talk to Linda Schele about being Catholic?
VF No. My experience with Linda was intense and short. I was on campus for only two years with a group of amazing people, you included! It was more the experience of being in the presence of this awe-inspiring larger-than-life character, with her great booming voice and outrageously articulate and profane way of talking—it shook me up.
CC I often wonder that so many of Linda’s students have chosen to devote themselves to museum studies, because she herself was an academic. Although she did put together one of the first blockbuster shows of Maya art, The Blood of Kings, with Mary Miller, who’s over at Yale. Why did you decide not to go into the academy?
VF I went into anthropology because it was a marvelous, eye-opening experience; I was learning about so many different people around the world and all the different ways they had of living in the world. But this great stuff that anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians have discovered is usually not accessible to the general public. The museum is the way to make that accessible. You can bring out ideas and objects and new ways of looking at them and engage the public in that way. That’s what it came down to, that context.
CC Let’s talk about your life at LACMA. What were some of your early, important exhibitions, and what made them important? Didn’t you inherit—
VF I inherited two shows. Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries (organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art), was an educational experience, working with a much larger staff, a wonderful designer, and learning how to present objects effectively. Ancient Americas: Art from Sacred Landscapes was an exhibition organized by Richard Townsend from the Art Institute of Chicago. He’s done a series of landmark exhibitions and he’s a role model for me. He presented all these beautiful objects, but also very important ideas relating to the significance of landscape to ancient civilizations from throughout the Americas. He was able to show that the arts reflect patterns of thought and world view, and an essential shared component was the order of the universe perceived in the landscape and represented symbolically in art and the layout of cities. I thought that this was the path to follow, combining substantial ideas and great objects.
The first show I originated was with Victor Zamudio-Taylor called The Road to Aztlan: Art from a Mythic Homeland, which was inspired by Karl Taube’s ideas on shared concepts between Mexico and the American Southwest, such as the feathered serpent, usually associated with water and fertility, and cosmological principles such as the four-cornered landscape, that the surface of the earth is bounded in the four directions by such features as mountains. Victor and I expanded those ideas into a more encompassing framework, extending from pre-Columbian times to the present day.
CC The Road to Aztlan opened in 2001. You were working with people who are looking at big questions across vast areas and vast periods of time. Which questions did you focus on and why?
VF Contacts and exchanges between Mexico and the American Southwest seemed to be something that a minority of archaeologists have written about, and changed their ideas about, over the course of many years. It seemed like a good time to reawaken a certain concept of exchange and to look at it from a different perspective.
CC Which concept?
VF One partially inspired by Townsend’s idea of landscape and its importance both in the Southwest and in Mexico. These historic tales of migration were so essential to identity and were something we could look at on both sides of the border. We found that the metaphor of a sacred center place appeared in numerous origin stories as a place of emergence for ancestors who then moved over the landscape on epic journeys in order to establish a new center, or homeland, for their descendants. In The Road to Aztlan we focused on these commonalities in the epics about various ancient peoples of the Southwestern US and the Mexica [or Aztecs] whose ancestors eventually settled in places defined by specific features of the landscape. These concepts are conveyed in art and architecture, which contains symbolic forms and designs signifying these aspects of cultural identity that continue to be important. A four-sided design may appear on a painted pot or in the layout of cities, for example. It came down to defining your identity by the place in which you lived and how you defined that place. This idea of a four-cornered space bounded by mountains and other features of the landscape is a pervasive, cosmological underpinning to many different peoples of the American Southwest. The exhibition was a way of looking at that idea of the significance of landscape to identity as well as other aspects of connection, such as the scarlet macaws from Mexico whose remains were found at Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, and the turquoise from New Mexico that was worked into exquisite objects by Mixtec artists in Oaxaca. The importance of these elite items was that they expressed status and authority as precious objects from distant locations. Local elites utilized them on what became the border in the mid-19th century.
CC You bring up migration; a rather timely subject within our … I’m trying to find a nice way to put this—
VF Current political climate?
CC There you go! Current political climate along the border. I was speaking with Judy Baca, the director of SPARC (the Social and Public Art Resource Center), in Los Angeles. She mentioned the educational programs that SPARC runs and said that over 60 percent of the children and their parents who are now involved in these programs are Zapotec from Oaxaca. The parents ask her, “Can you teach our children the way you taught Chicano children in the ’60s and ’70s? They’re joining gangs and doing things that we do not agree with, and we want to teach them about their heritage.” Judy said that migration is ongoing, but once communities settle, there is the need for a reaffirmation of identity. I’m wondering about your shows in terms of community outreach.
VF With The Splendors of Thirty Centuries back in ’91, LACMA began a program of sending buses out to community centers and churches to bring families to the museum. We’re very active in giving school tours of both special exhibitions and the permanent collection. During the Splendors exhibition, children on the tours were given tickets so they could bring their families back on the weekends. It was a good way to make people who may not be active museumgoers realize that the museum is not a restricted or elitist institution—trying not to be, anyway! I got packets of letters from schoolchildren saying that this exhibition made them so proud to be Mexican; it made me realize the power of these objects to generate that pride and identity.
CC The Maya population grew in Los Angeles in the ’80s when Ríos Montt was in power in Guatemala. There is a large group of Ixil Maya in Los Angeles. Ixil is no longer spoken in Guatemala.
VF I’ve heard that.
CC The Road to Aztlan featured some Maya objects and some pre-Columbian—
VF In Aztlan, the initial gallery had groupings that presented a certain commonality: a couple of Maya pieces specifically relating to the Hero Twin concept, for instance, in relation to the importance of twins as culture heroes in certain parts of the Southwest. In the following galleries we focused on Hohokam, Mimbres, Chaco Canyon, Casas Grandes in northern Mexico, West Mexico—the transit route where a lot of this exchange was going back and forth—and, of course, with the Mexica, or Aztec, looking at the ways in which parallel expressions of these shared ideas were found within this great imperial civilization. But we didn’t really have a focus on Maya in the exhibition.
CC The concept of Aztlan as a real or imagined cultural homeland for Chicanos has become such a powder keg given current tensions about the Mexican/American border.
VF There is no consensus as to what Aztlan actually means or implies. Pre-Columbian peoples were using Aztlan in the way we speak of Eden. Some people take that literally, others as a metaphoric place of origin. We looked at Aztlan as symbolizing this concept of origin or homeland. The show gave rise to a lot of debate. I was reminding people that California was part of Mexico until the mid-19th century. Families of Mexican descent have lived in California longer than any of us gringos! It’s a history lesson. The border wasn’t even created until 150 years ago. People need a longer perspective on these issues. History itself is a fluid experience; you have to go with the flow and not create these solid walls and defining moments.
CC A few images in The Road to Aztlan were seen as controversial. I’m wondering, if the show had been put together today—throwing the history of migration in the face of the population of the United States—if it wouldn’t have met with a lot more resistance.
VF Victor and I didn’t want to politicize it. We were taking the long view. People have been migrating from here to there for thousands of years. Maybe this is why and how we can look at these commonalities, and what it means for the present. It’s how people respond to what they see. You can interpret it in many ways. For example, one of the so-called controversial works, Yolanda Lopez’s painting of Nuestra Madre, is a powerful portrayal of a female figure that shows the great Aztec mother-goddess Coatlicue wearing the robe of the Virgin of Guadalupe, whose apparition occurred on the hill of Tepeyac, and who is referred to as Tonantzin [a Mexica deity] in Mexico. Someone got a little bent out of shape because Coatlicue doesn’t wear a bra! (laughter) She proceeded to mount a protest effort with members of various Guadalupana societies who would come out on the weekends with big banners saying Stop Catholic Bashing. I had perceived the painting as an incredible work of reverence that did honor to the ancient Mother Goddess and the patron Mother of Mexico.
CC It’s in keeping with the show, because it’s speaking of another kind of migration, this one happening in the 16th century. It’s a conceptual marriage of two ideologies—Catholicism and indigenous religion. But let’s move forward in time and talk about Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship, which closed this fall in New York at the Metropolitan Museum, where it appeared under the title Treasures of Sacred Maya Kings. Let’s talk about the origins of Maya kingship, and how this show was developed.
VF The origins of sacred Maya kingship was actually the topic of my dissertation. At the time, there was very little data to pull together. The exhibition gave me an opportunity to look at the idea again, but in the light of an enormous amount of new data that had been recovered through excavations taking place at Maya sites in Mexico, Belize, Honduras, and Guatemala. The Maya, when constructing their buildings, would build over earlier edifices. What we see generally is the Late Classic—the sixth to ninth century or later, but in the last 20 years there has been a concerted effort to peel back those layers, to find out what’s within. The best example of that might be at Copan, Honduras, a very long-term project that tunneled into the acropolis and made incredible discoveries, including the Rosalila building, a perfectly preserved Early Classic structure that was dedicated to K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, the founder of the royal lineage. Through this kind of effort, the recovery of data provided a lot more answers to the questions about the origins of Maya civilization and kingship.
When I looked at the origins of kingship before, it was through the expression of patterns in the art and writing that had to do with the nature of the royal crown and with the title of ajaw, meaning “lord” or “king.” I wrote a paper in ’82 showing that the crown, which essentially is a cloth headband with a central symbol of a maize plant, originated among the earlier Olmecs. I was looking at the link between this more ancient tradition and how the Maya picked up the pattern of kingship and made it their own. Through reading treatises on ritual and power and the expression of that power in art, and learning about the concept of divine kingship and its appearance in civilizations around the world, I realized, again, there are these patterns—
CC Are you talking about patterns in the ancient past or in contemporary times?
VF Primarily in the ancient past, but carrying on to modern times. For example, this idea of divine kingship arises when you have people settling down and becoming agriculturalists; the wealth of the economy is based on agriculture, and the authority of the ruler is linked to his ability to ensure ongoing agricultural abundance. We see that in ancient Japan with rice, and in the ancient Near East with wheat and barley. In Mesoamerica, of course, it’s maize, corn. Maize, squash, frijoles—beans—and chiles made it worthwhile for people to settle down, construct more complex communities, and engage in long-distance trade, initially in jade and spondylus shell, and later in cacao, or chocolate. All these things represented the wealth of the emerging elite. It was very interesting to me that when the last Japanese emperor acceded to the throne, part of the Shinto ceremony had him planting a ceremonial field of rice. This is a very ancient, very important tradition. So with the Maya crown, the king takes on authority by taking on the attributes of the maize god. This is an expression of divine kingship in the New World. The Maya are one of the pristine civilizations of the ancient world. The show displayed how they expressed their status, power, authority through these objects, this architecture, this cosmology, and some of that endures to the present day. One of the reasons for making the film that accompanies the exhibition, which was produced by David Miller, was to answer questions I often hear: “What happened to the Maya? Where did they disappear to?” There’s this idea that after the so-called collapse in the ninth and tenth centuries, Maya people vanished—I guess to the Kingdom of Mu. (laughter)
CC When you talk about the “collapse,” you’re talking about the fact that large-scale building programs and communities in Guatemala were abandoned.
VF Right, in Guatemala, primarily, but to the north, in the Yucatan, we have the rise of Chichen Itza and other cities going on into the Postclassic period. There were Maya cities when the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century. People really don’t know about that history. It’s far more dramatic to think of this great collapse, that these people who were brilliant architects, astronomers, scribes, historians, kings—that they all vanished into thin air. The reality is that today there are nearly six million Maya living where they have lived for thousands of years and speaking almost 30 different Maya languages in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize.
CC Up until the mid-19th century, scholars and writers couldn’t equate the present civilization of the Maya with the ancient Maya who had built all the great cities. They hypothesized that these people had been Phoenicians, Egyptians, or one of the lost tribes of Israel, or my favorite, a lost tribe of Welshmen, based on linguistic similarities.
VF It’s a tad racist, because it’s saying that the people we see living in this area now couldn’t possibly have built the cities or painted these beautiful objects or carved these incredible monuments. John L. Stephens did relate the monuments to the people he saw and worked with.
CC He and Frederick Catherwood were the first ones to do so in the mid-19th century.
We were talking about how the film accompanying the exhibition was, in part, a response—
VF Oh, yeah—Where did the Maya disappear to? We were very privileged to work with Allen Christenson, who has worked in the western highlands of Guatemala for many, many years, and has done a lot of work in the community of Santiago Atitlán and in other towns on the lake. He was able to arrange for us to be in Santiago Atitlán in June 2005 when the nab’eysil—the priest of the community—performed a creation ceremony. And it was incredible for me, because I had spent so much time looking at the ancient patterns and what they represented—the idea of the cosmos having four corners and a central axis often represented by the maize god—and maize fields were laid out according to this pattern, and ancient artwork resonated with this symbol. The nab’eysil danced to the four directions from a center point as he carried a bundle that held the tunics of their patron of maize. That idea of the centrality of this cosmic principle, the laying-out of the universe as it is known, continues to be at the core of Maya belief. And looking at the importance of maize—in Maya cosmology, people are made of maize. They’re made from this substance from the ancient mountain of sustenance. Maize is eaten almost every day to sustain oneself. It’s so embedded in “Maya-ness” and continues to be important.
CC When you talk about maize with regard to Santiago Atitlán, it also relates to Lake Atitlán itself, that is, how the lake is conceived vis-à-vis the three volcanic mountains around it.
VF It continues to be a sacred place. In Maya cosmology, as we’ve learned from a 16th-century K’iche’ Maya manuscript, the Popol Vuh, before the creation of the world, the sky lay on the face of the water. It was lifted up by the maize god, and three mountains emerged; they echoed a pattern found in the skies, which also takes form in the symbolic three-stone hearth—the source of light and heat in the Maya home. In the sky it’s visible as part of the constellation Orion. So it’s something embodied not only in the ground but in the sky and in the hearth of the home as well. These are layers of metaphor that we’re still learning about.
CC Beyond ritual practice and sacred geography, ancient cosmology and world view also play a role in the contemporary huipiles, the shirts worn by Maya women. Such garments also have precedence in the past. Can you discuss their meaning?
VF Carved monuments and painted vessels from the sixth through ninth century give us an inkling of the luxurious woven and embroidered garments worn by elite Maya men and women, and these traditions continue in western Guatemala, southern Mexico, and in the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula. Each community has a distinctive style of huipil, for example. A huipil is essentially rectangular in form with a central opening for the woman to pull over her head. In Santiago Atitlán, that central opening is embroidered on opposite sides with three triangular shapes so that the woman’s head metaphorically rises up through the lake or neck opening, which is framed by the mountains of creation. She herself emerges from the center of creation every day.
Constance Cortez is an Assistant Professor of Art History in the School of Art at Texas Tech University, where she teaches and publishes in two fields: Contemporary Chicano/a Art and Colonial Art of Mexico. She is currently working on a book about Tejana artist Carmen Lomas Garza for the UCLA monograph series A Ver: Revisioning Art History.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.