Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 22, 2017
Carolyn E. Tate Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture: The Unborn, Women, and Creation The William and Bettye Nowlin Series in Art, History, and the Culture of the Western Hemisphere. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012. 359 pp.; 268 color ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780292728523)

In Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture, Carolyn E. Tate eschews the well-trodden path of the iconography of rulership to reveal the central role of the unborn, women, gestation, birth, and regeneration in the art and ideation of the Formative-period peoples of Mesoamerica. Based on this imagery, specifically its fidelity to embryo and fetus representations, she argues that empirical observation played a prominent role in Formative-period epistemologies of gender and creation. While regeneration and renewal have long been recognized, other major themes in Mesoamerican art such as women, children, and related issues have often been overlooked or minimized. Tate addresses these lacunae by drawing a parallel between the specific features of the developmental stages of embryos and fetuses with the “dwarf” sculptures and so-called were-jaguar entities (“embryo symbol” in Tate’s terminology) presented on such objects as the Chavero and Kunz axes. This view presents a richer picture of the Formative-period conceptual landscape than those solely focused on rulership or maize iconography. By elaborating large portions of this system and providing a wealth of illustrations, Tate develops an understanding of not only Olmec iconography, but also how embodied forms of renewal and birth concepts—the stories that “early Mesoamerican peoples told to explain their lives and world” (xi)—worked within Formative-period material and visual culture. As Tate proposes, acknowledging that these artifacts represent embryos and fetuses complements, rather than necessarily supersedes, previous interpretations of the embryonic figure.

The volume’s nine well-illustrated chapters divide into two sections: the first four chapters outline the book’s methodological and interpretive framework, deal with theoretical issues of gender, and review and revise Formative-period iconography. The second series of chapters (5–8) examines the archaeological site of La Venta with a specific focus on buried offerings and a possible creation narrative presented by the layout of the site’s monuments. Chapter 9 presents a reappraisal of the arguments of the volume, the evidence supporting these arguments, and where future research might prove fruitful. Finally, three appendices codify the extensive data cited in the volume into convenient reference tables.

The first chapter raises issues of gender, the presence of women, and the role of gestation in Olmec visual culture. Chapter 2 reviews the dominant interpretations of Olmec art, particularly in terms of the were-jaguar, maize, and the existence and presence of Mesoamerican deities. Tate puts to rest the were-jaguar interpretation and insightfully shows how aspects of this view reflect modern media (films, publications) portrayals of werewolves more than they illuminate a real Olmec entity.

Chapter 3 explores the origins of the embryo symbol and makes a case for its central role in Olmec art. In this chapter Tate also lays out a methodology that adapts Alfredo López Austin’s mythological analysis to visual culture. Building on her previous collaboration with the late medical doctor Gordon Bendersky, she demonstrates the striking formal similarities that the embryo symbol shares with human embryos and fetuses. Specifically, she argues that the embryos and fetuses apparent in spontaneous abortions would have exercised a powerful influence on the visual articulation of the supernatural world and on the metaphors used to express life processes, just as the life cycle of maize does. She contends that it is from this source, rather than the union of human and jaguar or a simple depiction of personified maize, that the infant deity developed. If correct this observation provokes two significant conclusions. First, given the importance of infant or embryo figures, we should seek to discern how the unborn human, pregnancy, and women were incorporated into Formative-period thought, and, by extension, we should better investigate midwifery, concepts of pregnancy, and women and children studies of Mesoamerican societies to augment the picture of Mesoamerican religion and ritual. Second, Tate’s observations suggest that instead of seeing Olmec people as imagining “biologically impossible creatures,” we can understand Formative-period peoples as crafting their knowledge systems from empirical observation, wherein metaphor and metonymy, among other tropes, were used to explain and unify the conceptualization and experience of natural processes. This chapter should be of particular interest for those looking for a robust methodology for dealing with art that is not directly associated with texts, and as an example of the benefits of analyzing entire systems rather than individual iconographic elements detached from the structures in which they are embedded.

Chapter 4 critically reviews the chronology of the Formative period, tracking gender, gestation, and narrativity through the Early Formative period. Accordingly it highlights imagery of women, gestating humans, and infants; the development of temporal concepts of gestation; the technologies and foodways, such as fermentation and nixtamalization (soaking and cooking maize in an alkaline solution); and the landscapes that embody and narrate process of gestation and renewal. The origin of nixtamalization is important to Tate’s argument because without this process maize lacks free niacin, which, if missing, can lead to birth defects, and essential amino acids. This discussion of maize preparation augments our understanding of cookery among Early Formative peoples, who were likely well acquainted with soaking and boiling as processes for transforming otherwise poisonous plants into rich foods: they were used to neutralize the hydrocyanic glycosides found in manioc (Manihot esculenta) and chaya (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius), as well as the calcium oxalate crystals in malanga (Xanthosoma spp.). With additional excavation in the Gulf Coast, the important connections among foodways, ecology, and beliefs about the human life cycle will continue to enrich the kind of discussion of Formative-period symbolism begun in this volume.

The site of La Venta is the subject of the next four chapters. Tate sees La Venta as a place of pilgrimage, and as the result of a collective project that materialized ways of knowing and foundational narratives. In chapters 5 and 6, Tate turns to the discussion of insemination and engendered categories in Olmec ritual and visual culture through a detailed review of the history of the site and the material composition of some its major tombs and buried offerings (Mound A–2, chapter 5; Massive Offerings, chapter 6), as well as the ethnography of Mixe shamanism. Chapters 7 and 8 then propose ways of “reading” the visual narrative of La Venta’s stone sculpture, with an emphasis on how these narratives can be viewed in relation to other Mesoamerican creation cycles and their role in the preservation and presentation of the knowledge systems discussed earlier in the volume. These chapters are designed to answer a series of key questions about ritual and performance and their relationship to art and the built environment.

In these final four chapters the detailed discussion of specific archaeological assemblages again illustrates the benefits of closely attending to context. While in chapter 8 the isotopies (repeated semantic or figural elements that recur both within specific narratives and across narratives treating the same theme or subject; 217), adapted from the work of Claude Calame, sometimes break up the narrative, the comparative vignette discussions of symbolism offer a solution to arguments built entirely from back-streaming or iconographic similarities. These isotopies serve to illuminate the six stations within the narrative that Tate finds in the layout of La Venta’s sculpture and architecture. Her explorations are open-ended and offer the possibility of multiple interpretations that are designed to expand the discussion of this rich and fascinating material rather than provide definitive answers. Although her analysis offers new ways of presenting comparative materials from later Mesoamerican societies, the near absence of the theoretical scholarship on ritual and narrative is missed. Calame’s work is a useful starting point, however heavily indebted to Claude Lévi-Strauss’s 1955 essay, “The Structural Study of Myth,” albeit augmented with theories of intertextuality. Some further engagement with this line of thought as well as theories of ritual (such as those of Catherine Bell or Roy A. Rappaport) would better allow the volume to participate in the common ground found among anthropology, narratology, semiotics, and art history. To be sure, Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture cannot do it all, but some of the answers to the questions outlined in chapter 5 (136) could be addressed better if, for instance, Rappaport’s notion of canonical and self-referential messages in ritual were taken into consideration (Roy A. Rappaport, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999). Nevertheless, Tate’s volume raises a similar set of issues and implicitly presents the case for expanding Rappaport’s discussion to include visual culture, which is an area in ritual studies that remains underdeveloped.

One of the volume’s central contributions is Tate’s identification of the embryo and fetus as primary sources for the form of the Olmec “infant,” usually interpreted as a were-jaguar (the offspring of a human and jaguar) and/or the infant maize god, based on the imagery of sprouting and clear maize iconography on some examples. Tate suggests that embryo/fetus and maize imagery merged to articulate a deity of fertility. The visual evidence presented for this interpretation is compelling and largely convincing. Her discussion of the unborn, children, women, and processes of insemination and gestation rectify the absence of these topics from many previous studies of Olmec and Mesoamerican art more broadly. Even if on occasion I would question the literalness of the fetus and embryo imagery in some of the examples Tate presents, her basic argument accounts for the complex processes that this material was designed to visualize and make real. In this way the volume also raises significant art-historical questions. For example, to what degree does the source for a particular sign/iconographic element remain tied to the original referent? Does a sign continue to denote a specific initial subject? Or, in the case of the embryo figure, does the entity that the sign was initially used to depict itself become the target referent? That is, to what degree can we posit a literal reading of an embryo or fetus in the images under discussion when it is actually a composite of elements that symbolize forces or deity(ies) of fertility and possibly other phenomena? Would it rather be a convenient sign for the life cycles of humans and maize as well as the larger ecologies of which they are a part? The answer that Tate provides is that we must always keep the context firmly in view because an image’s meaning flexes to each particular situation and the larger systems of ideation informing Formative-period visual culture. Thus it is similar to Valerio Valeri’s view when he posits in the context of sacrifice that “the offering always represents much more than a simple equivalent in exchange; it represents the deities, the sacrificer, their relationship, and the results required––in other words, the entire relationship, its partners, and the process that brings about the result” (Valerio Valeri, Kingship and Sacrifice: Ritual and Society in Ancient Hawaii, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985, 67). Similarly, in Tate’s account the fetus/embryo deity represents the totality of processes essential to life—both maize and humans—but it seems to me that the embryo as such quickly gains a meaning apart from one that is always tied to empirical experience to become a handy symbol for subsuming entire narratives. This in turn likely informed how people perceived the unborn and thus the epistemologies of gender and creation.

What other elements can be brought into these systems if we acknowledge that the embryonic figure embodies references beyond maize, jaguars, reptiles, etc? Although the embryo/fetus figure is common, Olmec iconography presents not only a large number of variations on this complex, but also a host of other subjects that could benefit from the methodology that Tate outlines. Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture opens avenues of analysis for the visual culture of other Mesoamerican peoples and suggests that our picture of ancient Mesoamericans might be enriched and broadened by supplementing iconographic analyses with studies that better take into account the systems within which specific symbols and images are embedded. The models for these systems go beyond rulership and war to include women, birth, cookery, embodied knowledge, and the aesthetic dimensions of ancient visual culture. Tate demonstrates that the sustained investigation of ancient material and visual culture can indeed provide elusive glimpses of the complex, empirically based knowledge systems crafted by Mesoamericans.

Michael D. Carrasco
Associate Professor, Department of Art History, Florida State University