Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 20, 2022
Alessia Frassani, ed. Visual Culture and Indigenous Agency in the Early Americas Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2021. 280 pp. Cloth €118.00 (9789004467453)

A growing body of scholarship on Indigenous visual culture of colonial Latin America has come about since the Columbus Quincentenary. Much of it calls attention to the active participation of Indigenous artists, patrons, and other marginalized groups in the production and consumption of objects and images. Significantly, it challenges earlier scholarship in the field, much of which advanced the problematic idea that the European conquest of the Americas was successful in eradicating key aspects of Indigenous ideology, cosmology, and artistic practices. The eleven scholarly essays that comprise Visual Culture and Indigenous Agency in the Early Americas contribute to this critical vein of research and add new knowledge to the fields of pre-Columbian, colonial, and post-Independence Latin American art history. The beautifully illustrated volume, edited by Alessia Frassani, is a Festschrift to Dr. Eloise Quiñones Keber, an expert in pre-Columbian and colonial Latin American art history, and emeritus professor of art history at the City University of New York, where she formally advised each of the volume’s contributing authors during their time there as graduate students.

The authors hail from diverse professional backgrounds including academe, independent scholarly practice, and the museum, and their essays cover a vast geographical scope that includes Mesoamerica, the Caribbean, and the Andes. Although most essays focus on the colonial period, the time span covered in this volume ranges from pre-Columbian times to the present day. Each essay privileges the crucial role of visual culture as repository and conveyer of knowledge and a vehicle of expression for various groups in the Americas, namely Indigenous, African, European, and Creole. Several of the essays bring into dialogue visual studies with archaeology and ethnohistory to situate their analyses and arguments within a multidisciplinary framework. The subjects covered are diverse and include iconographic analyses of pre-Columbian and colonial images and objects, pre-Columbian to nineteenth-century architectural history, materiality, Mexican manuscripts, the political utility and repurposing of visual culture, representations of marginalized groups, a state of the field and historiographical analysis, and contemporary civic references to the pre-Columbian past.

In the volume’s first essay, Keith Jordan interprets a Toltec stela from the site of El Cerrito, Mexico, by situating its imagery in the flower world—a central component of Mesoamerican cosmology and aesthetics that pertains to diverse Indigenous groups from the Classic period (300–900 CE) to the present day. He argues for balancing diachronic and synchronic approaches in cases that lack written sources from the time and culture to which objects belong. In her contribution, Alessia Frassani offers a fresh interpretation of the esoteric contents and compositional organization of the Codex Laud, a pre-Hispanic Central Mexican divinatory manuscript, and argues that its unusual beginning and ending panels may be explained as copies of older manuscripts, and thus tangible references to historical sources that described ceremonial actions. In her study of representations of the devil, Angel Herren Rajagopalan examines Indigenous imagery and corresponding Nahuatl texts in the sixteenth-century Mexican Florentine Codex, a cultural encyclopedia compiled, illustrated, and written by a Spanish friar and his native amanuenses. Rajagopalan argues that the Indigenous artist of the codex drew upon Indigenous understandings of deities and animals as well as Euro-Christian concepts of the devil to fabricate their illustrations, which resulted in a creative iconographic fluidity unique to early colonial Mexico. Seventeenth-century Mexican mother of pearl and oil or tempera paintings called enconchados are the subject of Miguel Arisa’s essay. He argues that their luminous materials indexed the miraculous nature of religious images and fulfilled the Creole desire for a local Mexican art form that incorporated Indigenous, Asian, and European materials, forms, and imagery.

The essays by Lawrence Waldron and Lorena Tezanos Toral shift the volume’s geographical focus from Mexico to the Caribbean. In his examination of the current state of pre-Columbian studies in the Caribbean, Waldron articulates the challenges facing the field and offers insightful paths forward. Meanwhile, Tezanos Toral carries out a diachronic study of Cuban bohíos, one-room houses that incorporated Taíno (Indigenous), Spanish, and African architectural influences. The last five essays of the volume shift the geographical focus again, this time to the Andes. Mary Brown’s examination of pre-Columbian bird imagery in Paracas, Peru, contends that these motifs cross-reference themes of death, transformation, and human power and prestige. Elena FitzPatrick Sifford’s essay moves us into the colonial period and decenters the Spanish colonial gaze by examining the ways Indigenous Andean artists depicted Africans in select colonial illustrations, religious paintings, and civic portraiture. Orlando Hernández Ying’s essay on colonial Andean paintings of angels examines their European and Indigenous attributes and argues that they creatively negotiated cultural changes and clashes in the colonial Andes. Following Hernández Ying, Ananda Cohen-Aponte examines the ways in which Andean religious images, cloth, and portraits of elites served the political objectives of factions involved in political insurgencies of the late colonial period. And finally, Jeremy James George considers the ways in which the past and present coexist in select historical and contemporary monuments in Cuzco, Peru, the former Inca capital. He asks what it means when Cuzco “re-inscribes and is re-inscribed by Inca-identified things” (213), and concludes that the city’s stone monuments and their Incan visual attributes refute the Spanish colonial order and what followed in its wake. In the final chapter Marcus Burke assesses the essays and calls attention to the challenges in attributing Indigenous authorship to post-contact Latin American art and visual culture that is not firmly documented as such.

Although the essays’ focus on Indigenous agency in the production of visual culture varies by degree and according to each one’s scope and objectives, they collectively demonstrate that Natives and other historically marginalized groups in Latin America occupied a central role in the commissioning, production, and consumption of visual culture before and after European colonization. In this way, Visual Culture and Indigenous Agency in the Early Americas is a valuable contribution to the fields of pre-Columbian and Latin American art history. It particularly resonates with post Quincentenary scholarship that challenges the extinction paradigm, which holds that key aspects of Indigenous cultures died out in colonial times or were so subsumed by European forms and ideology that they effectively became invisible. In colonial societies that favored European orders of knowledge and record keeping, recovering Indigenous voices can be a daunting, although not impossible task, as several of the volume authors demonstrate in their essays. Relatedly, the art historian Claire Farago has argued for the importance of provisional findings as valid research outcomes, although, as she acknowledges, they often challenge a well-established positivistic epistemology still prevalent in art history (“Whose History? Why? When? Who Benefits, and Who Doesn’t?” in New Worlds: Frontiers, Inclusion, Utopias, 286). Farago notes that a provisional approach has the unique ability to partially recover the voices of the dispossessed and marginalized through the use of different kinds of sources that tell history from a nonhegemonic, decentered standpoint.

This volume’s impressive focus on visual culture is deeply enriched by archaeological and ethnohistorical sources (when they are available) as well as comparative cultural and visual/material analyses between distinct though related groups throughout time (“upstreaming”), and interplays between diachronic and synchronic studies. As subfields, pre-Columbian and colonial Latin American art history have led the way in the partial uncovering of marginalized voices. The reader of this volume walks away with the sense that Indigenous visual culture in colonial Latin America was complex, not a simple matter of survival—or revival—of pre-Columbian forms and practices. To think of Indigenous visual culture in these terms is to cling to the extinction paradigm, which considers the most “pre-Columbian looking” works produced in the colonial period as rare examples of survival after the conquest. This same position regards “syncretic” or “hybrid” works as evidence of a diminishing Indigenous population and its corresponding diminishment in the realm of visual and material productions. This new volume adds to the growing body of critical literature that problematizes these still operative points of view on Indigenous arts of the Americas.

Quiñones Keber has made valuable contributions to the fields of pre-Columbian and colonial Latin American art history throughout the years, and she deserves this recognition from her former students. Visual Culture and Indigenous Agency in the Early Americas is as much a testament to her scholarly and teaching legacies as it is a credit to the authors whose research richly adds to pre-Columbian and Latin American art history. This volume will be of interest to experts and students in art history, ethnohistory, archaeology, cultural anthropology, Indigenous studies, pre-Columbian studies, colonial studies, and Latin American studies for years to come.

James M. Córdova
Associate Professor of Art History, University of Colorado-Boulder