Long before Christopher Columbus first set foot in the Americas, the great Maya civilization spread over the vastness of jungles, plains and mountains of Central America. The Maya developed sophisticated writing and mathematical systems and constructed monumental pyramids on a scale that rivalled those of Egypt.
But once the Spanish conquistadors arrived in search of plunder, the story stops. The Maya, like the Aztecs and the Inca, are spoken of only in the past tense. With "Apocalypto" -- Mel Gibson's bloody saga of ancient Maya -- on the horizon, this isn't likely to change.
But the Maya are still there, still eking a living out of the lush jungles and mountains of Guatemala as they have for millenia, more or less.
A new exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History called "Mayan Procession" checks in on the Mayans today, depicting this proud, vibrant culture and how it is fitfully adapting to the modern world. It includes 14 of Chicago artist Winifred Godfrey's life- size paintings, 32 of her photographs from the Guatemalan highlands and a number of authentic Mayan costumes and textiles collected by Godfrey and folk-art collector William Goldman.
"Although I make my living painting flowers, I used to be a portrait painter," says Godfrey. "I love ethnic fabrics, exotic people. I lived in Mexico for awhile. People kept saying to me, 'Oh, with the kind of painting you do, you'd really love Guatemala.'"
"So I went to Guatemala, and just flipped over the beauty of the traditional dress and the people. When I came back to Chicago, I wanted to learn more about the culture. In the mid-'70s, the (civil) war got really intense and there were a lot of refugees from Guatemala who ended up here in Chicago."
Godfrey's life-size canvases depict groups of Maya in dignified, solemn motion. They're headed towards a funeral, perhaps -- or maybe it's a festival procession for one of the saints. Godfrey eventually plans on selling the series of paintings, but only as a group, so as not to dilute their cumulative impact.
"In many Latin American cultures where there is the influence of Christianity, processions play a big role," says Rosalind Eannarino, of Pitt's Center For Latin American Studies, who helped bring the exhibit to Pittsburgh. …