A New Wing for Art of the Americas

Americas (English Edition), January-February 2011 | Go to article overview
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A New Wing for Art of the Americas


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The jadeite mask of a man's face hurls a challenge across almost three millennia of western civilization. "Who am I?"

The Olmec mask (900-550 BC) is the oldest American artifact in the collection of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (MEA). It is one of the treasures helping to sketch the history of the western hemisphere in the museum's new Art of the Americas wing. The mask's thick lips, broad nose, square forehead, and wide-set eyes--mere slits topped by well-defined eyebrows--reveal its origins in Mesoamerica's earliest civilization. But the mystery persists. Little is known about the Olmec of southwestern Mexico, not even what they called themselves. The Aztec named them "Olmec," meaning "rubber people," for the liquid they harvested from the trees.

The mask is one of more than 5,000 works from the MEA collection on view in the new Art of the Americas wing, more than twice as many American objects as previously displayed. The collection includes paintings, sculpture, furniture, decorative arts, works on paper, musical instruments, textiles, and costumes. For the first time since the museum's founding in 1870, the art of all of the Americas--South, Central, and North--is together in one place.

Pritzker Prize-winning architects Foster + Partners, London, designed the gleaming glass and granite wing. It is an international resource for the study of the art, history, and culture of the Americas. The 121,307-square foot Art of the Americas wing is flanked to the north and south by pavilions made of glass. The new building is made of the same Deer Isle, Maine granite that architect Guy Lowell chose for the MFA's original 1907 Beaux Arts building. It comprises 53 galleries on four floors.

The journey of discovery begins with the oldest objects on the ground level and continues, floor by floor, up to the top level, where art and objects from the third quarter of the 20th century are on view. Chronologically integrated exhibitions encourage a dialogue between objects that fosters an appreciation of the depth and breadth of all American cultures and periods.

The Lower Ground Level Gallery is the foundation of the Art of the Americas collection. It presents ancient indigenous cultures in galleries organized according to culture, period, region, style, artist, maker, and theme. The Ancient Central American Gallery area covers Mesoamerica, the region of what is modern-day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras. In addition to the Olmec mask, it exhibits enormous, highly-decorated K'iche Maya (650-850 AD) burial urns from ancient Guatemala. Each day urn is decorated with a distinctive three-dimensional face. A single small figure sits on each domed lid.

This gallery also includes pictorial Maya vases and Mo'n Buluk Laj's (755-780 AD) masterpiece depicting the birth of the Maize God. The MFA's collection of Classic Maya ceramics is exceptional, ranked among the best outside of Guatemala. An interactive touch screen helps visitors explore the themes presented in the ceramics.

The Ancient South America gallery features objects from the area that is now Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, as well as goldwork from the cultures that once existed in what is now Colombia and Panama. A large cast gold Tairona "cacique" figural pendant effigy from Colombia is among the most impressive works. The standing human male wears a leaf-nosed-bat face mask. An elaborate headdress features two birds facing forward and profile zoomorphic flanges at each side of his head. His hands clutch serpent heads. Archaeologists suggest that this type of elaborate pendant may represent a shaman, a chieftain, of other high ranking male in transformation to his spiritual animal companion.

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The Moche and Chimu cultures of northern Peru created hand-modeled and mold-made sculptural pottery in the shape of fruits, animals, and historical figures. The ceramics of the Nasca, who inhabited what is modern day Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, show simple vessel forms exquisitely painted with abstract motifs and schematic renderings of the human form.

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