Immortal Celebrations: Art of Ancient West Mexico

Article excerpt

The ancient cultures of West Mexico--a region of mountains and basins between the canyon of Rio Grande de Santiago and the Pacific Coast that covers parts of the states of Nayarit, Jalisco, and Colima--have long received far less study and public attention than the mighty Maya and Aztec empires to their east and south. Once thought to have sustained only simple farm and village cultures, West Mexico, as a result of recent archaeological discoveries, is gaining appreciation as an area that saw the evolution of complex societies over a thousand-year period, between about 200 B.C. and A.D. 800.

Now the Art Institute of Chicago has brought together more than 225 sculptures and related objects--many never seen publicly before--in Ancient West Mexico: Art of the Unknown Past, running through November 22. The exhibition, along with its accompanying catalog, is the most comprehensive exploration to date of the distinct but related cultures that flourished in the region.

Viewers will no doubt be delighted at the astonishing variety of styles represented in the exhibition's earthenware sculptures of human figures, communal activities, and animals. So lively and expressive are the works that they do not seem ancient at all but quite modern. Their warm human appeal and simplicity has been an inspiration to a number of twentieth-century artists who knew of them. In fact, the last of the eight sections in the show displays works by artists such as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Rufino Tamayo, who collected West Mexican artifacts and incorporated elements of them into their art.

Archaeological sites in West Mexico were first reported by Europeans in the 1890s, but it was not until the 1930s that the region's ancient artifacts, mostly looted, began to attract attention in Mexico. …