Academic journal article Visible Language

Seeing and the Mixtec Screenfolds

Academic journal article Visible Language

Seeing and the Mixtec Screenfolds

Article excerpt


This essay focuses on pictorial documents created in 15th- and 16th-century Mexico (the "Mixtec screenfolds") in order to explore the interconnections of seeing, blindness and the materiality of reading. One aspect of this exploration focuses on the pre-conquest past: how were acts of seeing represented in Mixtec texts, and how do these depictions relate to broader questions of reading, blindness and social inequality in indigenous society? A second exploration focuses on cross-cultural translation: what problems arise when Western scholars "read" Mixtec screenfolds using techniques learned from spine-bound alphabetic books? What are the different bodily practices involved in reading, and in what ways might the reading practices of one society be inappropriate for approaching the texts of another? These central discussions are framed by a theoretical orientation drawn from Mauss and Derrida, and a concluding comparison looking to recent scholarship on the Bayeux Tapestry-an object that raises issues of reading similar to those in Mixtec research. Devoting equal space to analysis of indigenous society as to the Western discourse through which indigenous documents are read, the following pages present new techniques for visually approaching the painted surfaces of the screenfolds-techniques of reading that reveal layers of information previously unseen by contemporary scholarship.

" the eyes of the Mixtecs/to view several pages simultaneously..."

Department of Anthropology

University of Chicago

Visible Language 38.1

Hamann, 66-124

© Visible Language, 2004

Rhode Island School of Design

Providence, Rhode Island 02903

Preface: of five Codex Nuttalls

(material translations and physical incommensurations)

The two quotations in this essay's tide are taken from the "Introduction" to a curious artifact: Dover Publications' 1975 The Codex Nuttall: A Picture Manuscript from Ancient Mexico.' Still in print, and currendy the most widely circulated Mesoamerican pictorial text,2 the Dover paperback is a complex object with a complex history. This preface will introduce the central themes of this essay-seeing, blindness and the materiality of reading-by outlining the Dover Nuttall's complexities.

The Dover paperback is based on one of the seven surviving "Mixtec codices," screenfolded manuscripts painted during the 15th- and 16th-centuries in what is now the Mexican state of Oaxaca (figures 1, 2). Using intricate paintings of people and places, dot-and-glyph calendar signs, and rebus-like phonetic codings, these seven manuscripts chronicle eight centuries of elite Mixtec history (ca. AD 900 to ca. AD 1560).3 As they were originally read, these brilliant narratives were not bound to the surfaces of the screenfolds: they inspired epic performances of dance and song.4 And as they were originally conceptualized (given the blurring of "reading" and "seeing" in Mixtec), the screenfolds were not simply vehicles for painted images: they were "instruments of seeing," prosthetic devices that enhanced elite vision by allowing glimpses into the past and into the realms of the gods.5

The creation of Mixtec screenfolds did not continue into the 17th-century, but already-produced manuscripts continued to have active social lives. In the mountains of Oaxaca and Puebla, they were preserved as family records, reinscribed with alphabetic glosses and mobilized in legal disputes and land transfers in the 18th- and 19th-centuries.6 On the other side of the Atlantic, the screenfolds circulated as exotic marvels in the collections of European elites and ecclesiastics.7 The Codex Nuttall (named as such, as we will see, in the 20th-century) was one such transatlantic voyager. By the 19th-century, it had become part of the library of the Monastery of San Marco in Florence-but in 1859 uwas traveling again, now to England. During the late 1850s peninsular religious orders were dissolved as part of the creation of the Italian nationstate. …

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