Magazine article USA TODAY

Treasured Arts from Latin America

Magazine article USA TODAY

Treasured Arts from Latin America

Article excerpt

A PAN-NATIONAL EXHIBITION of some 250 works of art created in the Spanish viceroyalties of New Spain (which today comprises Mexico and the countries of Central America) and Peru (now the nations of Ecuador, Uruguay, Paraguay, Venezuela, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru), and in the Portuguese colony of Brazil has been drawn from public and private collections throughout the Americas and in Europe. "Tesoros/Treasures/Tesouros: The Arts in Latin America, 1492-1820" spans the arrival of explorer Christopher Columbus to the emergence of national independence movements, and includes spectacular examples of painting, sculpture, feather work, shell-inlaid furniture, objects in gold and silver, ceramics, and textiles.

Columbus' world-changing voyage initiated what would be a vast network joining the trade routes among Asia, Europe, and Africa to the complex systems of trade and interaction already in place throughout the Americas. Africans (both free and enslaved) accompanied even the earliest Spanish and Portuguese expeditions and, before the end of the 16th century, trade with Japan and China via the Manila galleons was well established. Indigenous skills such as feather painting and weaving continued, while European artists traveled to the Americas to ply their trade and to train indigenous craftsmen.

The Spanish and Portuguese monarchs, with the blessing of the papacy, undertook the conversion of native peoples to Christianity. The movement of missionaries, their establishment of thousands of churches, religious houses, and missions in which the indigenous people were educated--although many already were skilled in arts and crafts--was a major factor in the dissemination of art throughout Latin America.

Every church, from magnificent urban cathedrals to modest country chapels, required ritual objects such as silver chalices, candlesticks, and censers, as well as elaborately wrought altarpieces, gilded and embellished with paintings and sculptures depicting divinity, the Virgin Mary, and saints. In addition, secular art--furnishings, luxury goods, portraits, ephemeral decorations--was created for the viceroys and other crown officials who supported civic projects and public pageantry, and for the merchant class who moved all of these examples of material culture around Latin America.

The panorama presented by this exhibition is thematic and chronological, beginning with Columbus' first encounter with the people of the Caribbean and concluding with the final moments of the Colonial Era, a period marked not only by the independence movements and formation of national states, but by the rise of academic art. The richly diverse art forms subsequently produced throughout this vast region reflect the seismic changes that took place during the Colonial Era, and were central to the development of new identities.

The exhibition presents magnificent, sometimes startling, and largely unknown works of art in all mediums, including manuscripts and maps that illustrate how the earliest contact between Europeans and indigenous populations created a crisis in identity and self-representation, eventually leading to a new culture born of a mix of creative energies confidently expressed in the arts in novel mediums and styles. Also on view are superb examples of craftsmanship--elaborate vestments decorated with colored feathers; exquisite furniture inlaid with tortoise shell, mother-of-pearl, and ivory; and lacquered screens and chests--that reflect the interchange among diverse Asian, African, European, and Latin American cultures. Although many of the objects were created by indigenous, mestizo, and European artists and craftsmen whose names long have been forgotten, visitors will become familiar with artists whose oeuvres are well known in their native lands--Cristobal de Villalpando in Mexico, Diego Quispe Tito in Peru, Jose Campeche in Puerto Rico, and Antonio Francisco Aleijandinho Lisboa in Brazil among them--but who will be new to the majority of exhibition patrons. …

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