It's a Colourful Life


Rolex laureate, Martine Fettweis-Vienot, was first captivated by the wall art of the ancient Mayas when she visited Central America in the 1970s. Having completed her project to create the first catalogue of Mayan murals only last year, Geographical catches up with her

When Martine Fettweis-Vienot won a Rolex Award for Enterprise in 1984 for her project to create the first complete catalogue of Mayan wall paintings, she had already been studying the art for nine years. Little did she know then that her endeavour would take a further 13 years.

Today the Belgian archaeologist and art historian rests easy in the knowledge that she has single-handedly created a complete database of 236 paintings from 95 sites. And although she wound down her project last year, her painstaking reproductions of these vivid and colourful illustrations are now leading to new theories about this period.

Inspiration for this huge project, came when Fettweis-Vienot visited the land of the Mayas as a young graduate in 1970. She was enamoured by the wall paintings, some of which dated back to the first century AD, and when she discovered that only a few had been studied and documented, she realised that she had found her vocation in life.

"I had been fascinated by the Central American Indians since I was a child," says Fettweis-Vienot. "They were a noble people who lived in harmony with nature and I wanted to preserve the historical and cultural treasures I had found and make them accessible to everyone."

Considering the achievements the Mayas made, it is hardly surprising that Fettweis-Vienot became so captivated. Occupying territory in the extreme northwest of Central America including Mexico, Belize and Guatemala, the Mayas were the most civilised indigenous peoples in the area prior to the Spanish conquest. Most of their remarkable advances were in the fields of mathematics, astronomy and agriculture, but what most fascinated Fettweis-Vienot was their colourful wall art. Located mainly in palaces and temples swamped by overgrown jungles, she found that the figures could be read like a story book and were not too dissimilar to the hieroglyphics that the Ancient Egyptians used for communications purposes.

"Mayan imagery," she says, "operates like a system of writing in which each detail has its own particular significance. These are not just paintings but pages of a book, showing Mayan clothes, their ceremonies, and their way of life. They are not only real pictures of that era, they also express the sacred vision of the Mayas' universe."

Having completed two BA degrees (one in art history) and an MA in archaeology, Fettweis-Vienot began copying the Mayan murals in 1975. In order to cover the entire area once occupied by the Mayas, she divided her project into three culturally and environmentally different zones -- to make expeditions to known sites, visit private collections in Europe and the Americas and carry out complimentary desk research. Among these three it was perhaps her expeditionary work that got her noticed by the Rolex judges.

Before she even began to study the artwork, Fettweis-Vienot had to fight through untamed jungle since most of the murals were situated in remote sites. …

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