Cultural commentary: Goodbye Columbus – Sculptures “La Joven de Amajac” and “Tlalli” from Mexico
By Jeremy Ray Jewell
Mexico City decides on Columbus’ replacement, but finds the withdrawal and substitution scary in a society that hasn’t changed much.
The independence gritos, or cries of independence, were heard around Mexico at midnight to mark Independence Day on September 16. The cries reenact the rebellion associated with Miguel Hidalgo, a white Spanish priest who led the native peasants against Spanish rule. All the statues erected in his memory, like his grito, have done little to break the chains of this country’s troubled history. Case in point: As the cries celebrated the holidays, passionate voices could also be heard debating Mexico City’s controversial decision to replace another historical figure: Christopher Columbus.
The city government removed a statue of Columbus from its Paseo de la Reforma last year and announced a few months ago that they were planning to replace Columbus with a statue by artist Pedro Reyes. The proposed piece, rejected after much criticism, depicted the stylized head of an Indigenous woman. It should be called Tlalli, meaning “Earth” in Nahuatl. The news came less than a week after Richmond, Va., The former capital of Confederation, removed its much-contested statue of Robert E. Lee. So it is only natural that we gringos, with our freshly stripped plinths, take note of the problems facing our neighbors to the south as they attempt to replace an abandoned icon.
Reyes’ piece was first described as a colossal Olmec head. She was marketed as the “first female head”, occurring about three millennia after the Olmec civilization also produced theirs from volcanic rock, the same medium proposed for Tlalli. The city and the artist backed down on those claims, even though it was too late to assuage the backlash. It was a bold claim that the work expressed Aboriginal history, given that the artist is a “Whitexican” as well as the recipient of many American accolades. Reyes’ work has been presented to the Guggenheim and recognized by the United States Department of State and the Ford Foundation. He has also been a guest artist and lecturer at MIT, and a monograph has been published in Harvard’s Focus on Latin American Art and Agency series.
The controversy has raised a number of uncomfortable questions about art and historical memory in public commemorations. Critics of Tlalli fell in a few camps. There are defenders of Columbus. There are also criticisms, on both sides, questioning the policy of procuring through symbolic gestures. This skepticism focused on how the removal and replacement would unfold under the supervision of the populist Morena party of President “AMLO” Obrador, to which the mayor of Mexico City also belongs. There were also cosmetic reservations about how Reyes portrayed the woman. A supporter of the conservative PAN party on Twitter called Tlalli the “Indian María Version 4T” – the “Indian María” referring to the inferior position of indigenous domestic workers, and “4T” referring to Mexico’s alleged “fourth transformation” of AMLO. As another Twitter user asks, in reference to the pseudo-history Ancient aliens program, “So yes? Did the pre-Hispanic inhabitants of America make contact with extraterrestrials? Other commentators claim that the face closely resembles the exotic European visions of indigenous peoples. And there are those who accused Tlalli of looking like a Buddha.
The intersection of symbolism and aesthetics has given rise to other disturbing voices. Some recalled Mexico’s long and troubled history of using indigenous peoples and their symbols to represent a nation that often neglects or mistreats them. The long-standing ideological paradigm of mestizo promotes an egalitarian ideal of racial mixing while reflecting an impulse felt exclusively by darker-skinned peoples and indigenous peoples to “better race” through “bleaching”, both culturally and biologically. There is also a perspective which sees the native as an artisanal or anthropological subject, fit only to preserve the non-European curiosities of the land.
What united most of these critics, to be frank, was the fact that only an artist like Reyes was considered suitable for the job. That is, even though he was not native, even though he was a white man, what mattered was that he had international fame. No Mexican cheer, per se. There were many internationally acclaimed Indigenous women artists who apparently were not even seriously considered. Personalities such as Juana Gómez Ramírez d’Amatenango, Chiapas. But an artist like her, it seems, did not have the right kind of international acclaim. After all, she had not been crowned by Harvard as a representative of “Latin American art and agency.”
Finally, this month Mexico City decided to replace Columbus with a reproduction of La Joven d’Amajac (Amajac’s young wife), a pre-Hispanic piece from Veracruz on display at the National Museum of Anthropology. Choice has its problems, but they are familiar stumbling blocks for public art. It is best expressed in the expression “Dead Indians”, inspired by the American aphorism “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”. Today the term is also used to describe how historical commemoration involves healing the past. So, to recap: A contemporary Indigenous woman artist is too simplistic and provincial, a white man raised by Mexican and American institutions is too ironic and elitist, but an archaeological artifact of an Indigenous woman is the right message for the Latin capital- American. It is reminiscent of Octavio Paz’s critique of the Aztec design of the National Museum of Anthropology, which he likened to an effort to create a national temple from the indigenous past (and to ignore the realities of the present).
The problem is that the commemoration discussions do not address the connection between Indigenous peoples and the nation. in the present. Unless there is a substantial debate about why this connection is so important in the first place, we will be unable to find the right symbolic gestures, let alone change realities. Important options? The promotion of indigenous artists is obvious. There could also be depictions of historical figures representing the Aboriginal agency. They could be the leaders of the indigenous revolts, of which we hardly speak, even today. Perhaps Jacinto Canek, a Mayan resistant to Spanish rule during the Yucatán Caste War in the 18th century, a historic native with agency and autonomy. Which should make us think: what will replace Robert E. Lee in Richmond? A Bantu mask called “Slavic” in Swahili? Black musicians and athletes? Or maybe Nat Turner? Perhaps a more relevant question: who will be chosen to sculpt our past?
Jeremy ray jewell is originally from Jacksonville, Florida. He holds a master’s degree in the history of ideas from Birkbeck College, University of London and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Its website is www.jeremyrayjewell.com.