The Israel Museum opens the “Divine Food” exhibition


We can chat whatever we like about politics, sports, or whatever music we choose, but, at the end of the day, we all have to pull ourselves together. Food has been our literal food since time immemorial.

Then again, as the “Divine Food” exhibit, which recently opened at the Israel Museum shows, even the vittles we put on our plates or in our bowls can be used as a pawn to advance political gains. our leaders.

In fact, as curator Yvonne Fleitman explains, it has been sad for millennia.

“The exhibition covers a very wide period, from prehistoric times – from 1500 BC – to the present day. What I would like the visitor to take away is how a symbol is created and what can be done with a symbol.

The latter induces dark political nuances.

“It’s about how people exploit the symbols that we believe in, in order to generate personal wealth or, maybe, they really believe in the symbol.”

The icons in question appear, in the foreground and in the center, in the full title of the exhibition – “Divine food: corn, cocoa and maguey – From pre-Columbian art to contemporary art”. The exhibition is based on a pair of triads. There are the aforementioned cultures, which we are told were domesticated in Mesoamerica 10,000 years ago. And the Israel Museum – tastefully designed by Tal Gur – contains artifacts produced by three civilizations that colonized the region that today includes Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and northern Honduras – namely the Olmecs, the Mayans and the Aztecs. To put it in a chronological context, the Olmecs existed from the middle of the third millennium until around 400 BCE. The Mayans have proven to be a more enduring civilization, dating back to a similar time, from the Preclassic era around 2000 BCE until the Spanish invaders finally finished them off at the end of the 17th century CE. And Aztec culture flourished in central Mexico during the post-classical period, from 1300 to 1521 CE.

Yes, food has always been a staple of life, but, as Fleitman notes, thematic cultures have a higher significance. For the Olmec, Mayan and Aztec civilizations of the pre-Columbian period, corn, cocoa and maguey were much more than vegetables or agricultural products. They were, she said, “considered a gift from the gods for the benefit of mankind.” They were often seen as the personification of deities and placed at the center of the universe, forming the core of entire belief systems.

It is a recurring presence through the hundreds of exhibits that include statues, figurines, ceramic and stone vessels of various ilk, informative and entertaining videos and fascinating contemporary works of art. The Mesoamerican cosmos was designed as a square, with a central axis – the axis mundi or center of the world. The vertical pivot represented the link between the sky, the earth and the underworld, and the horizontal boundaries referencing the four geographic directions.

This geometric shape was used by artists and craftsmen of the pre-Columbian era, including architects, potters and sculptors. This latter period is particularly intriguing to anyone with some knowledge of the development of Western civilization and how, for example, the Egyptians and the early Greeks transmitted the idea of ​​movement and emotional expression. While the Greeks were content with what became known as the “archaic smile,” by later standards a rather lame attempt to show even minimal inner feelings and completely static two-dimensional figures, Divine Food shows that Mesoamerican artists were ahead. of them, several centuries earlier, and have shown a dynamic body agility, as well as very expressive facial gestures.

The personal database of most of us consumers of Western-centric culture begins with the Greeks and Romans and, perhaps, leans a little into the ancient Egyptian civilization. But how many of us know a lot about what the people of Mesoamerica were doing eons ago? Fleitman’s exhibit should help fill this knowledge gap and open some eyes to the evolution of human consciousness, how we once lived in harmony with our planet and its natural resources, and what politicians of the time have. done with it all.

THE OFRENDA sacrificial rite of Maiz is still practiced in the churches of the ancient Mesoamerican region. (photographer: Flor Garduño)

THE COMMISSIONER has spent years doing research in the field. “Divine food” is clearly a labor of love. An abundance of both has made it possible to assemble several hundred artefacts in a sumptuous display that reflects the riches of the peoples of yesteryear and their outlook on life, Mother Nature and the gods.

Fleitman spared no effort, both in his research and in the design of the layout. Together with Gur, she designed an imposing frieze of the facade of a reconstructed Mayan temple, with divine images and all kinds of ornaments.

“I wanted the public to appreciate the magnitude of what these civilizations have done and done,” says the curator. It comes out loud and clear. The centerpiece of the frieze is a monumental mask of a young Ajaw, or Mayan political leader.

Of course, there are also representations of corn, which was the staple crop of the time and, therefore, was considered by the grassroots to be the most important way to keep body and soul in one place – nothing less than the source of life. Oddly enough, corn – or corn – can only proliferate through human intervention. Therefore, the cultivation of corn was seen as the result of the divine confluence between humans and agricultural yields.

The political upper echelons were aware of the benefits of public relations and soon began to partner with the supply of corn and did their utmost to take advantage of the profiling dividends to be obtained.

There were other iconographic elements in vogue in ancient Mesoamerica. Another notable aesthetic on the reconstructed frontispiece is the stylized carpet pattern. The motif signifies the power and authority of the sovereign whose title, Aj Phop, translates to “that of the carpet”. Again, there is a fundamental existential basis for the high esteem in which people held the carpet rolled up. The mats were made of reeds that grew in well-watered places. Thus, by presenting himself seated on a mat or a woven reed throne, the sovereign associated himself with blessed fertility and abundance, thus flattering himself with the proletariat.

All three cultures have endearing universal qualities.

“You can see that globalization started centuries ago in America,” Fleitman notes. The geographic location it refers to is not today’s United States, but rather all of North, Central, and South America. Corn is said to be the most widely used agricultural product in the world, while cocoa, of course, is the raw material for chocolate. “Everywhere people go, they take chocolate with them as a gift,” continues the curator. “Chocolate is so popular because it’s sweet and also stimulating.”

Maguey is a very versatile plant that produces components used to make sweeteners, for human and animal ingestion, as a basic ingredient for soup, and even in making ropes. It is also found in the production of alcoholic beverages, such as pulque and tequila.

The latter are, of course, still popular in Mexico, the home port of the wealthy post-classical Aztecs. For the Aztecs, corn was of great religious importance. The most popular deities of this era were gods associated with fertility and water, as the Aztecs largely inhabited the semi-arid plateau of central Mexico. The Aztec pantheon included male and female personifications of corn. The young male god of corn was called Centeotl, while the female attributes of the harvest were transmitted in the form of the goddess of the seven serpents Chicomecoatl. The latter has been particularly successful in popularity issues. Both deities appear through Aztec material culture and have been incorporated into religious practices. Chicomecoatl was imitated by chief priests who assumed the role of the axis mundi, with four other priests representing the geographic directions.

When we got to this point on the curator’s tour, I was surprised. Presumably, the color we all associate with corn is yellow. However, it looks like corn kernels are also available in white, black, and red. The four shades appear in the artistic creations and religious artefacts of the three civilizations presented in the exhibition.

And there are many more rich hues offered in a compelling video about the quetzal – the bird that is, today, the national symbol of Guatemala and is also the name of the Guatemalan currency. The Central American feathered friend is a riot of iridescent colors, ranging from blue to green, and well in between, with undertones of red, brown and white. He has an incredibly long tail that can reach up to a meter. In Mesoamerican pre-Columbian mythology, the quetzal is considered divine and is associated with the serpent god Quetzalcoatl, and the Aztecs and Mayans considered it the “god of the air” and a symbol of kindness and light. His feathers were highly prized, and Mesoamerican rulers and members of the nobility wore quetzal feather headdresses. It is a recurring element in Mesoamerican art and artifacts through the centuries.

“Divine Food” also continues to the present day, with a series of moving and stimulating works by contemporary artists such as the famous 20th century Mexican painter Diego Rivera, the political muralist José Clemente Orozco, who died in 1949, and 64 Flor Garduño, photographer from Mexico City, one year old.

There is something for everyone in Divine Food, plenty to grab attention, pull the chord, and open our eyes and minds to the material and spiritual riches that once ruled Mesoamerica, some of which still are. with us.

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