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Heritage Power

Heritage of Power: Ancient Sculpture from West Mexico

The Andrall E. Pearson Family Collection

October 19, 2004–April 3, 2005

Accompanied by a catalogue

This exhibition highlights more than forty ceramic sculptures made in the western region of Mexico two thousand years ago. These sculptures, from volcanic highland areas of the contemporary Mexican states of Colima, Jalisco, and Nayarit, portray ancestors, warriors, ballplayers, dancers, and musicians, among other depictions of life and ritual. Ranging in size from a few inches to about two-and-a-half feet in height, the works on view emphasize the human figure, and its activities and concerns.

West Mexico is an environmentally diverse region that enjoyed a lengthy period of well-being during the centuries between 300 B.C. and A.D. 400. Its ancient inhabitants settled primarily in the mountains of Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental, with its volcanoes, lake basins, river valleys, and marshlands, and had an abundance of natural resources upon which to draw, and eventually to thrive. Local hierarchies developed and power concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. That power came to be focused, it is believed, on land and its inheritance. Wealthy members of individual communities are thought to have established family lineages that remained intact for many generations. Reverence for ancestors was fundamental to the region, and can be seen in the ceramic sculptures that accompanied important family members in death. The many West Mexican sculptures in the form of male-female couples are believed to reflect such family ties, either as depictions of founding ancestors or as reaffirmations of the continuity of the line.

There are three major styles of West Mexican ceramic sculpture, all of which are represented in the Pearson Family Collection. The three styles correspond to the Mexican states of Colima, Jalisco, and Nayarit, with which they are associated and for which they are named. Within each of these large groups there are numerous styles, with Comala, Ameca-Ezatlán, and Ixtlán del Río being the primary examples. Collector Andrall Pearson noted that although he and his wife were initially drawn to the sculptures of Colima for their appealing and realistic qualities, "as time went on, it became apparent that the Nayarit and Jalisco cultures offered equally wonderful examples of creativity and artistic uniqueness." Salient stylistic differences exist among the three groups, but they all share major aspects of imagery and underlying ideology. The sculptures, in tonalities from beige to a deep brown-red, are finished with a range of closely hued and variously textured surfaces, indicative of the great control and awareness of the ceramic (fired clay) medium the ancient West Mexicans achieved.

A strong preference for the human figure is present in the works on display. The figures are depicted in activities that vary from contemplation to warfare to ballplaying. The ancient Mexican game, played with a hard rubber ball, had ritual as well as competitive significance, and ballplayer representations were common. The ballplayers, done in the Ameca-Etzatlán style of Jalisco (100 B.C.A.D. 300), are shown presenting the large ball chest-high in front of them. Warriors, too, are a significant theme, and those on display, also in Ameca-Etzatlán style, are encased in body armor and wield impressive spears. With imposing patterns painted on their faces, the stocky figures stare out belligerently from under the low brims of protective hats, ready for action. Group activities are also present, as in an architectural model in Nayarit's Ixtlán del Río style (100 B.C.A.D. 200). Twenty-six small figures that appear throughout the house are engaged in an elaborate feast in honor of the dead. The feasting takes place in various rooms in the two-story dwelling, with celebrants holding clearly visible plates and jars.

A number of ancestor pairs, or marriage pairs as they are also called, are included in the exhibition. These images of male-female couples are thought to depict the founders of the family dynasties. They are known in a variety of styles and differing attitudes, including one of introspection. There are pairs that stand on their own feet, some that sit with legs crossed, and others upon stools, a sign of high rank. Some pairs are joined, and others are not. The couples in the exhibition are in the Ixtlán del Río style of Nayarit (100 B.C.A.D. 200) and the Coahuayana style of Colima (A.D. 100–400), among others.