“Communal Spirit”: How ancient ceramics connect with modern acrylics

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Photo by Matthew Hembree (C’20)

By Andrew Hupp

Staff Writer

Inside Archives and Special Collections resides a vibrant and enlightening exhibit presenting 3,000 years of art from Mexico. The exhibition reflects past and present worldviews from artists who have interpreted similar themes from their lives. After months of planning, the staff of Archives and Special Collections brought this exhibit to the university for the purpose of introducing the students and faculty to the idea of the “communal spirit.” The philosophy behind the “communal spirit” is to examine themes artists have portrayed in their works to demonstrate that the art’s style and subject can be linked to one another, even if thousands of years and miles separate their conception.

When you first walk into the Mesoamerican-focused exhibit, the first thing you notice is the exquisite detail associated with traditional Mexican art. One such artifact was a figure which exhibited an activity of former generations of Mexicans. Dating 200 B.C. – 350 A.D., the artifact was a ceramic figure playing music on an ocarina. Through the observation of other artifacts that featured music, it is evident that early Mesoamericans placed high importance on music within their communities. This idea of music being a fundamental part of culture can still be seen thousands of years later. One particular work, created in 1987 by Enrique Garcia, shows skeletons as a part of a mariachi band celebrating the Day of the Dead. By applying the idea of “communal spirit” to artworks such as these, we can look into the past and see how society has preserved traditions and the importance of certain characteristics in everyday life.

Music was not the only subject which appeared to dominate the exhibit: the fascination of life and its connection to the afterlife was apparent in numerous works. Among the display were three sculptures that were of a “Tree of Life.” These pieces narrated matters that the artists clearly felt signified the key factors of life such as folk dances, animals and wildlife. According to the Director of University Archives and Special Collections, DebbieLee Landi, the “Trees of Life” “were made to commemorate major events or just celebrating and acknowledging things that were important to their culture.”

However, there were artworks which noticeably contrasted the imagery of everyday life and revealed depictions of death and the afterlife. Landi said one prominent detail behind many of the works was that “they were made by the living to commemorate the dead.” One paper mache sculpture that quite dramatically embodied this motif was titled, Las animas en el purgatorio/Souls in Purgatory, by internationally acclaimed artist Saulo Moreno. A description written by the staff of Archives on this engrossing piece read, “Moreno models skulls, skeletons, devils, and animals in wire that are partially covered in paper to create the effect of objects in partial decay. Souls in Purgatory borrows from a theme introduced into Mexican culture during the 16th century, recalling the memory of ancestors and the recently departed.” This powerful portrayal of purgatory and several other works associated with religion, the afterlife, and the supposed evils that one must face in life, resonate a sense of how profoundly ingrained these ideas were in Mexican culture, past and present.

While observing these detailed depictions of Mexican culture, it is imperative to remember the idea of “communal spirit.” When asked about the importance of this idea in its relation to the exhibit, Assistant Director of Archives and Special Collections Matt Reynolds said, “Just the idea that when you’re looking at the art in there, which comes from various places in Mexico, the important part is that there are themes that run through this and styles that run through it, despite the fact that it’s from a diverse geographical area. And so it really isn’t styles or subjects that are isolated. That’s the whole idea of the communal spirit: there are threads in styles that run through all this art that is from Mexico.” By viewing the varied interpretations of life and sometimes death of Mesoamerican culture, we are able to see a worldview from a diverse community. But just showing the connection between these works was not the only goal of the gallery’s staff. “[We] try to integrate materials into the curriculum… When I first thought of this exhibit I met with lots of instructors in the Spanish department and we thought about how we could use these resources in the classroom,” said Landi. The idea of the “communal spirit” was enthusiastically shown as Landi explained how one of the biggest aspects of the “communal spirit” is that “there were so many communities that came together to create this exhibit.” The idea of community is quite obvious when viewing how alumni, students, faculty, and other members of the art world came together to work on a fulfilling project in hopes of teaching people through a more visual approach rather than the traditional classroom style of education. The Sewanee community seeks to further its approach on diversity through projects such as these which have people dedicated to the spread of knowledge and awareness. By using this idea of “communal spirit” within cultures, it can perhaps help us better understand and appreciate our cultures, past and future.

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