Mapping Memory: Space and History in 16th-century Mexico
Blanton Museum of Art, Austin
Through August 25
The story of Hernando Cortés’ conquest of Mexico, which began 500 years ago this August, has been told many times. It has been romanticized — Cortés burning his ships to give his army no choice but to march inland, Moctezuma’s dream of the return of the god Quetzalcoatl in the person of the conquistador — and it has been denounced — yet another example of European imperialists raping, pillaging, and subjugating an indigenous culture to the point of wiping it from the face of the earth.
What really happened is somewhat more complicated. For example, Cortés’ destruction of the Aztec Empire was aided and abetted by other local peoples who had a beef with the Aztecs. The Spanish wouldn’t have stood a chance of taking Tenochtitlan (current-day Mexico City, and at that time, as it is now, one of the most populous cities on the planet) without their help. Similarly, the colonial period that followed did not just see the cut-copy-paste of Christian Civilization in place of deracinated Mesoamerican culture, but rather the development of a hybridized culture that exhibited both European and pre-Colombian traits.
This blended picture is brought home in vivid and beautiful detail in “Mapping Memory: Space and History in 16th-century Mexico,” which is showing at the Blanton Museum of Art until August 25. Organized by Rosario I. Granados, Marilynn Thoma Associate Curator, Art of the Spanish Americas, Blanton Museum of Art in collaboration with LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections, the Harry Ransom Center, and the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, the exhibit presents a selection of maps, known as Mapas de las Relaciones Geográficas, made by Indigenous artists around 1580.
These mapas were commissioned by Spanish governors and sent back to Spain as records of the king’s new domains. The logistics of travel in the 16th century made it impractical for the king to visit his new territories, so these maps had to suffice. They depict cities and churches set within landscapes of mountains, forests, rivers, and plains and connected by roads and canals. Some of them also include representations of the people who lived there.
What’s remarkable about the depictions is they show that the native people who drew them were still working within the artistic traditions of their ancestors, which were still very much alive a generation or two after the Spanish conquest. European cultural creations, like churches, and even personages, such as the governors, are rendered in mannerisms that conflate the new civilization and the old. Of particular interest is the organization of space within the maps. While one map in the exhibit — of Meztitlán — shows a typical European sense of fixed perspective, where there is a clear up and down, left and right, most of them show a more universalized understanding of space where, depending on one’s viewpoint, churches and other features of the landscape may appear up, down, or on their sides. Also interesting, while many of the maps on display indicate roads with footprints (the Aztecs got around by walking) one — of Teozacoalco — shows footprints mixed with the hoofprints of the Spanish caballeros. Another — of Cuzcatlán — shows only hoofprints.
“Mapping Memory” enriches our notions of Mexican history and identity, just as it presents another way of approaching how we render architecture and space. Five-hundred years ago a new people and culture was arising from the melding of two ancient civilizations. Considering this in greater detail may offer us a new way of thinking about the hybridization of cultures we can see developing before our very eyes in Texas today.
Aaron Seward is editor of Texas Architect.