Anyone traveling across the United States from Okracoke to Chicago, or along the Mississippi and through the Dakotas past Wenatchee to Seattle, or southwest between Acoma and Tehachapi Pass, will be naming the names of Amerindian peoples and the titles they gave to the landscape. From Central Mexico southward to Guatemala, the memory of early peoples and places is marked by the ruins of cities, pyramids, and processional ways at Teotihuacan, Monte Albán, Uxmal, Tikal, and scores of other ancient sites. We now understand that Mesoamerica was one of four primary regions—including Mesopotamia and the Nile, the Huang Ho valley in China, and the Andean region of South America—where civilization evolved independently. Clearly, the enduring presence of Amerindian communities and their creative adjustments and resistance to cultural patterns imposed by dominant governments and tides of immigrating peoples form a deep-seated part of the history shared by our modern nations.
Amerindian life past and present offers sources that touch the imagination of those who have arrived here from Europe, Africa, or Asia. For many there may only be an impression barely noted, as when the long-accepted name of a familiar location is spoken. But for others, there may be deeper resonances that affect an entire pattern of thought. There is a growing perception that the experience of modernity may not be as closely tied to the idea of limitless expansion and progress as we once believed, and that earlier societies in the Americas were much more closely attuned to the notion of cyclic renewal than we are. On another level, the concept of national identity in a country such as Mexico has been shaped in great measure by the ongoing discovery of its own antiquity, and similar considerations are coming to our attention in the United States, as plans for a national museum of Native American art and culture go forward in Washington, D.C.
At The Art Institute of Chicago we are seeking to broaden an understanding of this unique and varied cultural endowment. During the course of this century, thousands of archaeological excavations and intensive art historical and anthropological inquiries have been conducted in many regions. Yet there remain scores of sites and large geographical areas where the record of early life is only tenuously described and is largely unknown to the public. Ancient West Mexico is one such area. Thus, when curator Richard Townsend discussed with me the possibility of forming an exhibition on this still largely unfamiliar art and culture, it was with the idea of finding the finest examples of ancient sculptures, vessels, and related forms—long separated from their original settings—and bringing them back into the context of what is presently understood and what stands to be known about the peoples who made them some two thousand years ago. This catalogue represents a collaborative effort by individuals of different disciplines and nationalities engaged in an innovative project of recovery, designed to bring an unfamiliar chapter of the Amerindian achievement into a larger framework of collective memory and history.
James N. Wood
Director and President
The Art Institute of Chicago