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Museums: Journey to a Mythic Homeland Volume 55 Number 2, March/April 2002
by Eric A. Powell

According to myth, the god Huitzilopochtli led the Aztecs' ancestors to central Mexico from a homeland to the north called Aztlán, or "land of the white herons." In the twentieth century, this mythic homeland was adopted by Chicano activists, who used Aztlán as a kind of metaphor for Mexican-American identity. The Road to Aztlan: Art From a Mythic Homeland, organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and now running at the Albuquerque Museum until April 28, employs the somewhat nebulous concept of Aztlán to explore the relationships that have bound the peoples of Mesoamerica and the American Southwest from Precolumbian times to the present.

How much influence the high civilizations of Mesoamerica had on their northern neighbors has been a hot topic since at least the nineteenth century, when explorers began giving American archaeological sites names like Aztec Ruins (in New Mexico) and Toltec Mounds (in Arkansas). Recent scholarship--notwithstanding a theory that the Four Corners area was invaded by Toltecs--has settled around the notion that while significant trade relationships existed between the two regions, the American Southwest was never part of a greater Mesoamerica.

The Precolumbian portion of The Road to Aztlan, which by sheer volume overwhelms the small sections devoted to colonial-era and contemporary art, emphasizes this well-developed exchange network and highlights examples of shared motifs, such as twins and feathered serpents associated with water and fertility. But the concept of Aztlán remains elusive throughout the exhibit. Language describing Aztlán as a "metaphoric center place" probably won't help the average museum goer.

Visitors to The Road to Aztlan are greeted by a magnificent Aztec basalt figure representing the lower half of a rattlesnake adorned with corn ears. Nearby are ceramics from northern Mexico and the Southwest decorated with serpent images. Displays of Southwestern and Mesoamerican artifacts side by side to show common traits are not always successful. Stone figurines from Arizona's Hohokham and West Mexico are so uncannily similar that they might have been crafted by the same person. Other cases, like one with stone tools from the two areas, beg the question of how similar Southwestern artifacts might be to those produced by Andean cultures, or from even farther afield.

A number of halls focus on individual Southwestern and Mesoamerican cultures. The Southwest is particularly well represented. A room devoted to southern New Mexico's Mimbres showcases that culture's magnificent ceramics, famed for their imaginative scenes. One particularly lovely bowl shows two men (reminiscent of the hero twins so prevalent in Mesoamerican myth) wrestling with a fish monster. The Ancestral Pueblo, or Anasazi, artifacts on display include ceramics from Chaco Canyon, such as the celebrated ceramic jugs that resemble nothing so much as modern-day coffee mugs.

Labels accompanying the artifacts are informative, but spare. Luckily the exhibition's hefty catalogue fills the void with essays by noted archaeologists and art historians on subjects as various as the regional distribution of copper bells and wind as a metaphor in Mesoamerican art that do much to put the artifacts on display into context.

The small colonial and contemporary portions of the exhibit, which highlight religious art and painting with political overtones respectively, are unsatisfying postscripts to the impressive Precolumbian section. Though some of the modern ceramics and colonial textiles on display echo Precolumbian themes in intriguing ways, the ancient artifacts are so spectacular that they overwhelm what follows.

The visitor may leave The Road to Aztlan still puzzling over the connection between the Southwest and Mesoamerica, but anyone interested in the region's ancient people should see this exhibition.

Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America