Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Guadalajara's Regional Museum - Treasure House Part 2

The importance of personal decoration. As in virtually all human societies, personal decoration was important to Western Mexico's indigenous people. Aside from satisfying simple vanity, such decoration confers status and position. And it's also fun to dress up. Shown above is a closeup of a beautiful necklace made of shells and finely worked copper bells. The large bell in the center features a winged insect. There was a widespread trade network throughout Mexico, through which moved copper from the mountains and shells from the Pacific Ocean.

This posting is Part 2 from our visit to the Museo Regional de Guadalajara. I have arranged the photos to show several additional aspects of life in this area pre-hispanic Mexico. This section shows the fine craftsmanship of personal decorations worn by the people. Following sections will look at warriors and warfare, the place of dogs in the societies, and finally a section I'll just call "Quirky humor".

Shell necklace, modeled by clay figure. The style of this shell necklace was not unique. The clay figure shown above, and in closeup below, demonstrates how it was worn.

The realism of early Mexico's sculptors. I found repeated examples of realism in the objects displayed in the Museo. The juxtaposition of the necklace and the small sculpture shows not only how the necklace was worn, but the existence of the necklace shows that the sculptor was illustrating real life. Given that, the earrings, hairdo, dress, and other aspects of the figure must show how people really dressed at the time.

Concentric necklaces. The photo above shows more fine work with shells and clay bells in several lovely necklaces.

Warriors and warfare

Crouching warrior in full armor. The warrior shown above appears to wear a wicker helmet and wicker body armor, and clutches a short battle club. These would have protected against stone-pointed arrows and lances, as well blows from the sort of club he carries. However, they proved of little use against the steel swords and pikes, much less against the firearms of the Spanish. Still, in their time, they enabled empires like the Purepechan (named the Tarascan by the Spanish), to conquer their neighbors and control the area from Patzcuaro in Michoacan to the eastern part of Lake Chapala.

Seated warrior with club. This warrior appears to be responding to some threat as he grasps his weapon and turns to face the enemy. He appears to be wearing some sort of helmet, perhaps made of leather.

Captive faces grim future. This slumping figure is obviously a captive, shown by the bound hands and dejected posture. The feet of the warrior standing guard over him can be seen in the background. Warfare in pre-hispanic Mexico was conducted for a variety of reasons including tribute and control of trade routes. One special purpose was to capture enemy warriors and--best of all--enemy leaders for the purpose of human sacrifice. The Spanish professed horror at this practice, particularly because it was conducted for religious purposes, i.e. to appease the gods. They conveniently forgot that their Inquisition, raging at the time of the Conquest, conducted human sacrifice for religious purposes through burnings at the stake and other tortures.

Dogs in pre-hispanic Mexican society

A very distant relative to today's Chihuahua. This fat little dog bears a close resemblance to a rather overfed chihuahua. Domesticated dogs have a long history in Mexico, going back thousands of years. Remains of dogs looking very much like the one above have been found in Mexican ruins dating to the 2nd Century BC. They were kept for religious purposes, as pets, and were sometimes used as food. This one looks happy and well cared-for.

Mischievous dog. A curious little dog climbs over the side of an oil lamp. Another example of pre-hispanic humor.

Lighting the way. This little pooch served a function beyond decoration. The spout on his head appears to be for the wick of an oil lamp.

Another dog lamp. The sculptor who created this oil lamp gave it the four legs of the dog(s) for support. The two heads would have made it easier to carry.

Pre-hispanic Mexico's quirky humor.

Two-headed woman with three eyes. This figure was highly decorated and still shows the original white and ocher colored paint.

Primitive jazz combo? These two fellows were engaged in an activity that completely mystified me at first. Then I noticed that the one on the left appears to be shaking a rattle. That would make sense if the device connecting them was some sort of two-man musical wind instrument.

Incense burner with a long tail. An attractively designed incense burner was adorned by its maker with a humorous handle in the shape of an animal's tail, possibly that of a monkey.

I have many more photos of the wonderful objects in the Museo, but no space in this blog to portray them all. If you have the opportunity to visit the Museo Regional de Guadalajara, I urge you to do so. Our visit barely scratched the surface of all that is to be seen. For information about the location and hours of the Museo, please refer to the opening section of Part 1 of this posting.

Hasta luego! Jim

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Guadalajara's Regional Museum - Treasure House of Ancient Art - Part 1

A remarkably lifelike figure from pre-hispanic Mexico. Recently Carole and I visited the Museo Regional de Guadalajara, joined by our friends Tom and Vivien. The Museo is located in the El Centro area of Guadalajara along one side of the main plaza adjacent to the Cathedral. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, the Museo's admission charge is 37 pesos (about $2.75 US) but is free on Sunday. There is an additional 30 peso fee if you want to take photographs. We had heard great things about the Museo and we were not disappointed!

The Museo Regional courtyard is cool, green, and shady. The Museo has an interesting history. Originally it was built as the Tridentino Saint Joseph Seminary. Later it became a prison for those captured in the War of Independence. Following that, the Museo became a government building before finally assuming its present identity in 1918.

An architectural gem. The 18th Century building is constructed around a central courtyard, with arched walkways on each of two stories all around the perimeter. The display rooms line the interior walls facing the arches on both floors. Huge old wooden doors, studded with old iron bolts and hinges, guard the displays and offices. The Museo contains many different displays from pre-history through relatively modern times, but we only had time to view the paleolithic exhibits and those of Western Mexico's pre-hispanic indigenous cultures.

Great Paleolithic Animals

A huge tusker by any measure. Mammoth presence in Mexico was first documented 400 years ago and at least 271 sites are known.  There is evidence that mammoths and humans existed together in pre-historic Mexico. In one site, there is a fire pit next to the skeleton and some of the bones had been burned. Radiocarbon dating puts this at 31,000 years ago.

Mammoth vertebrae. The huge vertebrae and attached ribs were perhaps 4 feet across and I suspected it would take a strong man to lift them. Mammoth remains  have been found recently in El Salto, Jalisco State, near where I live.

"Say ahhhh..." Skull and fearsome teeth of a Sabre Tooth Tiger. These beasts roamed Western Mexico in pre-historic times, from 1.6 million to 10,000 years ago. The timing would make it a contemporary of early indigenous people. Obviously it was a very formidable opponent to man or beast.

Western Mexico's Ancient People

Stylish woman at her ease. A female figure relaxes, legs crossed in an easy posture. She is very stylishly adorned with an interesting hat and multiple earrings on each ear. I selected this figure, and the ones that follow because I was so captivated by the human touch of the ancient artists. These works came from a variety of different cultures and empires spread around a wide area of Western Mexico. What is common among them is their natural feeling. As a modern person from a western industrialized society, I could instantly relate to the people depicted.

A man and his dog. This fellow was seated very comfortably, arms on knees and hands on elbows. His small dog cuddles up between his knees.

"Please sir, may I have more?" This figure reminded me of the scene in the Dickens novel. Notice the fine detail on this figure. Every toenail is shown, as well as the matching decorations on the head and the calves. This was a fairly large work, about 3 feet tall.

Taking it easy. All this guy needs is a beer and a TV and he'd fit in perfectly in any modern living room. I was continually amazed by the natural, recognizable postures of the human figures in the collections at the Museo Regional as opposed to the stylized and stilted postures of some of the sculptures of other ancient cultures.

A nice back rub after a long day. In a very human moment, this man is treating his friend to a nice back rub. I felt a definite kinship with the people who created this little vignette.

Cuddling couple. The relaxed, affectionate posture of this man and woman comes across very easily, despite the passage of centuries. The posture is very natural, with legs curled under and arms around each other. I got the feeling that the sculptor had sat with his wife or lover in just such a manner.

Line dancers. These folks would have fit in nicely at a country-western line dance. Notice the flute player leading the group. This same type of "Pan" flute is still in use today.

Circling dancers. These dancers seem to be having a lot of fun. Many of the creations in the Museo Regional showed groups of people engaged in activities easily recognizable across cultural barriers and across many centuries.

Implements of everyday life.

Everyday tools. Seen above are metal axes, chisels, fish hooks, awls, needles, and a fine pair of copper tweezers (center). These were the everyday implements of cultures operating on a high level, hardly the barbarians often depicted by Spaniards eager to justify their conquests and depredations.

Graceful pitcher. I was particularly attracted to this lovely pitcher, with its scalloped sides and long graceful spout. Note how the pitcher is filled through the openings on the handle rather than through a removable top.

Painted pot. The various indigenous cultures and empires of Western Mexico contained many fine craftspeople. When the Spanish arrived, they sometimes noted that the crafts they encountered were equal to if not superior to what they were used to in Spain. The Spanish quickly put these craftspeople to work building churches, public buildings, and haciendas and filling them with all manner of beautiful objects.

Painted bowl. In modern westernized cultures, one expects beautiful designs on special objects for religious purposes or just as "art". Mass produced objects for everyday use are seldom decorated extensively, if at all and certainly not by painstaking hand-crafting. Pre-industrial cultures often created beautiful objects for the most pedestrian tasks. It is my speculation that this may have been because the objects were not considered "throw aways", but were intended to be kept for many years and even passed down through the generations. Perhaps it also had something to do with the time it took to create something, and the sense that the object therefore deserved to be beautiful.

Conch shell trumpet. Conch shells have been used in a variety of cultures around the world for musical purposes and to sound alerts. This one was finely incised by a pre-hispanic artist. The use of a conch shell by cultures which had no direct contact with the ocean indicates an extensive trade network.

Three-legged bowl. Indigenous artists and craftsmen quite often used the tripod in designing a support structure for their creations.

Incense burner. Implements to burn incense for religious purposes, or just because it smelled good, came in a variety of shapes and sizes. The one pictured above is about 2 feet high. I found this one interesting because of the cross cut into the side of the stand. There were a number similarities such as the cross and the use of incense in religious symbols and practices between the indigenous peoples of Mexico and the Spanish Catholic church, even though the basic belief systems were radically different. The Church quickly made use of these similarities to ease the transition to Catholicism.

This concludes Part 1 of my post on the Museo Regional de Guadalajara. My second post will show beautiful objects of personal decoration, and others which show warfare, domesticated animals, and some which show a quirky creativity and sense of humor.

Thanks for visiting Jim and Carole's Mexico Adventure. Comments are welcomed.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Day of the Dead Fiesta in Ajijic & Chapala

In Mexico, the dead live on. Ghost dancer at the Ajijic Dia de los Muertos fiesta in a rare moment of repose. The Day of the Dead is actually two days, November 1 and 2. The first is for dead children, "los angelitos", whose innocence is such that they are presumed to have gone directly to heaven, and the second is for adults.

Both in timing and in the ghostly aspects, there is some superficial resemblance to Halloween as it is practiced North of the Border. But the traditions are totally different, in origin, meaning, and practice. The origins go back thousands of years into the histories of the various indigenous cultures of Mexico. There is a light dusting of Catholicism over these traditions, but only a dusting. In practice, the purpose of the Dias de los Muertos is not to frighten, but to celebrate the lives of those who have simply passed over to a different plane of existence.

Each year, the spirits of the dead return to visit family and friends, not in terrifying way, but in the way of a relative who has been away traveling for a long time and stops by for a short visit. How would you deal with such a visitor? Bring out his favorite foods and drinks, make her comfortable by displaying familiar possessions such as a favorite book or a guitar she used to play. Remember him or her with stories of fun or emotion they shared. In this way, the person is kept alive in a way I began to understand and feel for the first time.

Mis amigos, Jay and Veronica. Jay Koppleman is a wonderful local photographer whose work has graced the covers and pages of Lake Chapala area magazines. We ran into each other at the Ajijic Plaza, both intent on snapping some shots of the action. Later, he and his pretty Mexican girlfriend Veronica took me to Chapala to see an aspect of the Dia de los Muertos I had never encountered before. On the right hand column of this page you will find a section called "Other sites to check out". Be sure to click on Photo Gallery by Jay Koppelman.

Scary and funny at the same time. The ghost dancer was a frightful figure but also a clown. The kids loved him, especially when he would suddenly rush at them, causing them to scatter like shrieking birds. At one point, a small terrier was affronted by this apparition's antics and began chasing the ghost dancer, furiously nipping at his heels. The crowd howled with laughter as the ghost dancer raced around in circles and through the audience, trying to shake off his tiny assailant. The terrier, his valor demonstrated, finally trotted off to the cheers of the crowd.

An eerie profile. The hood of the ghost dancer's costume gave him a very strange profile. He used it to alter his appearance throughout the dance, and sometimes pulled it off his head to surround and capture an unwary bystander.

Catholicism and paganism melded. The ghost dancer holds a cross in one hand, and the marigold--an ancient symbol of death--in the other. Clearly there are heavy elements of paganism in his dance. In fact, the Catholic Church has very ambivalent feelings about the Dias de los Muertos fiesta and has, at times, denounced some aspects of it. However, the Church made its bed when early authorities co-opted pagan festivals and shrines into the Catholic tradition. Sometimes there seems to be a very thin veneer of Catholicism over thousands of years of indigenous religious culture.

Rockin' round the clock. After the ghost dancer departed, one of the local ballet folklorico companies provided some wonderful entertainment. Here, a couple fling themselves into a rowdy dance, dressed in the clothing typical of 19th Century country people who might have just finished a hard day's work on the patron's hacienda.

A graceful bow. This couple finished their dance with a bow, recalling the graces of past times on remote haciendas where such dances were the major social entertainment.

A dazzling display. Next came satiny dresses and voluminous skirts. Ballet folklorico was created to preserve the traditions of past centuries. There are ballet folklorico companies all over Mexico and in the United States too.

A flourish of skirts. The athleticism of these dancers was impressive. The costumes had to be heavy and hot, but they just kept whirling.

Male and female dancers weave an intricate pattern. While the clear stars of the show were the female dancers with their dazzling dresses, the males had their moments. If you look closely, you can see the male dancer in this picture is carrying machetes in both hands. These long, sharp knives--really almost swords--were used in some of the male-only dances. They were rhythmically clashed against the stone plaza surface and against the machetes carried by other dancers as they whirled about each other. Choreography and long practice help ensure no one is beheaded or disemboweled. Still, it was sometimes unnerving to watch.

The swirling, twirling dancers in their brilliant dresses were almost dizzying. These costumes represent what the higher classes would have worn in early 19th Century Mexico.

Leaning over backward to please. At the finale of their performance, the female dancers leaned back so far I feared a domino-like collapse. No disasters occurred, however. At the end, Jay and Veronica approached me about accompanying them on a special adventure to neighboring Chapala.

Altars lined Cinco de Mayo street for many blocks. After the dances in the Ajijic Plaza, Jay and Veronica took me over to Cinco de Mayo street in Chapala where a number of blocks were cleared of parked cars and given over to altars. These are a major element of the Dias de los Muertos fiesta. Some of the altars are created by families to commemorate departed members. Others might celebrate the life of a national hero, or even (see below) call attention to the death of a species. Usually the altars are set up in front of a house for neighbors and passersby to view and admire.

The altars were quite large and many took up the entire front of a house, extending well out into the street. People had spent much of the day setting everything up and the event had the feel of a huge block party. The altar pictured above is very traditional. The picture of the deceased is prominently displayed, surrounded by marigolds, a symbol of death. Candles light the way for the spirit of the dead person to come visit. Next to the picture is a basket with a bar of soap and a towel so the person can clean up after their long journey. Also included are small bowls with traditional foods and bottles of liquor for refreshment. The overall effect is quite cheerful, rather than gloomy. After all, a loved one is coming to visit after a long absence.

An altar for the animals. Dia de los Muertos altars usually involve family members, but not always. In this case, the creator of the altar wanted to call attention to the extinction of whole species of wildlife. The cross says "rest in peace in the earth". On the altar are skulls of a wide variety of animals and the stuffed body of a wildcat with a dead bird in its mouth. Mexico has a growing environmental movement.

The path to eternity. A typical element of many altars is a path, or walkway, paved with marigolds, which leads the spirit of the dead to the altar. Additional elements shown here are candles and skulls made of sugar which are eaten after the event.

Gambling for souls. In this living (sort of) tableau, death plays cards with anyone willing to sit down at the gaming table. Step right up!

Standing watch. Some of the altars came complete with mimes who silently stood guard over the pictures and favorite foods and personal items deceased family members. Curious, I asked if you have to be dead to be pictured on the altar. You do indeed. At one altar, a group picture of young men had one end torn off. Apparently all those pictured had died, possibly together, and the one in the torn off section survived.

A ghostly appeal? This young woman's sign means "I look for a boyfriend". She is dressed as a cadaverous bride. Any takers? Apparently she is celebrating the life of some relative who died on the verge of marriage.

Almost makes me want to regrow my mustache. The streets were thronged with people not only from the neighborhood and from the Lake Chapala area, but from Guadalajara too. This young couple joined a large group of others dressed--and made up--for the occasion. The crowd was so thick I was afraid some of the beautiful altars might get damaged, but everyone was careful and respectful of the work others had done.

Sorry, all seats are taken--you just can't see the occupants. At this altar, someone has set an elaborate table for the dead with different meals on each plate representing the favorite dishes of the departed. A ghostly figure ensures that no one sneaks a bite uninvited. However, there is also a tradition of providing food for passersby, and we stopped at several locations to sample various delicacies including some delicious dessert tamales, a first for me.

Catrina keeps watch over La Revolucion. No Dia de los Muertos fiesta is complete without at least one Catrina. These are skeletal figures, usually female but sometimes male, dressed in a variety of costumes and engaged in the activities of the living. Catrinas were created by a 19th Century Mexican journalist and cartoonist Guadalupe Posada who drew figures in the elegant European-oriented costumes of the time. The idea caught on and today there are a wild variety of Catrinas (and Catrinos) engaged in every task imaginable including some dressed as Gringo tourists complete with camera. Hmmm...perhaps I have been getting a little thin lately?

This completes my posting on the Dia de los Muertos. Please feel free to comment below, or email me through my profile information. I love hearing from folks.