Ancient Space, Modern Architecture, and Contemporary Art

Indigenous Architecture in the Americas

American indigenous knowledge influenced Europeans in many ways, sometimes unexpected – among them the art of building. The exhibition “Pacha, Llaqta, Wasichay: Indigenous Space, Modern Architecture, New Art”, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, examines this legacy. Brandon Sward visited the show for Contemporary And (C&) América Latina.

The show brings together seven emerging and mid-career artists based in the US and Puerto Rico whose work attends to the echoes in indigeneity in contemporary architecture. Take something as stereotypically US-American as sports like basketball or racquetball, “invented” in 1891 by Dr. James Naismith and Joseph Sobek in 1950, respectively. These games are far outdated by ulama, the oldest known game involving a rubber ball (archeologists have excavated balls dating back to at least 1600 BCE). Although we don’t know the exact rules of this game, we have records of long, narrow courts (taste) with chalked lines, divided into opposing sides by a middle line (analco). Anyone who has been in a gymnasium is undoubtedly familiar with the set-up. In a series of works including ULAMA-ULE-ALLEY OOP (2017), Ecuadorian artist Ronny Quevedo shows how similar these playing fields are to their contemporary descendants, thus destabilizing the supposed uniqueness of US-American culture.

While some of these pre-Columbian inheritances are unconscious or perhaps even accidental, other are quite purposeful, as in the case of various forms of “revival” architecture in the Southwestern US. As this region sought a distinct architectural identity during the early 20th century, designers turned their eyes toward the area’s past and the great buildings constructed by indigenous peoples. This craze reached to the highest heights of architecture at the time, influencing architects as famous as Frank Lloyd Wright, whose Hollyhock House in East Hollywood, Los Angeles, was part of the Mayan Revival.

Of course, these buildings only borrowed the aesthetics of the cultures decimated by the arrival of Europeans to the “New World.” Though many of the features of Mesoamerican buildings were specific adaptations to the technologies, materials, and beliefs of indigenous peoples, in the hands of architects like Wright they are emptied of meaning, made to serve mere decorative purposes. In her video Ch’u Mayaa, Brazilian artist Clarissa Tossin collaborates with the performer Crystal Sepúlveda to activate the space’s buried heritage. The piece’s title refers to “Maya blue,” one of the most durable pigments in Mayan pottery, often the last to cling to these artifacts. Like this color, the indigenous endures in our culture, even if don’t recognize it as such.

Though at other times, we’re only too willing to unearth the past, as when the Mexican government relocated a giant sculpture of the Aztec rain god Tlāloc to the Museo Nacional de Antropología in 1964. As the modernist architecture of the building reaches forward into the future, the primordial sculpture reaches backward into the past, a perfect metaphor for the discipline of anthropology, which initially sought to study “primitive cultures” scientifically.

Similar to the case of the Hollyhock House, we see again one culture decorating itself with another, ignoring the religious significance that Tlāloc had, and continues to have, for indigenous peoples. Mexican artist Claudia Peña Salinas has been researching the fate of the Tlāloc monolith for some time and has contributed a trio of sculptures, including Cueyatl (2017), that envision Tlālōcān, a paradise jointly ruled by Tlāloc and Chalchiuhtlicue, the Aztec goddess of water. The titles of the pieces are various amalgams of the two names, taken apart and put back together as the Mexican government uprooted and replanted the Tlāloc monument.