Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Ars Animalis | Colima Terracotta Coatimundi

"It is just like the raccoon, but it does not have human hands." -- Bernardino de Sahagún (1499-1590), a Franciscan missionary[1]

[Animals were there at the beginning of art. But how did we get from Chauvet to "Dogs Playing Poker" and beyond? That's one of the questions 13.7 will be asking with this month's series, "Ars Animalis"—art of the animals.]

West Mexico, a region that includes the states of Colima, Jalisco and Nayarit and extends to the Pacific coast, has a distinct archaeological history from the rest of the country. In particular, the region has been defined by the presence of shaft tombs, socially-segregated burial chambers at the bottom of deep underground shafts. The earliest of these tombs has been dated to 1900 BC, though the shaft tomb tradition of art developed primarily around 300 BC.

These cultural groups are known almost entirely through the artworks that have been excavated from these sites, work that is part of what is known as the Western Mexico Shaft Tomb (WMST) tradition of art.

This terracotta sculpture is believed to have been created sometime between 300 BC and 300 AD. It is the figure of a coatimundi, or coatí, a member of the raccoon family native to Mexico.

In her book Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art, Hope Werness notes that "because it roots in the earth for sustenance, the coatí's association with agriculture goes back to ancient times and the animal continues to be a furry presence in modern folk agricultural rituals" and that "the constant whining sound the animal makes…explain[s] why ocarinas sometimes take the form of a coatí."[2] The ocarina is an ancient flute-like wind instrument.

According to Barakat Gallery:

The arts of this region are enormously variable and hard to understand in chronological terms, mainly due to the lack of context. The most striking works are the ceramics, which were usually placed in graves, and do not seem to have performed any practical function (although highly decorated utilitarian vessels are also known). It is possible that they were designed to depict the deceased – they are often very naturalistic – although it is more probable that they constituted, when in groups, a retinue of companions, protectors and servants for the hereafter. More abstract pieces—-such as reclinatorios--probably had a more esoteric meaning that is hard to recapture from the piece.

The current piece falls within the Colima style, which is perhaps the most unusual stylistic subgroup of this region. Characterized by a warm, red glaze, the figures are very measured and conservative, while at the same time displaying a great competence of line.[3]

SONG: "Huitzilopochtli," from the album "Sounds of Ancient Mexico" (2010) by Mexika

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[1] Werness, Hope B. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Barakat Gallery. Colima Terracotta Sculpture of a Coatimundi.

image: Colima Terracotta Sculpture of a Coatimundi (Barakat Gallery)

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