LACMA presents groundbreaking cultural investigation of the legend of Quetzalcoatl

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LACMA presents groundbreaking cultural investigation of the legend of Quetzalcoatl
An effigy censer, (AD 1200-1500), from Mayapan, Yucatan, Mexico, is displayed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, LACMA, exhibit "Children of the Plumed Serpent: The Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico." The exhibit is an exploration of the ancient kingdoms of southern Mexico and their deity: Quetzalcoatl, the human incarnation of the Plumed Serpent, being shown at LACMA's Resnick Pavilion from April 1 through July 1. AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes.

LOS ANGELES, CA.- The Los Angeles County Museum of Art presents Children of the Plumed Serpent: The Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico, the first large-scale exploration of the ancient kingdoms of southern Mexico and their patron deity, Quetzalcoatl, the human incarnation of the Plumed Serpent. On view from April 1 through July 1, 2012, this groundbreaking exhibition features more than two hundred objects—including painted codices, turquoise mosaics, gold, and textiles—from Mexico, Europe, and the United States. These rare artworks trace the development of an extensive trade network that resulted in a period of cultural innovation that spread across ancient Mexico, the American Southwest, and Central America during the Postclassic (AD 900-1521) and early colonial periods.

“This exhibition foregrounds an era of cultural innovation in Mesoamerica when trade networks, closely linked to the deity Quetzalcoatl, facilitated the exchange of both goods and ideas across vast distances,” said Victoria Lyall, LACMA associate curator of Latin American art, “Southern Mexican kingdoms recognized Quetzalcoatl as their founder and patron, and these communities became, and continue to be, the Children of the Plumed Serpent.”

The exhibition is co-curated by LACMA curators the late Dr. Virginia Fields and Dr. Victoria Lyall, and consulting curator Dr. John Pohl, an independent curator and scholar. After its staging in Los Angeles, the exhibition will travel to the Dallas Museum of Art where it will be on view from July 29 through November 25, 2012.

Exhibition Background
This exhibition follows the historical trajectory of Quetzalcoatl’s life and explores his role as founder and benefactor of the Nahua-, Mixtec-, and Zapotec-dominated kingdoms of southern Mexico. Legendary accounts provide key insights into the sophistication and complexity of Postclassic-period societies in Mexico. According to legend, Tollan was founded by Quetzalcoatl, an incarnation of the ancient spirit force of wind and rain that combined the attributes of a serpent with those of the quetzal bird. The Toltec people prospered at Tollan by engaging in long distance commerce until Quetzalcoatl’s rivals schemed against him. Exiled from Tula he traveled east, and the civil strife that ensued led to Tollan’s destruction.

The communities of southern Mexico came to power after the fall of Tula and embraced the deity as their founder and benefactor. Organized into a loose confederacy of royal families, these southern kingdoms developed a highly sophisticated mode of visual communication that was remarkably effective in transcending linguistic and ethnic differences. For three hundred years the Children of the Plumed Serpent remained the dominant cultural, political, and economic force throughout southern Mexico, until a rival emerged in the Basin of Mexico, the Aztec Empire of the Triple Alliance. These kingdoms, however, successfully resisted Aztec and later Spanish control.

Exhibition Organization
The exhibition is organized into five thematic sections, which are arranged chronologically. The first section, The World of Tula and Chichen Itza, explores the nascent trade networks originating from Tula in central Mexico and Chichen Itza on the Yucatan peninsula. Devoted to the Plumed Serpent, these two centers attracted visitors from across the Americas and dominated the Mesoamerican political landscape between AD 900 and 1200. Imported goods such as ceramic vessels and gold from Central America, along with turquoise from the American Southwest, speak to the growing market for exotic materials developing around the devotion to Quetzalcoatl.

The second section, The New Tollan: The Emergence of Cholula and the Birth of the International Style, examines the rise of Cholula—after AD 1200—as a center of religious authority and commerce in the Americas. By the fourteenth century, an international art style—characterized by its vivid palette and the use of bold symbols and simple icons—facilitated the exchange of ideas across ethnic and linguistic boundaries.

The third section, Feasting, Divination, and Heroic History, examines the ritual life of the Children of the Plumed Serpent. Feasting rituals played a vital role in regional politics, providing occasions for noble families to foment alliances and exchange rare gifts. Festivities included dancing, drinking, and the recitation of poetry. Revelers drank pulque (a beverage made from fermented agave) from finely painted goblets and poets recited the heroic exploits of cultural heroes as depicted by the painted codices.

The fourth section of the exhibition, Avenues of Trade and the Spread of the International Style, highlights the type of luxury goods that moved along the trade corridors. Royal houses through southern Mexico sought after power and rank by means of gift exchanges and wedding dowries, which ultimately resulted in fierce competitions for luxury goods. The International Style was widely adopted across Mesoamerica and ultimately united the disparate corners of the region. From the Yucatan peninsula to the vast reaches of Northern Mexico and the American Southeast, exotic materials such as shell and turquoise were exchanged for other elite commodities such as cacao and rare feathers.

The final section of the exhibition, The Aztec Conquest and the Spanish Incursion, examines the strategies employed by southern Mexican kingdoms in the face of new threats to their political and cultural landscape. By the fifteenth century, the Aztec Empire asserted its dominance over great swaths of Mesoamerica. The arrival of Hernán Cortés and his army in 1519 ended further conquest. Under the Spanish regime, the southern kingdoms reconstituted their confederacies and trading networks and emerged as an integral part of the new economy. Today, descendants of the Children of the Plumed Serpent continue to thrive in southern Mexico.

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