8 Who Came Before Us?

Chpater 8 map and artwork timeline
Figure 8.1: Map and timeline of artworks discussed in “Who Came Before Us?” by Marizela Garza. Review image captions below for details about each artwork and copyright information.

Who came before us?

What is the past? What is history? What is time? As with “What is Divine?”, we won’t be answering these questions here. Instead, we’ll be navigating some ways that cultures around the world have considered these questions. We’ve already considered how some cultures focus on history embedded in their ancestry. Remember the Kwakwaka’wakw from “What is Important to Us?” for whom ancestors and ancestral mythologies are profoundly important? Speaking of mythologies, remember back to all the accounts of the origins of humanity in “Will You Tell a Story?” These are accounts of cultural histories that reflect sacred ways of viewing the world and the past.

As our ‘theory of mind of cultures’ from “Who Am I?” indicates and many examples we’ve already discussed in the previous chapters attest, different cultures answer these questions differently. In European and Euro-American traditions, history is typically presented as a timeline of events that occurred sequentially. Astrophysicists who scientifically study the nature of time at the scale of the universe suggest that time is directional. That jives with many people’s perceptions that events happened before, things are happening now, and other stuff will happen in the future. Those are discrete segments of time that we can experience. But, what about other ways of perceiving time?

Is time linear?

For many cultures, unidirectional and/or horizontal linear timelines are difficult to make sense of because in their understanding, time is not only linear; it is cyclical. To visualize this difference, check out Figure 8.2. To complicate things, Figure 8.3 illustrates how linear and cyclical perceptions of time actually mingle. We know that the rotation of the earth creates what we call the ‘rising’ and ‘setting’ of the sun each day (based on our perception from the earth’s surface). This is the daily cycle of time. But the moon’s orbit creates a different cycle of waxing and waning that (somewhat) corresponds to the Gregorian calendar of 28/29/30/31-day months. Most European and Euro-American communities recognize the seasonal cycles of temperate regions of the northern hemisphere (spring, summer, autumn, winter). Furthermore, the cyclical recognition of the rotation of the earth around the sun (i.e. one year) is also a major facet of the Gregorian calendar. In these ways, Europeans and Euro-Americans understand cyclical time, even if they prefer the simplified charts of one line forever progressing into the future. But what about longer timescales, like the ‘multiannual’ cycle illustrated in Figure 8.3? Let’s explore how the ancient Maya viewed time to consider these possibilities.

Image of Illustration of two different ways of perceiving time: linear and cyclical.
Figure 8.2: Illustration of two different ways of perceiving time: linear and cyclical. Image Source: Schaepe et al. 2017; used with permission.
Image of Illustration of the simultaneity of linear and cyclical perceptions of time, including multiple cycles that occur simultaneously
Figure 8.3: Illustration of the simultaneity of linear and cyclical perceptions of time, including multiple cycles that occur simultaneously. Image Source: Schaepe et al. 2017; used with permission.

The ancient Maya developed calendar systems (yes, multiple) that place great importance on these longer time scales while serving practical, daily needs as well. Two calendar systems focus on annual timescales: one that prioritizes agriculture (the Haab’) and one that prioritizes spiritual and ritual needs (the Tzolk’in) (both of these are still in use today). The Haab’ calendar focuses on cycles of 20 k’in (days) called winals. Certain winals are more agriculturally productive because they fall within the wet season (when crops get sustained rain). The semi-tropical forests of the Maya region, and many other tropical cultures, recognize two cyclical seasons: the wet season and the dry season. The Haab’ annual cycle is called a tun (year), comprising 360 days (18 winals) and 1 winal of only 5 days at the end of the year, called the Wayeb.

The Tzolk’in calendar cycles over a 260-day period (13 winals of 20 k’ins). The Haab’ and the Tzolk’in cycle separately but are often recorded together. So, any given day will have a Haab’ date and a Tzolk’in date. When provided together, these are called Calendar Round dates. The Calendar Round cycle completes when the first day of the Haab’ and the first day of the Tzolk’in cycles align. This happens every 18,980 solar days, or 52 years.

Maya calendrical term English equivalent/similarity Correlations
k’in day
winal week or month 20 k’in
tun year Haab: 360 k’in (18 winals) + Wayeb (5 k’in)
260 k’in (13 winals)
k’atun decade 20 tun (7200 k’in)
Calendar Round completion none 52 tun
‘B’ak’tun’ (term developed by archaeologists) century 20 k’atun (144,000 k’in)
‘Piktun’ (term developed by archaeologists) epoch 20 b’ak’tun

The 52-year Calendar Round cycle is only one example of how the Maya developed ‘multiannual’ time scales. The Long Count calendar is separate from the Haab and Tzolk’in and cycles on 20 tun (year) increments. 20 tun is a k’atun and 20 k’atun (400 tun) is a b’ak’tun, and so on (occasionally accounting all the way to ‘alautun’ or cycles of 64,000,000 years). Wondering why the number 20 has come up so much? The Maya used a base-20 counting system, as opposed to the base-10 counting system dominant in Europe and Euro-America.

The ending of a k’atun or b’ak’tun was celebrated among the Maya. An individual may celebrate two or three k’atun during their lifetime but it would be much rarer to celebrate a b’ak’tun. The royal family would commission large stone monuments (called stela/stelae [P.S. a Greek-derived term applied to the ancient Maya]) recording k’atun or b’ak’tun dates, often instructing carvers to represent their portraits alongside the date. Stela Depicting Kaloomte’ K’abel (Fig. 8.4) from the ancient city El Perú-Waka’, in present-day Guatemala (Fig. 8.1), is one such monument.

Image of Stela Depicting Kaloomte’ K’abel by Late Classical Maya Makers
Figure 8.4: Late Classic Maya Maker(s) from El Perú-Waka’, Guatemala. Stela Depicting Kaloomte’ K’abel (Stela 34). 692 CE. Limestone. The Cleveland Museum of Art Collection; CC0 Public Domain.

So, where is the date recorded on this stela? The Maya wrote calendar dates in hieroglyphs, according to the conventions of the hieroglyphic writing system. When carved in stone, hieroglyphic texts are often presented as text blocks, as seen at the top left and bottom right of Stela Depicting Kaloomte’ K’abel. The text block on the top left describes Lady K’abel, her titles, reign dates, and description that the monument marks the end of a k’atun.

The lower right text block documents the Long Count date of that k’atun to 692 CE. Lady K’abel did not stand alone to commemorate this important passage of time. This stela was erected as part of a pair, the second of which depicted her husband K’inich Bahlam II and recorded the same Long Count date. Indeed, the cyclical nature of k’atun periods and the entire Maya perception of time is exemplified at El Perú-Waka’. The pair of stelae marking the 692 CE k’atun ending was erected in the same plaza as an earlier pair, also depicting Lady K’abel and K’inich Bahlam II, celebrating the 672 CE k’atun ending. The pair ruled over El Peru-Waka’ for those 20 years and probably longer. They celebrated the cyclical passage of k’atuns and ensured that calendrical scholars and scribes continued to document the passage of time towards the forthcoming b’ak’tun and beyond.

(P.S. Speaking of Maya calendars, December 21, 2012 CE was not the Maya apocalypse; it was the ending of a b’ak’tun. In fact, it was the ending of the 13th b’ak’tun in a stretch of over 5,000 years from the creation date that ancient Maya calendrical scholars calculated based on creation narratives. The ancient Maya and the modern Maya in 2012 CE did not expect the world to end on that day. In fact, while it is rare to see units higher than b’ak’tun actually used, there is a fascinating inscription at the city of Palenque (present-day Chiapas, Mexico) which records the ending of the present piktun on October 13, 4772 CE. How could December 21, 2012 CE be ‘the end’ if the current piktun wasn’t going to end for over 2000 years? Cyclical time is the key here. On December 21, 2012, one long cycle was coming to a close and another one was starting. It was a day of celebration, not fear.)

The Maya calendar system and understanding of time is quite complicated. To learn more check out The Maya Calendar: A Book of Months, 400-2000 CE (Lamb 2017). Also check out the very recent finding of the oldest known calendar notation in the Maya world (Stuart et al. 2022), which happens to be at San Bartolo, Guatemala, where the Maize God Mural was found! If you’re wondering about Lady K’abel herself and why she’s depicted as such a badass in Stela Depicting Kaloomte’ K’abel, don’t worry! We’ll come back to her when we discuss status and hierarchies in “Why Do They Have More Than Us?” For now, let’s explore more about how people understand the past, beyond the esoteric consideration of time cycles. Many cultures, first and foremost, look to the past through their recent ancestors.


Art often brings ancestors (deceased family members) back to life, and makes them present today. Bulul Figures (Fig. 8.5) of the Ifugao culture of the Philippines (Fig. 8.1) offer such direct ancestral connections. Tiaralyn Valdez Torres and Khriselle Chelsea Daugard, students in Dr. Rick Bonus’ course called “Critical Filipinx American Histories” at the University of Washington, offer their research on Bulul Figures, from a Filipinx perspective. First, let’s consider the cultural context Torres and Daugard (2019, para. 1-3) offer about the Ifugao and the tradition of Bulul:

Prior to … colonization, the Ifugaos were one of the most sophisticated and prosperous highland plutocracies in the entire Philippine archipelago. The state existed for over 2,000 years, and there was a council of elders that ruled and led with peace. This plutocracy … brought about the best agricultural technology in Asia [for its] time. Massive rice terraces were built, which became enduring symbols of this province. Rice for the Ifugao is considered a prestige crop, so their cultures revolve around it. There are many feasts … that are related to rice and the different aspects of rice farming. … [Rice] is linked to community and spiritual well-being…

The villages [of the Ifugao] were often built around a [central] stone platform…. It was on this platform that social and spiritual rites were performed, such as the worship of deities and ancestors, as well as the consecration of [Bulul] figures …

The bulul is a carved wooden statue … used to guard [the] rice crop. They are carved from a single piece of wood and depict [abstracted] humans. These bulul … represent the ancestors of the Ifugaos…. The statues have the figures either standing or sitting down [atop a stylized mortar, used to grind rice], and the male and female statues [represented by distinct genitalia] are usually found next to each other…. Among the different types of Ifugao figurative sculptures, the bulul are the most known and are the most abundant.
Image of Bulul Figures by Ifugao Maker(s) of the Philippines.

Figure 8.5: Ifugao Maker(s) of the Philippines. Bulul Figures. Unknown date. Wood, approx. 15.25”. Burke Museum Collection; CC BY-NC.

Torres and Daugard (2019, para. 2) go onto discuss the circumstances of Spanish colonization in the region, including the fact that the Ifugao fought against colonization for hundreds of years, until the Philippine Revolution. Bulul continues to be valued among the Ifugao, demonstrating the importance of connections to history, through family ties. These connections don’t stop if Ifugao or other Filipinx peoples decide to emigrate to other areas of the world. Check out the rest of “The Bulul Statue: The Power of Rice Healing” (Torres and Daugard 2019) to learn about how ancestral traditions reflect in contemporary Filipinx-American life.

An important part of the trajectory of ancestors, and the developments of history in many cultures, is the death of an important person. Among the peoples of the Mandak-Barak region of central New Ireland in Melanesia (Fig. 8.1), sculptures like Uli Figure (sketched in Fig. 8.6; original here) adorn funerals for memai (literally “speaker”). In the relatively small Mandak villages, memai are the leaders, drawn from the pool of middle-age or elderly men with political influence. When a memai dies, his position and legacy is honored through malagan (funerary ceremonies).

Image of Digital Transformational Sketch by Marizela Garza of the original artwork: Uli Figure by Mandak Maker(s) of New Ireland.
Figure 8.6: Digital Transformational Sketch by Marizela Garza of the original artwork: Mandak Maker(s) of New Ireland. Uli Figure. 1850-1950 CE. Wood, paint, fiber, shell, 52 x 16 x 13 ¾”. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection. View the original artwork here. Refer to Figure 0.1 to view the transformational sketch process.

Nearly life-size sculptures, like Uli Figure, are portraits of the deceased memai and reflect their power, as a newly minted ancestor. The facial features reflect this power, with prominent eyes (accentuated by black paint), open mouth with teeth bared, and large ears. The carvers of the central region of New Ireland are particularly known for incorporating the raised position of the arms as seen in this Uli Figure. The raised arms likely relate to the traditional funerary practices of the region. According to ethnographers who have observed such practices, memai corpses may have been “displayed in a seated position, [their] arms kept raised by threads, and [would be] buried or cremated in this position” (Heintze 1987: 51; citing Parkinson 1907: 274). In the case of Uli Figure, it appears that the arms are anchored in the raised position by a type of scaffolding, probably composed of sticks or broken spears, attached to the base and at the figure’s waist. This may reflect actual materials used to prop the deceased body up in front of their house during malagan. Feasting would occur as a way of honoring the deceased, consuming local foods such as taro, yams, and pigs.

Have you noticed the other anatomical details of the figure? Both a penis and breasts are prominent. Uli figures are intentionally intersex (comprising physical characteristics of both males and females). Mandak peoples view this combination of features as a way to represent the power of fertility, according to all human needs, that memai can influence. Indeed, this power of fertility extends to animals and agriculture. This natural power is the foundation for the memai’s ability to succeed in conflicts with other groups, and protect his community. Uli Figure wears a helmet or headdress that may reflect traditional garments worn by memai and reflect their dominance. The malagan memorialize the memai, ensuring that the ancestor is not forgotten and is respected as an important facet of a village’s history.

Mandak peoples are also known to care for deceased family members in death by allowing the body to decay to bones. They collect and honor those bones as direct, physical representations of ancestors. This tradition of collecting and preserving ancestral remains (not in a grave but in a container within a living space) is common for many cultures, including the preservation of relics with Christian traditions, for example. The ‘Fang’ peoples (like the Kongo, comprising many distinct groups and arbitrarily combined by Western colonizers), primarily located in present-day Gabon (Fig. 8.1), preserve ancestral remains and produce arts to protect them. Figure 8.7 is a Byeri Figure that protects a basket container holding bone remains of family ancestors, as illustrated in Figure 8.8. Following applied Christian terminology (according to the Western biases of art history), the ancestral remains are often called relics and the basket containers are often called reliquaries.

Two images of Byeri Figure by Fang Maker(s) of Gabon
Figure 8.7 (left): ‘Fang’ Maker(s) of Gabon. Byeri Figure. ca. 1800-1950 CE. Wood, brass, iron nails, 60.5 x 16 x 13.5 cm. The British Museum Collection. © The Trustees of the British Museum; CC BY-NC-SA.
Figure 8.8 (right): ‘Fang’ Reliquary in Cameroon, 1914. Image Source: Walker and Walker 1987.

The Byeri Figure would be secured in the top of a basket by inserting the projecting piece behind the legs into a hole in the basket top. Like the examples in Figure 8.8, byeri figures are carved in a seated position so that the figure appears to preside over a basket and inhibit anyone attempting to open it. Byeri figures often present muscular features with disproportionately large heads and shortened limbs. Prominence of the head likely reflects the importance of the skull, as it is one of the most likely portions of ancestral remains that will preserve long-term. Byeri figures are always defined as male with penises and coiffured hair from the mid-forehead down the back, according to the traditions of men’s hairstyles among the ‘Fang.’ They are often decorated with ornaments such as the metal bangles at the ankles on Byeri Figure (Fig 8.7).

Ancestral remains within the protected basket could be from prominent male leaders, lineage founders (either men or women), successful warriors, particularly fertile women who greatly increased the size of the lineage, and even ancestors highly regarded for their skills as artists. Reliquaries would be maintained and controlled by local ritual specialists, who have the spiritual knowledge that allow them to connect safely with ancestors. Like in the Nkisi tradition discussed in “What is Important to Us?,” ‘Fang’ people would seek a local specialist’s help to consult the ancestors for particularly important needs or requests. Specialists would carefully remove ancestral remains from the basket and undertake the proper rituals to seek spiritual intervention.

You might question why ‘Fang’ people would choose to preserve ancestral remains in this way instead of burying their ancestors in a grave and visiting the grave for such rituals. It is important to note that for most of their history, ‘Fang’ peoples were highly mobile, moving around the forest to find the best resources as seasons changed and as animals migrated. The ‘Fang’ are dependent on the forest and must move according to the natural rhythms of forest life. This means that ‘Fang’ peoples do not live in permanent settlements, like villages. Only when Portuguese and French missionaries arrived in the region did ‘Fang’ peoples develop sedentary lifestyles and permanent villages. Their original mobile lifestyle was more in tune with the forest and the environment upon which they depend. Permanent settlement often involves the development of cemeteries or burial grounds where ancestors are permanently laid to rest in the ground. In contrast, mobile peoples would not benefit from permanent cemeteries, because they would be separated from their ancestors for long periods due to their movements.

Thus, mobile cultures like the ‘Fang’ peoples developed distinct mobile burial customs. The basket that contains the ancestral remains is very portable and easily transported as a family moves throughout the forest. This way the ancestors are always with the family and the history they represent is always present. As Kathleen Berzock (2008) notes, this practice “protected the remains, and embodied the deceased, keeping his or her force available to the living.” To learn more about the distinct types of reliquary figures among the ‘Fang’ and related peoples, check out “Reliquary Head” (Berzock 2008). Importantly, we understand that the relics themselves are the sacred objects, not the byeri carvings or the basket containers. Thus, if traveling space was tight or if leaving a place was rushed, byeri carvings could be left without any reservation. In fact, we know that many ‘Fang’ peoples would happily sell a byeri sculpture to a foreigner when asked because the sculpture was replaceable, not the remains.

Unfortunately, this practice of relic collection and storage was poorly understood and demonized by European missionaries, despite their knowledge of Christian practices of relic-keeping. After seeing that the ‘Fang’ peoples kept bones, especially within their homes and that specialists interacted with the bones on a regular basis, they assumed the worst and recorded that the ‘Fang’ were cannibals. There is no evidence that cannibalism was practiced among ‘Fang’ peoples. Europeans made incorrect interpretations based on misunderstandings of distinct burial customs.

As the Mandak and ‘Fang’ examples demonstrate, ancestral ties are often most significant across only a few generations, perhaps just the previous generation. But there are much older, and more distant, ancestral ties that other artists explore. For example, Texas-based intermedia artist Shayna Sutton explores the notion of “Mitochondrial Eve,” a person better known as the mitochondrial/matrilineal most recent common ancestor (aka Mt-MRCA) in her artwork called Saartjie (Fig. 8.9). FYI: The Biblical references to Eve should not be taken as anything other than a convenient journalistic title used to describe scientific results to the public. The original scholars who published on this in 1987 preferred the term “Lucky Mother” (Cann et al. 1987; Lewin 1987).

Two images of Saartrjie by Shayna Sutton
Figure 8.9: Shayna Sutton. Saartjie. 2019 CE. Cardboard and other found materials, approx. 3’. Image Courtesy of Shayna Sutton, used with permission.

Let’s get into the science a bit to understand who Mt-MCRA is. Everyone has mitochondrial DNA (that we inherit from our mothers) that relates to large pools of DNA, called mitochondrial haplogroups (aka matrilines; the genetic lineage that runs through our mother, our grandmother, our great-grandmother, and so on). Studies of population-level human genetics indicate that all living people’s mitochondrial DNA can be traced back to one mitochondrial haplogroup started by one woman in the past. Therefore, all living humans (at any given time) are related through their matrilines to one original female ancestor. It is important to note that this ancestor changes as populations change and certain mitochondrial haplogroups die out over time, so there is not one fixed Mt-MCRA. But the idea holds that we are all related through matrilines developed in Africa. Current scholarship pinpoints the current Mt-MCRA, relevant to all currently living people’s ancestry, to a woman living in East Africa between 100,000 – 230,000 years ago. This mt-MCRA was living among other women (and was the descendant of many women before her) who contributed to their own mitochondrial haplogroups that have since died out.

Shayna Sutton was intrigued by the idea of Mt-MCRA, and the importance of Africa, to every human’s oldest ancestry. As Sutton learned about important women of Africa, she found connections forming between her and them. She developed an awareness of her long, long-ago ancestors in the stories of strong African women, such as Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman. Saartjie was a woman of the KhoiKhoi peoples of present-day South Africa (Fig. 8.1; formerly known as “Hottentot,” a derogatory term, and conflated with Bushman or the San peoples). The KhoiKhoi and San peoples (sometimes conflated as KhoiSan) were viewed with racism by British and Dutch colonizers. In particular, the physical features of KhoiKhoi women, such as large buttocks and thighs, were mocked and exaggerated in public media like the illustration A pair of broad bottoms (Fig. 8.10).

Image of 'A pair of broad bottoms' by William Heath (printer) of London, England
Figure 8.10: William Heath (printer) of London, England. A pair of broad bottoms. 1810 CE. Ink on paper, 340 x 248 mm. The British Museum Collection. © The Trustees of the British Museum; CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

She is only known by names provided to her by colonizers: Sarah Baartman by English-speakers, Saartjie (meaning ‘little Sarah’) by Cape Dutch (Afrikaans) speakers, and eventually ‘The Hottentot Venus’ by the French media. In her early 20s, Saartjie was separated from her family, potentially from a husband, and worked (in enslaved conditions, though not formally enslaved) for many Dutch families in Cape Town, South Africa. In 1810 CE, Saartjie travelled to London with two profit-motivated Dutch men. Alexander Dunlop and Hendrik Cesars (with whom Saartjie may have been in love) contracted her to exhibit herself for London audiences keen to see an ‘exotic specimen.’ (Recall the enslavement and incarceration of Mbuti man Ota Benga almost 100 years later, as discussed in “What is Important to Us?”)

In 19th century CE Europe, African women often were sexualized, in addition to being racialized. When Saartjie’s exhibitions became widely known (through public media like in Fig. 8.10), many people in Britain fought against this treatment, including those deeply involved in the abolition of slavery in Britain in 1807 CE. Legal appeals did not achieve any change and Saartjie continued to be exhibited across Britain and Ireland. In 1814 CE, Saartjie was sold to an animal trainer in France, where slavery had not been effectively abolished yet. The ‘Hottentot Venus’ title in France illustrates how sexualized Saartjie was. As Holmes (2007: 4) notes, Venus was “simply a synonym for sex.” While most illustrations of Saartjie suggest that she was entirely nude in exhibition, evidence demonstrates that she steadfastly chose to cover her genitalia with a garment common among KhoiKhoi women, even refusing additional money to remove it. Saartjie may have endured sexual abuse during her time in Europe and contracted syphilis. She died in 1815 CE of an unknown inflammatory illness.

Horrifically, the Museum d’Histoire Naturelle d’Angers and later the Musée d’Homme in Paris were allowed to display Saartjie’s corpse. Her body was exhibited to the public until the mid-1970s CE. It wasn’t until an appeal from South Africa’s then-president Nelson Mandela that Saartjie was returned to her homeland and buried overlooking a river in 2002 CE.

Like contemporary artist Zanele Muholi discussed in “What is Beautiful?”, many contemporary African American women can relate to Saartjie’s experience with respect to the exaggerated depiction of their bodies, the assumed access the public feels to their bodies, and sexualization of Black bodies that remains ever-present in public media. In Saartjie, Sutton offers her vision of her ancestor, proudly wearing garments and ornaments traditional to her culture, and viewing herself in the mirror. Sutton asks us to consider how Saartjie saw herself and how her experiences influenced that self-perception. Vy's signature

In addition, Sutton sculpted Saartjie using found materials such as cardboard. This choice intentionally represents the needs of African American women and many women of the global Africa diaspora to figure out how to use what they have at their disposal. Sutton transforms a material often perceived as ‘trash’ into a representation of heritage and strength. Though she is not Mt-MRCA, we are all related to Saartjie through our matrilines. Saartjie is an ancestor to whom we can all feel a connection and from whom we can draw inspiration.

Past present

There is a common thread across the artworks discussed thus far of bringing the past into the present or, differently put, understanding how the past and the present are inevitably tied together. Unlike the European and Euro-American horizontal timeline visualization of past versus present, many of the examples here show that we should not separate dots on a line and call it history. The past is ever-present.

Japanese painter Tosa Mitsuoki reflected upon the presentness of the past in his painting on a large room screen called Flowering Cherry and Autumn Maples with Poem Slips (Fig. 8.11). This was a favorite subject of Mitsuoki, featured in several other paintings including this one and this one. Mitsuoki was the ‘head of the court painting bureau’ in Edo, Japan, and thus was a high ranking member of the court literati. Do you recall our discussion of Edo period literati in “What is Important to Us?”

Image of "Flowering Cherry and Autumn Maples with Poem Slips" by Tosa Mitsuoki from Japan
Figure 8.11: Tosa Mitsuoki from Japan. Flowering Cherry and Autumn Maples with Poem Slips. 1654/81 CE. Ink, color, gold, and silver on silk panel screens, each 144 x 286 cm; 864cm in total length. Art Institute of Chicago Collection; CC0 Public Domain.

In particular, Edo literati would travel into the countryside in small groups to observe the seasonal changes during spring and autumn. Viewing the bright red leaves of a cherry tree in autumn would inspire them to recall poetic verses that they studied as part of their path to becoming a member of the court and attaining scholar-official status. In these gatherings, these poetic reflections would be inscribed on tanzaku (slips of paper) and attached to branches throughout a particularly beautiful tree. This is the scene that Mitsuoki painted in Flowering Cherry and Autumn Maples with Poem Slips. For Edo literati, classical poetry was ever-present. Therefore, the beautiful words and thoughts of previous generations of learned people were ever-present. The quoting of classical poetry would demonstrate one’s knowledge and one’s esteem for the past. Vy's signature Mitsuoki’s cherry tree scene is a physical manifestation of the value of the past and tradition.

In addition to a reverence for classic literature, Mitsuoki is known for revitalizing a traditional style of painting known as Yamato-e (大和絵 ; literally ‘Japanese painting’), contrasted to kara-e (唐絵; literally ‘Chinese-style painting’). Yamato-e is known for selected subjects surrounded by abstracted clouds and low-lying mist (‘floating cloud’), natural or narrative subject matter, and (when figural) detailed depiction of garments and hair. Do you recognize these features in Flowering Cherry and Autumn Maples with Poem Slips? There are no figures but the primary subject, the cherry tree, is from nature and highly detailed in front of a stylized background of swirling clouds and mist, created via the contrast of paint and gold leaf. In this and his many other similar works, Mitsuoki relates his artistry to the past in several ways, playing an important role in the preservation of traditional art and literature.

The preservation of tradition and heritage depends on valuing the past. If you don’t see any value in the past, then what’s the point in preserving it? Mitsuoki and the Edo literati obviously saw value in the past. Among contemporary artists of the American Southwest, the arts of spiritual traditions are continued, albeit somewhat modernized, to ensure that knowledge relevant to those arts is not lost. The treatment of Native Americans in the United States has resulted in significant losses, both tangible and intangible. Native American communities lost their lands and even their rights to occupy their ancestral homelands in most cases. In addition, US authorities forced Native American communities to assimilate, including requiring many native children to attend so-called ‘Indian Schools’ to be educated according to Euro-American, Christian, and English-language traditions. This assimilative education resulted in vast losses of native language speakers, native spiritual knowledge, and cultural interest.

In recent decades, efforts from within Native American communities have focused on revitalizing ancient and historic knowledge and traditions, inviting current and future generations to preserve the past. For example, many native artists focus on producing artworks reflective of important spiritual traditions, such as the Katsina (also spelled Kachina) tradition among the Hopi and related Puebloan groups (introduced in “Will You Tell a Story?”). Katsinam (plural for Katsina) are ancestral spirits who visit the living in the late winter through early summer (between the spring and summer solstices). When not among the living, Katsinam reside in the sípàapuni (the spiritual realm, aka the Flower World). Recall the sípàapu feature of kivas (the conduit of connection between the living and spiritual worlds and from which the first humans emerged)? Given their supernatural associations, the Katsinam travel upon clouds and bring the rains that nourish the land and crops. Katsinam also serve as the moral compass of the community and as instructors on how to live a good life. There are many different Katsinam, with many different roles and associations to plants and animals. Read about many Katsinam on the Peabody Museum “Rainmakers from the Gods” exhibition website.

The Hopi maintain a ritual calendar focused on the time of year when the Katsinam visit the earth. During the period of visitations, Hopi communities celebrate sequential ceremonies honoring the Katsinam as they arrive and offer their blessings. These ceremonies often occur over many days and incorporate activities expected of men, women, and children. One of the earliest depictions of Katsinam, dating to as early as 1425 CE, is found on a Sitkyatji Polychrome Bowl now housed at the Arizona State Museum. The Katsinam figures on that bowl are performing ritual actions, like in Katsinam visitation ceremonies. By the 1700s CE, Hopi artists began producing sculptures of Katsinam (often called “dolls”) from the roots of cottonwood trees. They were simplified human forms with supernaturally enlarged heads and adornments worthy only of Katsinam, as seen in the Palhik Mana Kachina (Fig. 8.12). These figures were presented to children as instructional aides to learn gender roles and expectations for good behavior (all year round). Palhik Mana Kachina has an elaborate headdress, incorporating symbolism of rain clouds, that would probably inhibit a child actually playing with this figure. Instead, such highly adorned Katsina figures likely would have been displayed.

Image of Palhik Mana Kachina by Hopi Maker(s) of Arizona
Figure 8.12: Hopi Maker(s) of Arizona. Palhik Mana Kachina. 1920-1930 CE. Wood and pigment. Dallas Museum of Art Collection. Photo by Leah McCurdy.

Many historic carvers such as the famous Jimmy Kewanwytewa (aka Jimmy K) followed these traditional practices of carving and style, producing Katsinam both for internal Hopi use and for sale to tourists. He never signed those meant as gifts for Hopi children, because they were gifts from the Katsinam themselves, but he did sign those examples made for sale and there is a large market for his works today. Jimmy K. often demonstrated his carving techniques at the Museum of Northern Arizona, as seen in this documentary by Periscope Film in 1960 CE.

The generation of Hopi artists after Jimmy K, starting in the 1970s CE, shifted their production of Katsinam figures to attract more business from the tourism market. These newer Katsinam designs focus on realism of the body and represent action poses, as if a human is wearing a costume of a Katsina and dancing. Contemporary versions of these later Katsinam sculptures are often sold on eBay or Amazon today.

Traditional arts usually undergo processes of transformation to make them palatable to tourist audiences. This means that the aesthetic values of tourists (mostly Europeans and Euro-Americans with disposable income) are prioritized. This is why we see the trend towards naturalistic representation of bodies in the contemporary Katsinam figures. Sometimes, the tourist arts overshadow the originals and are more familiar to most audiences than the more authentic, and abstracted according to traditional Hopi aesthetics, sculpture in Figure 8.12. Unfortunately, this process of transformation, and loss of original aesthetic values, is commonplace today. Take a moment to look around the giftshop at the next museum you visit or check out the cultural arts on offer at your next airport layover to see what survives and what is transformed. How much do you think is authentic and how much is for tourist appeal?

Recently, many contemporary artists have been questioning how the past is curated to offer particular histories, highlighting the contributions of white men, for example, while undermining the significance of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) people in society. Peruvian artist Ana De Orbegoso takes those questions one step further in her 2017 series called ¿Y qué hacemos con nuestra historia? (So What Do We Do with Our History?). After we recognize the biases of history, what are we supposed to do then? This should remind you of our discussions in “Where Does Art Come From? An Introduction.”

Two images, left image of "Portrait Vessel of a Ruler" by Moche Maekr(s) of Peru, right image of "Neo Huaco #3" by Ana De Orbegoso
Figure 8.13 (left): Moche Maker(s) of Peru. Portrait Vessel of a Ruler. 100 BCE – 500 CE. Ceramic and pigment, 28 x 14 cm. Art Institute of Chicago Collection; CC0 Public Domain.
Figure 8.14 (right): Ana De Orbegoso. Neo-Huaco #3. 2017 CE. Resin and gold plate, 24.1 x 15.2 x 15.2 cm. Art Institute of Chicago Collection. © 2017 Ana De Orbegoso.

One of the works in this series, Neo-Huaco #3 (Fig. 8.14), reflects the unique ceramic traditions of the Moche culture in northern Peru. So-called portrait vessels, like Portrait Vessel of a Ruler (Fig. 8.13) are some of the most well known artworks from the Moche. They demonstrate large-scale production (via molds), the status of leaders, and symbolic imagery often featuring birds (for example, painted on the headband of the leader in Fig. 8.13). One of the most recognizable features of such Moche vessels is the stirrup spout (not because cowboys used them but because the top looks like a horse riding stirrup). Any Peruvian who has visited the national museums and taken history courses in school will be able to identify a Moche vessel among the many other ceramic traditions of the Andes (including the distinct ceramic traditions of the Paracas and the Nasca discussed in “What is Important to Us?”). De Orbegoso chose this quintessential form so that her audience knows exactly what history she is questioning. It’s not any old history, world history, or the history of China. She’s questioning the history of Peru.

By offering a gold plated version of a portrait vessel, De Orbegoso highlights the colonial pursuit of gold that led the Spanish conquistadores from the Tairona region, across the Amazon, and to the Andes (as discussed in “What is Divine?”). This eventually created what we now call Peru today. ‘So What Do We Do with [that] History?’ Can we really call the Portrait Vessel of a Ruler ‘Peruvian?’ It was made long before the Spanish colonized the region and before the term ‘Peru’ existed. The Moche didn’t see themselves as Peruvian and would not have classified themselves alongside all of the cultures that occupied lands within Peru’s boundaries today. Should only the people who live in the northern region of Peru where the Moche originally lived consider the Moche part of their history? Should only people who can trace their DNA back to the Moche consider the Moche part of their past? What do we do with all that messy history?

Importantly, De Orbegoso removes the facial features, offering a faceless portrait. Andrew Hamiliton (2020, para. 7), a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), which owns De Orbegoso’s Neo-Huaco #3, notes that “its mirrored surface allows Peruvian viewers to gaze upon this ‘portrait vessel’ and see their own reflection, offering them a visual and material connection to these ancestors.” This is one way to view this object and correlates to the importance of ancestors in many cultures discussed here. But what about another interpretation? By making this portrait faceless, is De Orbegoso exposing the losses of history: the losses that occur when objects like Portrait Vessel of a Ruler are removed from their original location, their original cultural context, and put on display in a museum in Chicago? What do we do with that history of loss of culture? How do Peruvians and Moche descendants feel about such losses? We’ll explore that question more in “Why Do People Take What Doesn’t Belong to Them?”

De Orbegoso is part of a large number of contemporary artists who transform historical imagery and art to engage with the past in new ways. In another interesting example, Cameroonian artist, Pascale Marthine Tayou, reflects upon the Nkisi tradition of Kongo peoples (discussed in “What is Important to Us”) in Sauveteur 3 (Figs. 8.15 and 8.16). Tayou combines contemporary materials such as glass, plastic bags, and found objects, recreating the visual image of an Nkisi. The ‘throw-away’ materials do not feel the same as the medicine bundles or nails pounded into the historic wooden figures. Those scraps of metal and intimate bundles were representations of need, offered as a form of payment for spiritual intervention. Tayou’s object is also an accumulation, but of remnants and trash.

Image of Sauveteur 3 by Pascale Marthine Tayou
Figure 8.15: Pascale Marthine Tayou. Sauveteur 3. 2014 CE. Crystal, raffia, cloth, rubber, plastic bags, chicken feathers, wood, paint, tempera, nail polish, string, foam, plastic, adhesive, and other mixed media, approx. 52”. © Cleveland Museum of Art Collection.
Image of Detail of Sauveteur 3 by Pascale Marthine Tayou
Figure 8.16: Detail of Figure 8.15.

As Figure 8.16 illustrates, this pile of trash is encircled by many black plastic snakes, all open jawed and barring their teeth, as if protecting the mass of junk. This contemporary Nkisi feels like a commentary on what the world inevitably does with its history. We collect as much of the material remains of our history that we can into a big pile (read: museums and collections), and fiercely protect that mass of stuff against any attempts to remake or reform our conception of that history. We guard our history from change because it makes us feel insecure to think that history may not be what we’ve been taught it was. For example, European colonizers of the Congo region wrote that the Kongo peoples were barbarous and in need of salvation because they practiced ‘magic’ and produced ‘fetishes.’ This demonization of Kongo practices made Europeans feel good about themselves. Challenging the veracity and motives of this history challenges the way many people will see themselves today. In the vein of De Orbegoso’s question, “So What Do We Do with Our History?”, Tayou’s Sauveteur 3 asks us to consider another related question: “So What Do We Do When Our History Is Not What We Want It To Be or What We Thought It Was?”

The Wrap-up

Did you get a “Doctor Who” vibe from this chapter? This ‘timey-wimey’ stuff can make your brain hurt. But it’s important to remember that, like it or not, history is here to stay. History is what makes the present and sets up the future. Ignoring the past or wishing it was different doesn’t help us figure out what to do now and how to do stuff in the future. We aren’t all going to agree on what that stuff should be but we shouldn’t ignore what history and our ancestors have to teach about how things turned out for them. Continuing exploring these questions and ideas through the News Flash links and by checking on scholarly voices recommended below.

News Flash

Where Do I Go From Here? / The Bibliography

Berzock, Kathleen B. 2008. “Reliquary Head (Nlo Bieri).” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 34, no. 1 (Notable Acquisitions at the Art Institute of Chicago): 10-11, 94. 

Cann, Rebecca L., Mark Stoneking, and Allan C. Wilson. 1987. “Mitochondrial DNA and human evolution.” Nature, 325, no. 6099: 31-36. doi:10.1038/325031a0.

Hamiliton, Andrew. 2020. “Peruvian Portraits, Past and Present: Understanding Ana De Orbegoso’s Neo Huaco #3.” The Art Institute of Chicago. Lat modified April 1, 2020. Accessed Aug 8, 2021. https://www.artic.edu/articles/802/ana-de-orbegosos-neo-huaco-3. 

Heintze, David. 1987. “On Trying to Understand some Malagans.” In Assemblage of Spirits: Idea and Image in New Ireland, edited by  L. Lincoln, 42-55. New York: George Braille in association with The Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Holmes, Rachel. 2007. “African Queen: The Real Life of the Hottentot Venus.” The New York Times, January 14, 2007. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/14/books/chapters/0114-1st-holm.html. 

Lamb, Weldon. 2017. The Maya Calendar: A Book or Months, 400-2000CE. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Lewin R (1987). “The unmasking of mitochondrial Eve”. Science 238, no. 4823 (October): 24–26. doi:10.1126/science.3116666.

Parkinson, Richard. 1907. Dreissig Jahre in der Sudsee: land und leute, sitten und gebrauche im Bismarckarehipel und auf den Deutsehen Salomoinseln. Stuttgart: Strecker & Schroder.

Stuart, David, Heather Hurst, Boris Beltran, and William Saturno. 2022. “An early Maya calendar record from San Bartolo, Guatemala.” Science Advances 8, no. 15. https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.abl9290.

Torres, Tiaralyn V. and Khriselle C. Daugard. 2019. “The Bulul Statue: The Power of Rice Healing.” in Critical Filipinx American Histories and Their Artifacts, edited by Rick Bonus. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Walker, Roy Sieber and Roslyn A. Walker. 1987. African Art in the Cycle of Life. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Books.


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Where Does Art Come From? by Leah McCurdy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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