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Object of the Week: War

Art has always played a key role in the work of protest and social reform. Artists’ reactions to our current moment, filled with social unrest and calls for social change, echo the works of revolutionary artists working during the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920). Amelio Amero, like his contemporaries Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, created murals for the public art projects supported by the Revolutionary government of Mexico.

Rivera’s 1932 lithographic print depicting Emiliano Zapata, the leader of the peasant revolution who became a symbol for agrarian rights, showcases the naturalist style that the Mexican muralists used. These socialist artists were aptly committed to public art and they were committed to creating art that was accessible to the general public. As a member of the Estridentistas artist group, he followed the Italian Futurist groups and believed in non-elitist art. In addition to large public murals, these artists also created prints which could be quickly and cheaply made and disseminated widely. Although highly skilled in the case of Rivera, the lithograph—made using a stone and a crayon—didn’t require the artist to make their image in reverse, nor did it require specialized training. Additionally, the prints could easily be transported and would reach a broader audience.

In War (1944), Amero uses the same lithographic printing technique in an image that combines a critique of violence and militarized conflict with a promise that violence can end through the hands of brave citizens. As the booted, helmeted soldier prepares to thrash a citizen who has been literally brought to her knees, with a hungry child beside her, she raises her face to the sky, closes her eyes, and holds up a strong, oversized hand in an act of faith and protest. The hand reaches out from the shadows to provide hope for those struggling through the unjust times.

Born in Ixtlahuaca, Mexico in 1901, Amero came to the United States in 1925 via Cuba to work in New York, which is where he became interested in Lithography. In 1940 Amero returned to the United States to teach art in Seattle at the University of Washington and the Cornish College of the Arts. During his time teaching in Seattle, Washington, and Norman, Oklahoma, where he taught at the University of Oklahoma from 1946 until the end of his career. Amero continued to create works that depicted Mexico, and worked in the Mexican muralist style, favoring realistic, hyper-cylindrical figures depicted in tempera and lithography, over the abstract and oil paint heavy styles gaining popularity in the mid-century.

As we all confront issues of violence and oppression in our current society, Amero’s work is a reminder for us to support artists calling for change.

– Genevieve Hulley, SAM Curatorial Intern, American Art

Images: War, 1944, Emilio Amero, lithograph, 23 1/8 x 19 3/4 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 44.84 © Estate of Emilio Amero. Zapata, 1932, Diego Rivera, lithograph, 16 1/4 x 13 3/16 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 44.623 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: Seated Figure with Conch Shell

Some historic cultures have made learning about them easy for us by producing the things they did. The size and significance of their monuments or the influence of their visual art and literature make sure that these people are known and remembered. Other cultures have left a quieter presence that requires investigating, digging, researching, and lots of thinking about relatively few objects. To me, these cases are all the more amazing because they show us how much we can learn with only a little bit to go on.

SAM’s Seated figure with conch shell (ca. 300 B.C.–A.D. 400) hails from one of these materially quiet cultures: early Colima, in West Mexico. The state of Colima, with its capital city also called Colima, lies straight West of Mexico City, and its landscape is dominated by the Volcán de Colima—or the Volcán de Fuego—one of the most active volcanoes in Central America.

Scholars in Pre-Columbian (before Europeans arrived) Mesoamerica (a region and grouping of indigenous cultures in what is now southern Mexico and northern Central America) have learned much of what they know about cultures in West Mexico from figures like this one. Unlike other regions of Mexico that are visibly marked by Aztec temple complexes and monumental stone sculptures, West Mexico has left today’s art historians much smaller mementos. In Colima, specifically, ceramic figures are the most common form of material culture to survive. A lot of these were found in burial tombs, so they likely had a significant place in the Colima people’s vision of the afterlife.

In SAM’s figure, the forms are essentialized and rounded. The facial features are simple shapes: a long, angular nose; oval, protruding eyes with slits across the middle that look a lot like coffee beans. Triangular ears point outwards from the sides of his head. The circular holes at their centers seem primed for functional use; maybe he once donned a pair of colorful earrings? He has a small mouth with lips turned down slightly, suggesting the seriousness of his role. The figure’s coloring comes from a slip with red pigment applied to the figure by its maker, and the black spots are patina. The all-over smoothness was accomplished by rubbing a stone along the clay surface.

Seated figure with conch shell

The conch shell has special importance to our understanding of this figure and to early Colima, where shell trumpets would sound to mark special ceremonies and community events. The conch also seems to have symbolized wealth and status, and that might have developed from people associating it with these important happenings.

Oh, and that’s a big damn shell! It’s enormous compared to the figure. It matches the length of his torso and has significantly more volume. Why is it so big? Maybe the people in early Colima found really huge conch shells. Maybe the scale is meant to emphasize the importance of the conch shell in the life of the community, with its role extending from important moments in life to the eternity of death. I wonder, too, if the scale suggests something about the size of the figure, meaning that this was a small person—even a child? Personally, I like that reading because it fits with the figure’s relaxed, kind of undignified pose. Imagine he’s just learning to play his shell trumpet, and he’s the figure someone picks to accompany you to the afterlife!

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Seated figure with conch shell, ca. 300 B.C.-A.D. 400, Mexican, West Mexico, Colima, ceramic, 14 1/4 x 12 5/16 x 9 5/8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 64.103, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week: Mask with ear spools

Some 1500 years ago in the holy city of Teotihuacan in Mexico —“the place where the gods were created”—this small mask was formed from a mold, enlivened with a strong and spiritual presence that remains in it today. One has to see the piece in person to feel and experience the weight of history that it carries. The natural patina that has changed the color of the ceramic material to a range of earth tones gives the mask an aura of importance. It presented a very different face in its days of use in the Teotihuacan culture.

Picture this same intense figure in bright red and white paint, now part of a larger sculpture group decorated with hatching patterns, discs, mystical eyes, and spirals, with plumes of fragrant smoke rising above him and moving toward you. Masks from Teotihuacan were often decorated with pigments, and small traces of red remain on the hair of SAM’s Mask with ear spools. Experts think it was probably part of a large incensario, or incense-burner. From those early days of the mask’s history, it has entered a new chapter, where it engages visitors to our small but awesome Meso-American gallery, joined by Peruvian ceramics, Aztec stone figures, gold, and jade.

The mask was found near Azcapotzalco, an area in the northwest part of Mexico City. It was purchased in 1949 from Earl Stendahl of Stendahl Art Galleries, an important dealer in Los Angeles first known for bringing Modern art to the West Coast and for representing the California Impressionists. Later, Stendahl turned to Pre-Columbian art, and it was this area that became the gallery’s specialty. The mask entered SAM’s collection in early 1950.

The face in Mask with ear spools is staring us down. He occupies a space between art that creates the illusion of life and art that symbolizes life, using a form of representation based on line and shape. The large ear spools are symmetrical discs with perfectly rounded orbs at their centers. The band of hair has precise, vertical lines all the way across it, like a flexible ruler taped to this man’s forehead. The eyes are rendered as thin almond slivers, whose shape is echoed in the arching lines of the eyelids and brow. A prominent nose, again perfectly symmetrical, with curvy, thickset lips below it, and a strong, angular jaw complete his look.

From the 2nd century B.C.–7th c. A.D. Teotihuacan, his place of origin, was an important Mexican city—at its height, the sixth-largest city in the world, and a political, cultural, and religious center. The drama of the city’s story relates not only to its riches but also its fast decline and almost total disappearance. We’re grateful to have a piece of that fascinating story here at SAM!

Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

IMAGE: Mask with ear spools, Mexican, Teotihuacan, ca. 100-600, 4 7/8 x 7 1/4 x 2 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 50.32.