Fake It Till You Make It: Imitations and Imaginations in the (Un)Making of the Pre-Columbian Past

Thursday, January 2, 2014: 1:40 PM
Senate Room (Omni Shoreham)
Jennifer Reynolds-Kaye, University of Southern California
The collecting of pre-Columbian artifacts reached its apex in the nineteenth century with two developments: the forging of Mexican national identity from the Aztec Empire during the Porfiriato and the consolidation of hemispheric unity in Pan-Americanism. Both movements called upon visual material to support these newly founded claims of superiority, and the pre-Columbian remnants emerged like a blank slate upon which to enact their political agendas. However, legal regulations, the enormity of architectural complexes, and the paucity of stellar pre-Columbian artifacts made it difficult for original objects to travel internationally. To solve this problem, several reproductive technologies were employed to spread an Aztec-centric Mexican national identity across the U.S.-Mexico border and the Atlantic. Casts, photographs, replicas, and paintings stood-in for originals, and often times, were mistaken for authentic objects when displayed behind glass vitrines with identifying labels.

This paper analyzes two strategies of replication: 19th-century oil paintings and modern forgeries of pre-Columbian sculptures. Both strategies appear in the recent exhibition by contemporary Mexican artist, Demián Flores, De/construction de una nación (2012). Flores juxtaposes oil paintings of the Spanish Conquest with replicas of West Mexican sculptures that he manipulated by adding additional appendages. His sculptural interventions foregrounds the constructed and mediated nature of the oil paintings, which reveal themselves as fictional fabrications. I employ Flores' exhibition as a launch pad into deeper discussions of forgeries, imagined histories, and institutional critique, and to highlight the role of contemporary art in Mexico in excavating the historiography of the pre-Columbian past.