On Race, Pathology, and Objectivity in Pre-Columbian Sculpture

Thursday, January 2, 2014: 2:20 PM
Senate Room (Omni Shoreham)
Lisa Trever, Harvard University
Ceramic sculptures from northern Peru are among the most naturalistic art forms made in the ancient Americas. The mimetic capacity of these objects to capture idiosyncrasies of the human form has invited much discussion. This paper historicizes nineteenth through twenty-first-century readings of Pre-Columbian sculpture as objective documentation. Examples are drawn from illustrated travel accounts and scientific literature published in the late nineteenth century, fine arts including self-portraits made by Paul Gauguin in the 1890s, and the ongoing effort by art historians and physical anthropologists to diagnose pathologies suffered by pre-Hispanic subjects. The desire to project modern notions of race, disease, and knowledge onto Pre-Columbian material is the legacy of Enlightenment-era projects to order and catalogue the world. In this paper I assess the historical phenomenon and offer analysis of the social, political, and economic factors that have accompanied this modern objectification of Pre-Columbian art and visual culture.
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