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Not the indigenous cultures they know

A Mesoamerica exhibit inspired by `Apocalypto' makes one group wince. Politely, of course.

July 07, 2007|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

They're calling it the "Apocalypto" Factor. No, not a sequel to Mel Gibson's bloody film about the Mayas. It's something even more disturbing: a museum exhibition actually inspired by the movie.

The exhibition, focusing on the indigenous cultures of Mesoamerica, opened in May at the San Bernardino County Museum in Redlands with the title "Five Suns," a reference to a cosmological system that divided time into five eras.

And that's the first problem, says Xavier Cazares Cortez, an artist who has made it his mission to expose what he considers the exhibition's historical, cultural and anthropological inaccuracies. The five suns concept is not universal in Mesoamerica, but the museum doesn't make that distinction. Instead, he argues, the museum makes a mishmash of Mesoamerica without distinguishing among its diverse cultures.

It would be like discussing modern-day Latinos without distinguishing among Mexicans, Cubans and Peruvians.

"Oh, my God, it's horrible," says Cortez, who has also worked as a curator and art educator. "The exhibition is a pastiche. And this is what they're calling scholarship."

Indeed, says Adella Schroth, the museum's curator of anthropology. And with no apologies.

"We're rather proud of the numerous products of Mesoamerica that we have, and we wanted to show them off," says Schroth, who holds a doctorate in anthropology from UC Riverside. "So this was our chance."

She's also proud to say "Apocalypto" sparked the idea.

The staff was "simply talking about the film, and we were really excited about it," recalls Schroth with a giddy laugh. When somebody noted that the museum had never done a Mesoamerica exhibit, the consensus was, "Well, why don't we do one?"

Cortez recently called a powwow (not a Mayan term) of potential allies to discuss his concerns and decide how to approach museum officials. They met at the museum, and when I arrived, his ad hoc group was huddled near a tomb housing the "skeletal replica of 900-year-old Mesoamerican woman."

They were a diverse bunch themselves: An art museum director, a college anthropologist, an art professor and a regional representative of the Mexican government. Most agreed that the tack to take was cooperation, not confrontation. (Some worried that a harsh critique might discourage the museum from attempting similar exhibits in the future.)

"The best way to promote culture is to make good friends," said Carlos Giralt-Cabrales, consul of Mexico in San Bernardino, who noted some "imprecisions" in the exhibition during the visit. "I'm very grateful that the museum is presenting this exhibition, and I'm sure those imprecisions will be corrected in the near future."

Cortez was less diplomatic.

"It's about getting it right, not about, 'Well, they threw me a bone so I'll settle for that,' " he said. "It is the responsibility of the institution to have the correct information.... They can't be wrong. They can't be inaccurate. They've got to get it right."

And if they don't, he added, they have an ethical duty to fix it.

Cortez, 40, is an Air Force veteran and a self-taught artist whose work appears in collections at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and in the private collection of actor Dennis Hopper. The farmworker's son was raised in the Coachella Valley, where he recently completed a 6,000-square-foot public art project for the city of Indio depicting the life of Dr. Reynaldo J. Carreon Jr., a pioneering Mexican American social and political leader.

In his capacity as art educator, Cortez developed a special interest in the cultures of Mesoamerica, traveling to archeological sites and interviewing experts. While working for the Palm Springs Art Museum in the 1990s, he researched and wrote text and developed a curriculum for an ongoing exhibition titled "Mesoamerica: Art From Ancient Lands."

His passion for the ancient world even inspired him to name his son Ixayac Calli, which means "house of the constellation Scorpio" in Nahua, the Aztec language. Cortez was alerted to the problems with the "Five Suns" exhibition after his 8-year-old visited the museum and came home thinking it was Aztec and Maya.

Neither group has any relation to most of the objects on display, mainly pottery and figurines from western Mexico, says Cortez, who lives in San Bernardino with his wife and two children. In one display case, the items are arrayed below a distinctly Aztec drawing, suggesting a cultural connection that doesn't exist.

"It's like having an exhibit on California Indians and showing tepees," said Enrique Murillo, a specialist in educational anthropology at Cal State San Bernardino. "There's no cultural specificity. Somebody here kind of made it up." (No, not all Indians used tepees and headdresses.)

The museum never claimed the presentation was Maya, explained Schroth. It's a Mesoamerican exhibit, and that includes the whole shebang, to use a technical term.

So we're back where we started, say the critics: apocalyptic cultural conflation.

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