Claudia Brittenham’s new book delves into the question of why Mesoamerican cultures produced works that often restricted or occluded the act of “seeing.” Using the monumental sixteenth-century Aztec sculpture Coatlicue as a point of departure in her introduction, she investigates not only the difficulties of seeing this work during its “life” in the sixteenth century but also after contact—it was hidden, then rediscovered in 1790, and ultimately displayed in various contexts. This “cultural biography of the object,” a term she borrows from the scholar Ivor Kopytoff, is effective in illustrating the issues of visibility and occlusion she explores. She convincingly argues that how and why works become difficult to see has much to do with how their creators and audiences understood the nature of vision.

Each chapter is dedicated to a specific Mesoamerican culture and explores ideas of visibility/invisibility. Chapter 1 focuses on the Olmec and the site of La Venta; in exploring the large mosaic works at the site, she also investigates the communal meaning of both creating objects and concealing them. In chapter 2 she examines Maya stelae and lintels at various sites, focusing on looking and seeing as embodied processes. Chapter 3 explores the realms of invisible and visible at the Aztec site of Tenochtitlan, surveying works that are carved on the bottom. The concluding fourth chapter uses colonial Indigenous languages to highlight further that ideologies of concealment and understanding are not just a matter of the image but of Mesoamerican culture overall.

Brittenham proposes that the increased visibility of labor at La Venta corresponded to an increase in inequality among the city’s residents. The earlier artworks, Offerings 1 and 4, were much more labor intensive and engaged more of the community than the later “offerings” at the site. Borrowing Severin Fowles’s term doing, she makes clear that the offerings consisted of more than just the actual jade or serpentine parts that were put together and then systematically covered. These offerings involved the extraction, polishing, and storing of the materials—sometimes over a period of time. She also reconsiders what the boundaries of these offerings are—for they are difficult to see and therefore define. The “doing” also includes other activities, for example the feeding of the workers involved in the creation and concealment of the mosaics. Objects, architectural environment, and actions are characterized by a heightened awareness of the interconnectedness between things.

The mosaics at La Venta demanded both perception and conception, seeing and understanding. While the created object might no longer be visible, the memory of all the “doing” associated with them remain. The workers might later remember individual stones, or a section of the mosaic that was covered up. The question of how memory works within the Mesoamerican concept of visualization is also addressed in chapter 3, dedicated to the Aztecs and Tenochtitlan. The author explores works with intricate carvings at the bottom, often unseen by most viewers. She also connects these works to the caches at the Templo Mayor and explains that these are like hidden carvings themselves. They involve “doing” such as the gathering of objects from other places, or the making of objects locally, dedication ceremonies, and festivities that would have included sacrifice of valuable items, feasting, the burning of copal resin, song, and other performative gestures. While the objects in the caches might not have been seen by all involved, they would have been part of the collective memory of sacred activity. Important ideas about rituals, locations, and individuals would have been remembered and understood at various levels. Like the mosaics at La Venta, the carvings underneath sculptural work at Tenochtitlan and the Templo Mayor caches would not just be experienced visually; like all images, they would also circulate in words and memories.

Brittenham is critical of how we currently view objects in museums and use visual aids—photographs, rubbings, reconstruction drawings—in studying Mesoamerican objects. Although she is keenly aware of the necessity of seeing to understand, she proposes alternative ways of viewing. This is further elaborated in chapter 2 on Maya lintels and stelae, where she explores the dynamics of gazing and glancing.

There have been other Mesoamerican studies on the role of sight in art production, though just a few. Diana Magaloni’s “The Colors of Time: Teotihuacan Mural Painting Tradition,” in the edited volume Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire (University of California Press, 2017), considers how pigments used for painting the murals specifically connected to how the viewer would experience light reflected on forms, be they representations of animals moving at night or the expansive night sky. More recently, Andrew Finegold’s Vital Voids: Cavities and Holes in Mesoamerican Culture (University of Texas Press, 2021) considers so-called termination holes as a conceptual exploration of sight and art. Rather than accepting the openings as a ritual killing of the vessel, he posits that these openings allow vital energies to move between objects and material, as well as to exist as part of rituals significant to Amerindian peoples. In Mesoamerica what is obfuscated or even absent (not seen at all) is just as vital, perhaps even more so, as what is seen.

This of course is difficult for the art historian. In her exploration of Maya lintels and stelae, Brittenham reminds us that these objects exist in liminal spaces that are purposefully hard to see. She notes that these types of works privilege viewers with prior knowledge. Much like the elaborate carvings that can be “peeked” at from the right angle if the viewer knows where to stand at the Templo Mayor, Maya lintels and stelae function on informed looking. She emphasizes that Maya objects follow a mode of viewing that is based on time and somatically engaged. This is similar to her point about durational viewing at La Venta, where the mosaics would only be seen during a specific time. Brittenham shows us a specific way to look at an object—we see it, but we can also experience it over time.

The question of display is an important one to consider. How were these works shown during their lifetimes? How do we display them in museums? A crucial question Brittenham asks is: whose view are we privileging? The author’s inquiries into understanding works that can be occluded engage the reader in other ways of experiencing cultural objects. This is perhaps most strongly expressed in her concluding chapter, which explores riddles, an aspect of Indigenous language that is both seen and hidden, that tests the listeners’ knowledge. For Mesoamerican people, even during colonial times, riddles suggested a way of seeing the numinous in the everyday. Mesoamerican objects frequently moved in and out of view, and this was intentional, echoing larger ideas about vision, memory, power, space, and place. Brittenham proposes that if we begin to understand how these objects were intended to be seen or not seen in their culture, we might have a better understanding of power in Mesoamerica and perhaps even reconsider our own ideas about seeing and experiencing as art historians.

Elizabeth Morán
College of William & Mary