Mexico City

Lorena Ancona, Máscara de agua (Water Mask), 2021, copper, ceramics, Maya blue pigment, chrome and copper enamel, whitewash, cotton, henequen, 78 3⁄4 × 47 1⁄4 × 2 3⁄8".

Lorena Ancona, Máscara de agua (Water Mask), 2021, copper, ceramics, Maya blue pigment, chrome and copper enamel, whitewash, cotton, henequen, 78 3⁄4 × 47 1⁄4 × 2 3⁄8".

Lorena Ancona

One part of Jesse Lerner’s 1999 essay film Ruins tells the riveting story of Brigído Lara, a ceramicist from the Mexican state of Veracruz who was accused of trafficking pre-Columbian sculptures in the 1970s. Although he claimed to be the author of the artifacts in question, he was arrested. While in custody, he proved his assertion by convincing a guard to bring him water and clay from his home village. Then he crafted what any specialist on pre-Columbian cultures would accept as an ancient piece. The consequences of this event were huge: Many objects were removed from the collections of major international museums after they proved to be Lara’s creations.

As told by Lerner, Lara’s tale is one more reminder that archives are subject to invisible conditions that define how we perceive, research, and interpret their holdings. The material production of Mesoamerican cultures, as a reliable generality, is believed to be something from an already concluded past. But the complex and unstable status of objects of a pre- (or post-) Columbian origin has proven to be a fertile ground of exploration for a generation of Mexican artists mostly born in the early 1980s. Among them is Lorena Ancona, who has excelled in inquiring into the technical processes through which artifacts from such cultures were created.

“Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth” brought together ceramic and pictorial works featuring meandering and organic forms that were inspired by an academic article of the same title by archaeologists Christophe Helmke and Jaime José Awe—who were delving into the discovery of two panels in Xunantunich, an archaeological site in Belize—and by Ancona’s own years-long research into the local clays of southeastern Mexico and Central America, the cradle of Mayan culture. Works such as a climbing trio of clay figurines of what appear to be crawling insects (Fern, Centipede and Bone, 2019) or the elegant elongated figure of the neck and beak of a bird resting on a log-like base made of sapote and ziricote wood (Garza [Heron], 2021) evoked the region’s flora and fauna. Others, for instance Ofrenda de sangre a la tierra (Blood Offering to the Earth), 2020, a rising tentacular sculpture delicately painted in pigments found in the Yucatán Peninsula, conjured up an ancient cosmogony. Máscara de agua (Water Mask), 2021, a net made of cotton and henequen fibers with ceramic eyes and beads woven into it, nevertheless suggested that such cosmogonies linger in the present. While Ancona created the vast majority of the exhibition’s works using production methods that date back centuries, she sets them in dialogue with a contemporary aesthetic.

The artist has long been interested in the production processes of the Mesoamerican region, and is well versed in the technological evidence that attests to its material history and its persistent legacy of knowledge, even if it has been rendered invisible––yet not obliterated––by colonial frameworks. (Her exhaustive studies on regional Maya clays, for example, have led her to create an archive that classifies and preserves them.) While her findings do point to the persistence of traditions and how strongly they are bound to place (which could also explain why Lara could produce sculptures that are virtually indistinguishable from those created centuries ago), her exploration seeks to restate ways through which we can relate to these objects through a living culture. Even if the works in this exhibition acknowledged that we are at a loss—the material destruction of pre-Columbian cultures resulted in the extinction of much of their knowledge and worldview—Ancona’s reconstruction of those cultures’ techniques, procedures, and methodologies brings forth a sense of continuity and belonging.