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May 13 - August 26, 2001 at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, West Hollywood

by Betty Ann Brown

"Rio Abajo San José", wood and
pigment, 31 x 13 1/2 x 9 1/2",
New Mexico, 19th century.

“Male Figure,” Mexico, Chihuahua,
Casas Grandes, ceramic ith pigment,
14 x 8” diameter, 14th-15th century.

Al Qöyawayma, “Vessel with
Appliquéd Corn Ears”, ceramic,
5 1/2 x 15 1/2” diameter, 1977.
Aztlan is the mythic homeland of two related peoples: historic Aztecs and contemporary Chicanos. The great structuralist anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss argued that myth functions symbolically to resolve opposition. Indeed, the concept of Aztlan surfaced both in early colonial times, when the Aztecs found the conflicts between their indigenous traditions and those of the conquering Spaniards irreconcilable; and in the 1960s, when Mexican immigrants and their descendants found the differences in their values and those of the dominant U.S. culture difficult, if not impossible, to negotiate. Over time, mythic narratives have been reified in ritual, reenacted in theater, and visualized in art. This is true of the myth of Aztlan.

The Road to Aztlan: Art from a Mythic Homeland/El Camino Hacia Aztlan: Arte de una Patria Mitica is an exhibition of the arts of Mexico and the American Southwest that are metaphorically associated with Aztlan. LACMA curator Virginia M. Fields worked with independent curator Victor Zamudo-Taylor to assemble over 250 artworks ranging from early pre-Columbian to contemporary times in order to explore the connections over time and space in an area that was linked in the past, but is today formalized into two distinct countries.

Olmec, Maya and Aztec sculptures represent the complex civilizations that established trade interactions throughout what we call New Mexico and Arizona during the time of the Hohokam, Mimbres and ancient Pueblo peoples. Many of the native trade routes were followed by Spaniards in the course of their spiritual and political conquest, then annexation, of the New World. The exhibition documents colonial connections of the region in religious paintings and sculptures of the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. Works by ceramic artists Maria Martinez and Lucy Lewis illustrate the revival of Native American traditional arts throughout the twentieth century. Paintings by Frida Kahlo and Enrique Chagoya, among others, represent Mexican-born artists assuming avant garde postures. A collection of works by Chicano artists, including John Valadez, Luis Jimenez, Santa Barraza, Yreina Cervantez, and Amalia Mesa-Bains, indicates the continuing force of Aztlan in generating significant iconographical forms.

The exhibition is accompanied by a formidable catalgue containing essays by scholars from various fields--art history, archaeology, anthropology and Chicano studies. In their introduction the curators assert that they “have underlined how the concept of Aztlan relates to history, myth, and spirituality across eras.” They have certainly done so in an intelligent and informed selection of art.

No one exhibition can cover all aspects of any topic, however. The Road to Aztlan neglects the powerful political role of the Aztlan myth. Some of the most politically active artists from the Los Angeles Chicano movement, such as Judith Baca, Los Four and ASCO, are not included here. In response to these omissions, Armando Duron is curating Errata, Not Included, an exhibition that will open at SPARC (the Social and Public Art Resource Center, Venice) in the Fall.