The ‘haunting subhuman monstrosities’ of ancient Nayarit: a critical reassessment


For those trapped inside the canons of classical Greek sculpture, the large hollow ceramic figures from Nayarit in West Mexico (figs 1–3) may seem ‘elephantine’,1For use of the adjective ‘elephantine’ in this context see Elizabeth Easby & John Scott, Before Cortes: Sculpture of Middle America, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1970, p. 110. crude even grotesque caricatures of the human form. Miguel Covarrubias, the notable Mexican art historian, sees them as ‘haunting subhuman monstrosities’ with ‘ridiculously thin arms’ and ‘enormous feet’, reaching the ‘limits of absurd, brutal caricature’.2Miguel Covarrubias, Indian Art of Mexico and Central America, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1957, pp. 89–91. Professor Kubler notes their ‘savage ugliness’ and ‘turgid forms’3George Kubler, The Art and Architecture of Ancient America: The Mexican, Maya and Andean Peoples, The Pelican History of Art, 2nd edn, Penguin Books Ltd, Middlesex, 1975, p. 117. while Professor Coe dismisses the region as ‘artistically of little note’.4Michael D. Coe, Mexico, 2nd edn, Praeger Publishers, New York, 1977, p. 110. Such oversimplified reactions of aesthetic disregard, sometimes bordering on disgust, seemingly spring from a preconceived notion that West Mexican art is a ‘naturalistic’ or ‘realistic’ replication of the ‘everyday’ world. Thus Gordon Ekholm echoing Covarrubias claims that in Nayarit: ‘Buttocks, legs and feet are sometimes grossly over-emphasised and arms made impossibly small …’5Gordon F. Ekholm, Ancient Mexico and Central America, The American Museum of Natural History, New York, 1970, p. 13. By contrast, ‘The sculpture of Colima is generally considered the most accomplished of the region’ presumably because ‘Colima sculptors were particularly skilled, at realistically catching the manifestations of the natural world …’6ibid. 

Such judgments betray a misunderstanding of both the nature of sculpture and the very reason these figures were made in the first place. For as Henry Moore pointed out ‘on familiarity with the British Museum’s whole collection it eventually became clear that the realistic ideal of physical beauty in art which sprang from fifth-century Greece was only a digression from the main world of sculpture’.7Henry Moore, ‘Primitive Art’, The Listener xviii, 449, 18 August 1937, London, 1937, pp. 338–40. More pertinently still, these human effigies were not created for the visual enjoyment of the living, but for burial with the dead. Their purpose was sacred and a mystical or cosmological principle also governed their form.8For specialised discussion of the sacred purpose of West Mexican art see Peter T. Furst, ‘West Mexican Art: Secular or Sacred?’, The Iconography of Middle American Sculpture, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1973, pp. 98–133; and Peter T. Furst, ‘House of Darkness and House of Light: Sacred Functions and West Mexican Funerary Art’, Death and the Afterlife in Pre-Columbian America, Elizabeth Benson (ed.) Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, 1975, pp. 33–68. They were placed within rounded burial chambers connected to a vertical shaft via extremely narrow horizontal passages perhaps suggestive of ‘birth in reverse’.9Jill Leslie Furst & Peter T. Furst, Pre-Columbian Art of Mexico, Abbeville Publishers, New York, 1980, p. 36. The deep tomb was like a womb in the Earth Mother to which her children were returned at death for regeneration, or passage to the afterlife. 

A subterranean silence surrounds the tomb sculpture of West Mexico, rendered virtually impenetrable by the absence of relevant ethnohistorical data, widespread controlled archaeological excavation or an ethnographic present related to what has been found below the ground. The paucity of written evidence encourages the temptation to see the ceramic art as an abstraction. Nevertheless the question remains: What did these effigies mean to the people who made them? A tentative explanation lies in the argument that sculptural form for an ancient West Mexican was a window through which he mystically saw the spiritual values of the image. The 20th century viewer bereft of this window onto the sacred can approach the forms visually as a bridge linking the Pre-Columbian to other sculptural traditions, provided that he never loses sight of what the funerary figures would have meant to the ancient villagers of Nayarit. 

This article will focus on the Gallery’s recently acquired pair of large hollow tomb figures from Nayarit, analysing them in sculptural terms after their specific Mesoamerican context has been explored.10I am indebted, in this article, to Hasso von Winning’s The Shaft Tomb Figures of West Mexico, Southwest Museum, Los Angeles, 1974, the most comprehensive and scholarly analysis of West Mexican funerary art published to date. It should be briefly noted that ceramic sculpture was produced for burial in shaft-and-chamber tombs only in the ‘Tomb Arc’ of Nayarit-Jalisco-Colima – nowhere else in Mesoamerica – between c.250 B.C. and A.D. 400. (This corresponds to the Late Pre-Classic – Proto-Classic and Early Classic periods of the overall Mesoamerican sequence, by which time in Central Mexico, Teotihuacan, the ‘Metropolis of the Gods’, and her pyramids of the Sun and Moon had been built.) West Mexico, by contrast, produced no above ground lithic architectural monuments or stone sculpture, the clay funerary offerings are all that survives of the ancient cultures formerly living in the modern states of Nayarit, Jalisco and Colima. Their significance, as the only ethnographic record and artistic expression of these villagers, is therefore immense. 

A replica of a Nayarit shaft-and-chamber tomb and its undisturbed contents now on display at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County casts light on the layout of skeletons and clay funerary offerings in tombs like those from which the Gallery’s figures originated.11von Winning, op. cit., p. 5, illustrated fig. 1, p. 95. The nine skeletons were radially disposed, their feet pointing towards the tomb centre. Clay offerings of hollow figures, vessels and smaller artefacts were placed alongside the walls facing inward, near the skeletons’ skulls. Large human effigies, similar to the Gallery’s pair, flanked the tomb entrance, supposed guardians of the deceased. It is significant that the skeletons of death and the palpable clay representations of life face each other, as if in spiritual dialogue or equilibrium. The ample figures, returned to the earth, seem to form an optical bridge that connects dead ancestors with their living kin;12Furst (1975), pp. 48–9. without such a bridge an irrevocable chasm would divide them threatening the harmony of their existence. The Mesoamerican needed to think of life and death as a continuum, graphically demonstrated by a Monumental head fragment with life and death aspects in the Gallery’s collection, from Gulf Coast Mexico (fig. 4). 

Typological classifications of West Mexican ceramic objects abound, largely determined by surface or paste colour and conspicuous stylistic traits exhibited by a range of extant examples from sites in states of Colima, Jalisco and Nayarit whose modern boundaries bear no relation to ancient West Mexico. The Gallery’s Nayarit pair falls typologically within Stanley Long’s ‘San Sebastian Red’ category (1966), corresponding to Kirchoff’s earlier classification ‘Los Desnudos’ (1946), as does the Gallery’s Nayarit Hunchback (fig. 5) whereas the Jalisco Tomb group (fig. 6) illustrates Long’s ‘Ameca Grey’ type (believed by him to be later in the sequence); no examples of his ‘El Arenal Brown’ category (deemed the latest chronologically) are in the Gallery’s collection. Other Jalisco types represented include the ‘sheep faced’ and ‘tassel ear pendant’ types, while the Nayarit Ball court scene (fig. 8) is an example of ‘Ixtlán polychrome’, first described by Lumholtz (1902) as having originated at Ixtlán del Rio.13See von Winning, op. cit., for a detailed classification of figures according to regional style, ceramic technique and subject matter; and Betty Bell, ‘Archaeology of Nayarit, Jalisco and Colima’, Handbook of Middle American Indians, vol. 11, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1971, p. 714. 

All the diagnostic traits of ‘San Sebastian Red’ type figures14von Winning, op. cit., p. 50. shared by the Gallery’s pair will not be outlined here however it should be noted that they are of medium textured red paste, red slipped, burnished, and fired through a large vent in the top of the head. Bodily proportions and poses fit the observed norm along with the following details of dress, but the eyes are not horizontally incised slits and the figures stand firmly on large cusped feet rather than being depicted as if seated on stools as is often customary, especially for the males in armour.15ibid., p. 60. 

The Gallery’s figures are not snapshots in clay of actual individuals but much is suggested of ancient Nayarit customs by the details of dress represented. The female is extensively tattooed and has raised cicatrices on each shoulder, obvious forms of body decoration not restricted to Nayarit. (Raised shoulder scarification marks also occur in Colima, Jalisco (fig. 7) and later in Gulf Coast Mexico.) The vertical black line applied to the chin probably indicates status or kinship affiliation (a characteristic shared by the Gallery’s Jalisco Tomb group – see fig. 6).16Hasso von Winning, report on Jalisco Tomb group, N.G.V. archives. Instead of tubular ear plugs inserted in the enlarged lobe typical of other parts of Mexico, Nayarit inhabitants perforated the rim of the ear and inserted rows of small hoops of shell and other materials. Significantly both the Gallery’s male and female wear these distinctive luxury items together with three banded necklaces. Such multi-strand solid fillets worn tightly around the neck differ from the large jade beaded necklaces worn by Central Mexicans and Mayan priests. (Apparently jade ornaments were not in use in West Mexico in this ‘shaft tomb phase’).17von Winning (1974), p. 25. Typically the hair is combed back and parted centrally and the female’s head bulges laterally above and below the temples, an indication that cranial deformation was practised.18ibid., p. 64. Characteristically, the female is naked and her genitalia, like the companion’s penis, are modelled,19ibid. but nipples are not indicated in contrast to Jalisco (fig. 6). 

The male is attired as a warrior, befitting his protective or combative role as tomb guardian. He wears a ‘bucket’ helmet incised with concentric diamond patterns and parallel lines (complementing the female’s incised hairdress). This indicates that the helmet and similarly patterned ‘barrel’ armour were probably made of tough woven material or wicker, in the armour’s case stretched over a wooden frame. (Twelve centuries later, Spanish conquistadors observed Aztec warriors wearing padded cotton armour and readily adapted it for their own use). The concentric diamond textile motif (painted in polychrome on the sloping roofs of the Gallery’s Nayarit Ball court scene (fig. 8)) relates to the ‘god’s eye’ motif which possibly served as a magical symbol to protect the dwelling’s occupants from harm, and the diamond also alludes to a four-directioned universe.20Furst (1975), p. 49. The helmet of this guardian of the soul of the dead has two prongs or shamanic horns, emblematic of supernatural power,21Furst (1973), p. 110. an impression intensified by his barbed stout club,* armoured encasement and greater height. The facial features of his defenceless nude companion are virtually identical, as are the huge cusped feet, trunk like legs and narrow arms, proof of probable pairing in the tomb and construction in the same ceramic workshop. 

In order to penetrate the intangible meaning of these burial offerings, it is essential to go beyond a literal interpretation of external details and consider the overall proportions of the companion pair. It is not accidental that the arms of both figures are underplayed in scale, as inessentials, while the bulk of their torsos and legs is exaggerated. Similarly the female visage, not seen as a mark of sexual otherness, twins that of the male – other Nayarit funerary figures share these facial characteristics showing that the whole community is represented, not two idiosyncratic individuals. By contrast gender is clearly delineated, both male and female genitals are modelled. Moreover, the male’s sturdy broad shoulders and tapering hips accentuate virile masculinity whereas the female’s conical breasts, distended abdomen and voluminous hips and buttocks symbolise her essential femininity, her fertility. Both her rotund curves and his barrel-chested, armoured strength need to be substantially supported therefore legs and feet are equally huge. The diametrically opposed social roles are alluded to by their poses and accoutrements; the male grips a club whose barbs are counterpointed by the female’s raised shoulder cicatrices – a means of beautifying the body – while her hands are placed on the stomach, an intimation of the birth-giving position often depicted by Nayarit ceramists. The ancient sculptor has deliberately emphasised both sexual differentiation and interdependence through distortion, thereby showing the importance of both sexes to sustain life. The companions are tangible embodiments of virility and fertility, a concrete reminder that life-giving forces are ascendant in the tomb and in the community, that life will spring from death. This relates to the ancient sculptor’s preoccupation with birth and fertilisation demonstrated by numerous Nayarit ceramic depictions of pregnancy or women in the act of childbirth assisted by midwives, paralleled in Colima by male figures with enlarged phalluses. 

The Gallery’s pair are not ‘subhuman’ monstrous caricatures of the human form with ‘grossly thick legs’ and ‘matchstick arms’23Bell, op. cit., p. 714. betraying haphazard or unsophisticated ceramic technique, distortion has a deep ritual significance. In fact, a radical reassessment of Nayarit pottery as sculpture is long overdue. One of the first art critics to herald the singular importance of Mexican sculpture was Roger Fry who wrote in 1932 that these people have left us ‘more masterpieces of pure sculpture than the whole of Mesopotamia, or than the majority of modern European civilisations’.24Roger Fry, The Arts of Painting and Sculpture, London, 1932, quoted by Antonio Castro Leal in his introduction to Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1940, pp. 15–17. His lead was followed by the British sculptor, Henry Moore, who wrote in 1941: 

Mexican sculpture, as soon as I found it, seemed to me true and right … Its ‘stoniness’, by which I mean its truth to material, its tremendous power without loss of sensitiveness, its astonishing variety and fertility of form-invention and its approach to a full three-dimensional conception of form, make it unsurpassed in my opinion by any other period of stone sculpture.25Moore, op. cit. 

Henry Moore was referring to Toltec-Maya and Aztec stone sculpture but he was familiar with all of the British Museum’s Mexican works on display and his statement can be applied to West Mexican clay sculpture especially that of Nayarit where ‘truth to material’, ‘power’, freedom of invention and a plastic, fully ‘three dimensional conception of form’ are strongly evident. 

Thus the Gallery’s pear-shaped female is appealing from many angles, not merely the frontal view. The potter understands the limitations and the expressive possibilities of his medium. The large figures have not burst in the rudimentary kiln because they are hollow, there are firing holes at the top of the head and a temper of sand has been added to the clay. The organic forms seem to spring naturally from the hand modelling of the clay, their ‘earthiness’ reflects an agricultural people living close to the soil whereas Toltec sculpture (fig. 9) of brutal cubistic planes like later Aztec is an art of soldiers, hewn from volcanic rock. The ceramic decorative techniques of negative resist and incising contribute clarity of detail to both figures while the meticulous burnishing of the surface brings out the special quality of the clay. Their polished completeness attests to the potter’s reverence, his skill in rendering them worthy as offerings to accompany the honoured dead to the afterlife. 

Curiously, the ‘elephantine’ bulk of the simplified forms rooted in the earth invites comparison with Henry Moore’s stone sculpture and his predilection for sturdy rounded shapes and the ‘archetypal female’. The ‘excitement and great impression [Moore] got from Mexican sculpture’26Will Grohmann, The Art of Henry Moore, Thames and Hudson, London, 1960. is strongly registered in his work of the late 1920s when he ‘came back to ancient Mexican art in the British Museum’27J. J. Sweeney, Henry Moore, statement in Partisan Review xiv, 2, March–April 1947, New York, 1947. where it was ‘exceptionally well represented’.28Moore (1937), op. cit. At this time he ‘came across an illustration of the Chacmool discovered at Chichén Itzá in a German publication – and its curious reclining posture attracted [him] – not lying on its side but on its back with its head twisted around’.29J. J. Sweeney, op. cit. Moore based his Reclining figure of 1929 on this photograph,30Illustrated David Sylvester, Henry Moore, The Arts Council of Great Britain, 1968, fig. 2; ‘Chacmool’ illustrated Easby & Scott, op. cit., p. 270. but introduced significant alterations; the figure is transformed into a nude female who raises her left hand behind her head, a gesture especially characteristic of Jalisco ceramic female figures (fig. 6). The ‘tough’ Toltec-Maya stone sculpture is suffused with some of the warmth and plasticity of West Mexican clay sculpture, the form seems to grow from the earth. His Mask of 192931Illustrated Philip James (ed.), Henry Moore on Sculpture, Macdonald, London, 1966, fig. 52. corresponds to the Mask of Xipe Totec (the flayed one) in the British Museum32Illustrated C. A. Burland, Art and Life in Ancient Mexico, Bruno Cassirer, Oxford, 1948, fig. 26. however the raised eyebrow ridge, sharp nose and round eye recessions are traits peculiar to Pre-Classic Chontal masks, like that of the Gallery (fig. 10) notable for its semi-cubist handling of broken planes and its reduction of the features to geometric elements in a circle. And the impact of this early Mexican inspiration still lingers in Moore’s later works such as his Memorial figure of 1945–46.33Illustrated Sylvester, op. cit., fig. 96. 

Mesoamerican archaeologists and art historians, lacking a sculptor’s eye for tactile volume, have been slower than Henry Moore to come to terms with the ‘power’ of Mexican sculpture in clay or stone. In hankering for ‘refinement’, ‘naturalism’ or ‘the beautiful’ in art, as part of an elusive search for a Phidias let loose in Mexico the Classic Maya have been heralded as ‘Greeks of the New World’34Lee A. Parsons, Pre-Columbian America: The Art and Archaeology of South, Central and Middle America, Milwaukee Public Museum, 1974, p. 104. even though their graceful conception of form is more linear and pictorial than fully three dimensional. The ‘tough’ ‘stoniness’ Henry Moore admired in Toltec or Aztec stone carving and the free modelled, expressionistic clay sculpture of Nayarit have been caricatured or virtually ignored as a result of such ‘blinkered vision’. The dual awareness of sculptural principles and ancient Mesoamerican religious practices reveals, in the Gallery’s Nayarit pair, a truth to material and a conception of form which are both timeless and sophisticated.

Judith Ryan, Curator of Pre-Columbian Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1983). 

Acknowledgement

I wish to thank Sue McNab for the photographs, specially taken for this article. 

 

Notes

* Stone rings with parallel rows of spikes which could be placed over sticks have been excavated in West Mexico.22von Winning, op. cit., p. 28; and see Robert H. Lister, ‘The Present Status of the Archaeology of Western Mexico: a Distributional Study’, University of Colorado Series in Anthropology, no. 5, Boulder, 1955.

1          For use of the adjective ‘elephantine’ in this context see Elizabeth Easby & John Scott, Before Cortes: Sculpture of Middle America, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1970, p. 110. 

2          Miguel Covarrubias, Indian Art of Mexico and Central America, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1957, pp. 89–91. 

3          George Kubler, The Art and Architecture of Ancient America: The Mexican, Maya and Andean Peoples, The Pelican History of Art, 2nd edn, Penguin Books Ltd, Middlesex, 1975, p. 117. 

4          Michael D. Coe, Mexico, 2nd edn, Praeger Publishers, New York, 1977, p. 110. 

5          Gordon F. Ekholm, Ancient Mexico and Central America, The American Museum of Natural History, New York, 1970, p. 13. 

6          ibid. 

7          Henry Moore, ‘Primitive Art’, The Listener xviii, 449, 18 August 1937, London, 1937, pp. 338–40. 

8          For specialised discussion of the sacred purpose of West Mexican art see Peter T. Furst, ‘West Mexican Art: Secular or Sacred?’, The Iconography of Middle American Sculpture, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1973, pp. 98–133; and Peter T. Furst, ‘House of Darkness and House of Light: Sacred Functions and West Mexican Funerary Art’, Death and the Afterlife in Pre-Columbian America, Elizabeth Benson (ed.) Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, 1975, pp. 33–68. 

9          Jill Leslie Furst & Peter T. Furst, Pre-Columbian Art of Mexico, Abbeville Publishers, New York, 1980, p. 36. 

10        I am indebted, in this article, to Hasso von Winning’s The Shaft Tomb Figures of West Mexico, Southwest Museum, Los Angeles, 1974, the most comprehensive and scholarly analysis of West Mexican funerary art published to date. 

11        von Winning, op. cit., p. 5, illustrated fig. 1, p. 95. 

12        Furst (1975), pp. 48–9. 

13        See von Winning, op. cit., for a detailed classification of figures according to regional style, ceramic technique and subject matter; and Betty Bell, ‘Archaeology of Nayarit, Jalisco and Colima’, Handbook of Middle American Indians, vol. 11, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1971, p. 714. 

14        von Winning, op. cit., p. 50. 

15        ibid., p. 60. 

16        Hasso von Winning, report on Jalisco Tomb group, N.G.V. archives. 

17        von Winning (1974), p. 25. 

18        ibid., p. 64. 

19        ibid. 

20        Furst (1975), p. 49. 

21        Furst (1973), p. 110. 

22        von Winning, op. cit., p. 28; and see Robert H. Lister, ‘The Present Status of the Archaeology of Western Mexico: a Distributional Study’, University of Colorado Series in Anthropology, no. 5, Boulder, 1955. 

23        Bell, op. cit., p. 714. 

24        Roger Fry, The Arts of Painting and Sculpture, London, 1932, quoted by Antonio Castro Leal in his introduction to Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1940, pp. 15–17. 

25        Moore, op. cit. 

26        Will Grohmann, The Art of Henry Moore, Thames and Hudson, London, 1960. 

27        J. J. Sweeney, Henry Moore, statement in Partisan Review xiv, 2, March–April 1947, New York, 1947. 

28        Moore (1937), op. cit. 

29        J. J. Sweeney, op. cit. 

30        Illustrated David Sylvester, Henry Moore, The Arts Council of Great Britain, 1968, fig. 2; ‘Chacmool’ illustrated Easby & Scott, op. cit., p. 270. 

31        Illustrated Philip James (ed.), Henry Moore on Sculpture, Macdonald, London, 1966, fig. 52. 

32        Illustrated C. A. Burland, Art and Life in Ancient Mexico, Bruno Cassirer, Oxford, 1948, fig. 26. 

33        Illustrated Sylvester, op. cit., fig. 96. 

34        Lee A. Parsons, Pre-Columbian America: The Art and Archaeology of South, Central and Middle America, Milwaukee Public Museum, 1974, p. 104.