Monday, 23 November 2009

Review: Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler at the British Museum

Today, I renewed my membership to the British Museum and went with two very dear friends to see the new exhibition on Moctezuma. I was a bit unsure about it, since I literally know nothing about Aztec culture and I was worried I'd come out feeling stupid and dazed.

But of course, as usual, I thoroughly underestimated the BM. In reality, even without a catalogue or an audio guide I got round easily. I spent 2 hours just marvelling at the incredible skill of the Mexica (the more correct name for the people of Moctezuma II's empire) craftspeople. Everything was so detailed and beautiful; each tile on the mosaic work was only a couple of mm squared and yet they were perfectly tesserated and the colour variations are perfect. I was reminded that this same demonstration of skill was what drew me into Roman art back in the second year of my degree.

The alien-ness, if such a word exists, was striking here. It felt truly 'barbarian' and other. The gorgeous sandstone eagle near the entrance of the exhibition was the first thing to draw my eye. I was concentrating on the shapes, the chisel marks, the materials used in its creation for a good few minutes. Eventually I glanced down at the label and noticed for the first time the hollow in the eagle's square back. This, apparently, was for the offered hearts of human sacrifices. My own heart skipped a beat. From then on, I couldn't look at anything in the exhibition without remembering how different life was. That stone eagle gave me a context within which to view the story of Moctezuma II.

And I believe this was deliberate on the part of the curators, the journey through the exhibition was not a geographical one (although the empire ruled over by this last native ruler was a large one), but a journey that used themes to pass chronologically through the life of Moctezuma and his court. Everything to me was new and exciting, even those things that should have been familiar from earlier study. I know obsidian has been used as a mirror but I had never before taken the opportunity to look at my image in the highly-polished stone. I did not realise how eerie the reflection is, how it makes your own face alien and those of others seem like ghosts. I never fully understood the power of an art that is so stylised, nothing is real. There are no 'realistic' images of Moctezuma because all was idealised. Like the Greek art I'm familiar with, there are forms and shames that represent attributes and status. We don't know what Moctezuma appeared as to his people - he was god-like and therefore physically ideal, however he really looked. He presented himself using his name-glyph, the royal diadem and highly decorated ear scroll meaning emperor, just as Julius took the epithet Caesar.

With classic post-colonial guilt, I truly wish that Cort├ęs had learned from Moctezuma, instead of destroying the culture. The things we have lost through the Spanish destruction of artefacts and codices is more than equivalent to the loss of the library at Alexandria. What we know now is piecemeal, from the remaining artefacts still being recovered from temples in Mexico City, but the BM have done a fine job in making it comprehensible.

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