By Nora Quintanilla
New York, Nov 14 (EFE).- Nearly 100 Maya masterpieces are set to go on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of an exhibit informed by the latest research, including the discovery that some Mayan artists signed their pieces.
Among the treasures that make up Lives of the Gods: Divinity in Maya Art is a stela depicting a myth of the origin of the world in which the hero loses an arm battling a bird.
The story is recounted in the Popol Wuj, a compendium of Mayan beliefs set down after the Spanish conquest with the indigenous language transliterated into the Latin alphabet.
Some of the interpretative panels accompanying the pieces are based on the findings of curator Oswaldo Chinchilla, a professor of anthropology at Yale University.
Noting that the Met was one of the first museums in the world to establish a special wing for pre-Columbian art, he tells EFE that Lives of the Gods reflects a growing tendency to appreciate the works of Maya creators “on a par with European art.”
Learning to decipher Maya hieroglyphics has been a “long and very difficult process that began in the 19th century,” the Guatemalan scholar said, and only over the last three decades have specialists been able to determine the meanings “with a lot of certainty.”
Along with deeper understanding of the message, researchers have found that dozens of Maya artists of the Classic period (A.D. 250-900) signed their pieces – a practice unknown to their contemporaries in the Old World.
The visitor sees names such as K’in Lakam Chahk and Jun Nat Omootz on the explanatory panels, just as works in others parts of the Met bear the names of Rembrandt or Picasso, Chinchilla says.
Joanne Pillsbury, the Met’s curator of Ancient American Art, said that the signatures have shed light on the artists’ “creative practices and status.”
Some artists were entitled to style themselves as “the wise,” while others bore the title “instrument of the king.”
Intriguingly, a few artists used names evoking the gods, suggesting to Pillsbury that “for the Classic Maya, the creative process was, at least in part, also a divine process.”
Most of the pieces were found amid the ruins of cities such as Tikal, Yaxchilan and Piedras Negras, and the task of interpretation has drawn not only on modern expertise, but on the oral traditions of the Maya.
“The contemporary Maya retain many beliefs and religious practices that have a relation with the pre-Columbian religion, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a fossilized thing, the culture of the Maya peoples have evolved,” Chinchilla says.
As an example, he recounts that when the exhibit organizers wanted to create a video of the Dance of the Macaws, a pre-Columbian tradition that remains alive in Santa Cruz Verapaz, Guatemala, they learned that the town’s dancers had a Facebook group.
“They have very pure beliefs that are real, and even so they are modern people,” Chinchilla explains.
Alejandro Rax Jul, the leader of the dancers in the town of 30,000, was at the Met on Monday to express gratitude that the world will learn of the Maya heritage and identity.
“It is a historic day,” he told EFE. EFE nqs/dr