Review: A Journey to South America: Andean Art in the Spanish Empire / Art Institute of Chicago

Unidentified artist. “Our Lady of the Rosary of Chiquinquirá with a donor”, ​​late 17th / early 18th century.

The title of this exhibition dossier is misleading. There is nothing traveling here: no ships, no landings, no conquistadors. Rather, it should be called: “An assembly of colonial Andean paintings, mainly religious, which obscures issues of racism and slavery”. The works are from the Art Institute, a local private collection, the Newberry Library and the Denver Art Museum.

At the start of the colonial period, there was a heated controversy over the status of the Indios in the Andean Empire, one of the most extensive in the history of the world. Those who embraced Christianity, according to the reasoning, deserved to be protected from murder or slavery. “Are these [Indians] not men? asked Brother Antonio de Montesinos in 1511. “Don’t you have to love them as yourselves? Despite these appeals, millions of people died from illness, overwork and grief over the next century. But in some ways, the worst was yet to come.

Unidentified artist ?. "Our Lady of Bethlehem with a male donor," 18th century?.

Unidentified artist. “Our Lady of Bethlehem with a male donor”, 18th century.

In the 17th century, scruples about slavery were overcome by economic need, and large numbers of black Africans were brought to Peru to replace the decimated indigenous labor force. They worked in the silver mines of Potosi and the gold mines of Carabaya, and the gilded costume of the Virgin in “Our Lady of Bethlehem with a male donor” (circa 1750) is a testimony of this exploitation. It is also an image of indigenous connivance: the donor has darker skin than the Virgin and may be a rich descendant of Inca royalty. By the end of the 18th century, however, such self-imagery was unlikely. Modern racism, combined with movable slavery, has made dark skin a sign of moral inferiority. Few elites wanted to recognize that they were Métis.

But race imagery nonetheless appears in the Casta paintings of Mexico which depict the many possible racial mixtures, and in the surprising “A Bishop with Native Children”, showing the cleric passing prayer books to a pair of children. Indians. Each is fawn in color, wears a feathered skirt and holds a quiver of arrows, obvious signs of Indianness. They seem delighted, but soon they will be working in the mines of Potosi or in the Jesuit sugar haciendas in the Huaura valley. (Stephen F. Eisenman)

Until February 21 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan

Edward K. Thompson