Our report on the Aztec Exhibition


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Special report on the UK Aztec Exhibition 2003 - by Chas Saunders

Aztec manTHE AZTECS: a peaceful panolopy of Gods from Mexico, together with a collection of treasures and artistic artefacts of amazing diversity. The exhibition was held at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, from November 2002 to April 2003. [Official site (archived)]

The Gods came in peace and only a small sacrifice of £20 was needed for a family ticket. Our ultimate destination was the Royal Academy building in Piccadilly. From Victoria Station we eschewed public transport and took the scenic route on foot past Buckingham Palace. The Queen was in residence, but was probably occupied with the Prime Minister or installing a new archbishop.

Then of course she might have been doing jigsaw puzzles, putting a bob or two on the horses or scouring online outfitters for frumpy hats and coats. We admired the extraordinary classical statues in her front garden (including a remarkably life-like lion complete with blatent naughty bits) and went on our way...


Here's your host: MICLANTECUHTLI!

The God of Death was letting it all hang out where his liver was concerned, bowing slightly with his hands raised in "Hello and Welcome" mode. A huge very cheesy grin almost split his face in two and wide-staring yet vacant eyes seemed to entice us to join him on stage. Just like a game show host. Now that really is scary! All he needed was a glittery top hat and a bow tie to make his transformation to vaudeville star complete.

From our privileged Godchecker perspective we were not starting from scratch. Many of the Godly effigies were old friends to us. It was nice to be welcomed by a CHACMOOL, holding out his hand and seemingly expecting tips. Even after several hours there were some surprises to be found.

Water God Many visitors chose to use guided tour earphones, which emitted bird like-twitterings and caused much bemused stumbling because no-one could hear what was going on around them. The only solution was to say "Excuse me!" five times before shouldering them out of the way or kicking their ankles. For those engrossed in the Aztec soundscape, we can only hope this enhanced their experience.

Surrounded by statues, effigies and stone figures, we experienced the strange feeling that eyes were following us around. This turned out to be true as security guards were lurking in every corner. Anyone planning to stage a heist and run off with a few tons of sculpted granite wouldn't get very far. Photographs were forbidden - although that didn't stop the courageous Peter from sneaking a few illicit shots. But as the exhibition progressed, anyone with imagination and artistic susceptibilities would soon forget the holiday snaps.

Tlaloc TLALOC was there in force with many manifestations of goggling eyes and fangs. As God of Rain and Wetness he was probably responsible for the drizzly weather outside.

XIPE and COATLICUE were dressed in their best skins. Which do not in any way involve cruelty to animals. Only humans. Somehow the texture of flayed skin as portrayed by the Aztecs seems to resemble puffed wheat. So those of a nervous disposition can think of cereal killers rather than serial killers.

We were delighted to find EHECATL still causing confusion as to whether he is bird or beast. In exhibit 32 he was described as having a bird bill, but on reaching exhibit 102 he was described as monkey, and even had a tail. But by exhibit 103 he had reached duck status, and by 147 was just bird bill again.

Aztec batteries Batteries not included. Some of our favorite exhibits were the little statuettes with oblong holes where their hearts should be. [See pic, left]

Ordinary stone hearts were not good enough for the Aztecs. Every statue had to have a living heart of precious jade. Of course most of these valuable jade hearts have been pilfered over the years, living the statues with an unsightly hole which looks remarkably like the space for a battery.

We fondly imagined inserting a Duracell and bringing the statues back to life again...

HUEHUETEOL the Old Old Fire God was much in evidence and shows no signs of retiring. He may be branching out into barbecues if we can come to an agreement with him.

Eagle Man Is it a man? Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's EAGLE MAN! This is an awe-inspiring figure, twice human height. He stands on his plinth with outstretched wings ready for take-off, his face within a beak and talons on his legs.

Where did he come from? The House of Eagles, in the Temple Mayor excavation site near Mexico City. Why has he been hiding? We will let you know when we find out.

And finally we came to the Codex department. Utterly amazing and completely incomprehensible books written not in words but in pictures. They were beautifully-drawn, many in full color, and looked exactly like Aztec comic books. In fact, although not many people know this, cartoon speech bubbles were actually invented by the Aztecs! We would have loved to browse through the collection but unfortunately they were sealed under glass. We may never find out if Spidermanotl defeats the evil Dr Zarbicutli.

We can't leave without mentioning the last few exhibits. These were devoted to the Spanish-Christian takeover of the Aztec Gods. As depressing as this fact of history is, we found some small crumbs of comfort in the way that Aztec culture adapted and sneaked into the resulting national religion.

Aztec Cross As supreme sacrificers, the Aztecs were well-equipped to appreciate the crucifixion of Jesus. But if their artwork is anything to go by, they were somewhat bemused by the rest of the Gospel. Their statues and paintings pay homage to Jesus by including what they thought of as the salient points: thorns, knives, bottles of wine, pliers, and carpentry equipment.

Our favorite example was a large stone cross which - as far as we could see - was actually a tribute to the drunken God of Woodwork. There's even what appears to be a small figure urinating against it!

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