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Exhibit Explores Latin America's Colonial Past

Like many other places around the world, Latin America has had difficulty coming to grips with its colonial past. That tension is particularly visible in the art of the region.

In Mexico, the famous murals of Diego Rivera depicted the Spanish conquistadors and missionaries as evil, gray-faced beings who subjugated an entire nation.

But a new exhibition in Mexico City is providing fresh perspectives on more than 300 years of history. The show, called Revelations, opened on Feb. 20 at the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso. It's the biggest exhibition of colonial art ever to be displayed in Latin America.

Paloma Poras Fraser, director of San Ildefonso, says the show, as the title suggests, is a revelation for her own country, because it is the most comprehensive display of its kind that Mexico has ever seen. The exhibit features about 250 pieces from 13 countries.

"There are a lot of works that have never been seen in Mexico," she says, "not only the ones that come from Latin America, but some pieces that have been lent to Mexico by the United States."

Joe Rishel, curator of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, put together the show, which first opened at his museum. He says that Latin American colonial art has not been appreciated at home and abroad.

"There are great works of art equal to anything" produced elsewhere in the world, Rishel says. "Art has a way of taking these astonishing collision of cultures, and out of that ...comes great creative energy."

Rishel says the exhibit displays "wit and gaiety and delight in storytelling." Indeed, the sheer variety and quality of paintings and artifacts is staggering. An intricately inlaid chest of drawers made with mother of pearl shows influences from the Middle East. Other works hint at influences from Japan, Holland and Eastern Europe. The show offers illuminating reminders that Spain and Portugal weren't the only countries that contributed to melting pot that became the nations of Latin America.

Of course, much of the art on display is religious in nature. Clara Bargellini, a Mexican colonial-art historian who helped curate the show, describes the background of some of the pieces:

"Here is the consecration of the Basilica of Guadalupe, which was established in a place where there was a pre-Hispanic cult. And over there is the Mountain of Potosi in Bolivia, which is also associated with the Virgin Mary and a pre-Columbian diety. This painting is about the Franciscan mission. See that friar there with the cross? He's going into Indian territory and preaching the gospel. This painting was made for the Franciscans to send to Spain, so as to get more support for their missions."

The exhibition also includes famous portraits of the colonial caste system. These "casta" paintings trace the complex racial mixing — or mestizaje — of the people of "New Spain."

The San Ildefonso museum, the show's host, resides in a glorious 18th-century building in the colonial heart of the Mexican capital. The space was once a Jesuit school for the sons of wealthy Mexicans.

Unfortunately, Mexico City will be the only place in Latin America where the show will be seen. After this, it moves on to Los Angeles.

But Rishel says that seeing the works displayed here is momentous.

"They've come home," he says.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.