Mayas: revelation of an endless time

Mayan Exhibition Liverpool - pottery figure

Mayan Exhibition Liverpool – pottery figure

I don’t know how they did it but the curators of the World Museum Liverpool have pulled off something of a coup by getting the exhibition: Mayas: revelation of an endless time. Such an impressive and extensive display from Pre-Colombian America normally gets grabbed by London, where you have to pay a fortune; book months in advance; and then the experience is as much pleasure as fighting your way on the Tube during a hot summer’s Friday afternoon.

There’s no point going into any great detail of the Mayan civilisation here, that’s a task too great to do it justice. It’s earliest beginnings can be traced back to about 2000 years BC and they eventually ceased to exist as a dominant force with the arrival of the Spanish in the early fifteen hundreds and by the end of that century the Mayan Civilisation, that had produced such magnificent and impressive cities and artefacts, was effectively destroyed.

The aristocracy, priesthood and warrior classes were no more but the Mayan people, those upon whose backs the those three had always ridden, still existed and continue to exist to this day. They are marginalised and suffer repression and exploitation in the same way they have since the arrival of the Spanish – together with the added racism from those who trace their ancestry to the invader and the more ‘white’ city dwellers. In the southern part of what used to be the Mayan Empire, in present day Guatemala, they were the principal victims of the US backed death squads that would do anything and everything to prevent the country moving to the left (even a social democratic left) which might have threatened vested interests in the country and those of the United States – both political and economic.

One of the ways the exhibition brings the ancient Mayan culture to life is by showing how some of the traditions established hundreds of years ago still exist in the countryside and are a common aspect of local and national celebrations.

What we see in such exhibitions is often only a fraction of what had originally existed. The Europeans who arrived after the ‘discovery’ of the Americas were almost without exception murderers, rapists and thieves. The hunger and thirst for gold and silver was what drove them to face such hardships and in their search for the valuable metals many things of merely artistic or cultural value were either purposely destroyed (especially if they had any religious significance – which virtually everything did – and which was seen as pagan and a threat to the Catholic Church) or just allowed to decay – as happened to the cities which were soon reclaimed by the jungles.

Also we only are allowed a glimpse into the lifestyles of the rich and powerful. In their art, and for the Mayans this was mainly in pottery and stone carvings, they represent themselves and their world view. Of the peasants and the workers who provided the labour to sustain such a civilisation and who actually built it we get little – unless it’s a sketch on a brick, for example.

Mayan Exhibition, Liverpool - etched brick

Mayan Exhibition Liverpool – etched brick

We can get an idea of how they lived, in what sorts of houses, wearing what sort of clothing, and even in what they believed. We know what the food they ate from its representation in the pottery, both in the shapes and in the designs painted on the finished article. We know what the rich surrounded themselves with as they had an idea of the afterlife and their tombs contain versions of what would have also been everyday objects in their palaces. But of the poor (if we discount the prisoners of war, many of whom would only have been ‘poor’ in the sense of being unfortunate enough to have been captured) we can get to know little.

Perhaps the only real representation that we see of the workers in this exhibition is in the three or four little pottery sculptures that show an aristocratic person being physically carried on the backs of the porters. As in all parts of the world the rich have always, through the millennia, considered it demeaning to actually have to touch the earth upon which they live. So from all corners of the world we can see examples of depictions of the rich being carried and transported around by those who were either paid or enslaved to do so. I don’t think that the information exists to say what of those two conditions existed at the time when the Mayan were at the height of their power and influence.

Mayan Exhibition Liverpool - rich on the back of the poor

Mayan Exhibition Liverpool – rich on the back of the poor

What the exhibition also looks at in some detail, and tries to explain in innovative ways, is the Mayan system of the hieroglyphics (their writing) and the complexity of their calendar (which also played a role in their view of their place in the universe and their religion).

Mayan Exhibition Liverpool - hieroglyphics

Mayan Exhibition Liverpool – hieroglyphics

The intricate and stylised carvings, often representing their religious believes, are distinctive and very different from what can be found in the ‘Old World’, but it is possible to see the influences that travelled further down into Latin America and are replicated in the carvings of some of the Pre-Inca, Peruvian civilisations.

Mayan Exhibition Liverpool - stone carving

Mayan Exhibition Liverpool – stone carving

Towards the far end of the room in which the exhibition is held are two sets of display cabinets containing various masks, made of semi-precious stones, some of which are remarkably modern in their look and in an amazing good condition.

Mayan Exhibition Liverpool - mask

Mayan Exhibition Liverpool – mask

There’s a limited amount of gold work on display, that’s possibly because gold didn’t play such a ceremonial role in Central America as it did further south, or it might be that the European looters were more successful in stealing vast quantities during their invasion of the area. Yes, it was the Spanish who carried out the looting on land but we, especially the British, should remember that it was the ‘Pirate’ Drake who stole from those thieves, thus paving the way for the development of capitalism, and eventually industrialisation, in England.

If nothing else, a visit to this exhibition provides the visitor with an idea of a sophisticated society which had a developed culture, a complex world view, a strictly hierarchical, religious (almost ‘fundamentalist’) society, which traded and learnt from peoples many hundreds of miles away and were not the ‘noble savages’ as they came to be depicted by the Europeans in their desire to justify their actions on the continent.

The exhibition: Mayas: revelation of an endless time is on display in the World Museum Liverpool, William Brown Street, in the centre of the city, just a few minutes walk from Lime Street railway station.

It will be in Liverpool until 18th October 2015.

Entrance is free and the museum is open every day from 10.00-17.00.

Events, talks and activities will be taking place during the course of the exhibition and details can be found at Mayas: revelation of an endless time – events.

The slide show below (and the pictures above) merely aim to give an idea of what’s on display but those pictures were not taken in the most ideal of conditions. If anyone is interested in better pictures there’s a well produced book to accompany the exhibition (it’s not cheap at £25.00) but well worth it for anyone with a real interest in this amazing and fascinating culture, available in the obligatory at-the-end-of-an-exhibition shop.

5,065 total views, no views today

Scottish Independence or Unite and Fight

workers of the world unite

workers of the world unite

I hope it doesn’t sound hypocritical for someone who has nothing but the utmost contempt for the system of bourgeois Parliamentary ‘democracy’ but it was good to hear that the idea of Scottish Independence had been kicked out by the Scottish people in the referendum of 18th September 2014.

Nationalism without Socialism is on the road to fascism. The argument that people are as one merely because they happen to inhabit a small piece of land takes us back to the thinking of hunter gatherers, desperate to protect their source of food. At its core nationalism asks, and expects, people of a particular country to ignore the fundamental contradiction that exists everywhere, and that’s the question of who is in really in control of the country, that is, which class actually rules.

It comes as no surprise that the matter of class never came up in the debates and discussions that preceded the vote. On either side. Scottish nationalism had its roots in petty bourgeois aspirations of being big fish in a little pond and certainly didn’t arise as a groundswell of working class opposition to ‘rule from Westminster’.

Those arguing for independence ignored any differences between those living in millionaire mansions and the people living in the schemes that surround cities like Glasgow, council housing estates with some of the worse conditions in Europe. As far as the nationalists are concerned their ‘Scottishness’ unites all, the laird in his palace and the homeless on the freezing streets of many Scottish towns.

Those opposing independence made a similar argument only on a slightly bigger scale. For them the rich and the poor of ALL the United Kingdom should be as one. This is no surprise when the British people have allowed to be elected a government which has more millionaires in positions of power than at any time since the 19th century.

An aspect of parliamentary ‘democracy’ which is always there in the background was highlighted during the run up to the referendum of the 18th. That is, the system basically depends upon bribes. If those supporting independence did so because they believed in some sort of Scottishness – whatever that might be – or an identity that comes from having been born, or living, in a particular place, at least they’re attempting to base their ideas on a principle. However, what the argument came down to, on both sides, was which one could offer the most cash in hand.

The nationalists put forward the idea, which they have tried to use as their best card for decades, that revenue from North Sea oil could all be kept for the 6 million or so people in the island of Britain which was closest to the oil fields. Now that argument in itself just displays the petty mindedness and selfish attitude of nationalism. An extension of this would mean that the only people who have the right to the riches from the world’s resources are those who live over them and we would then head back to a situation of city states.

An extension of this could mean that the Welsh would control the water resources in their hills and hold the rest of Britain to ransom – after all if recent wars have been fought over oil the wars in the future are more than likely to be fought over water. This is merely a return to a situation that existed during the early days of agriculture and clashes between tribes, a situation which still exists in some parts of the world (it should be remembered that one of the roots of sharia law is related to control of water resources). If the people in the Lake District took umbrage at the Mancunians they could cut off the water supply at Thirlmere. These sort of attitudes are tribal in the worst sense of the word and deny, and challenge, any developments that have been made in the past of our social being.

And where in the world, at any time in the past, has the working population really gained from the exploitation of such valuable resources? The lion’s share goes in profits to the mineral companies, a little bit gets into the coffers of the treasury by way of minimal tax, but never has it been a windfall for the people. In some of the Arab countries with tiny indigenous populations there are many people with millions but that’s at the expense of almost slave conditions for immigrant labour which do the work so that these parasites live in luxury. Even in Venezuela, with the much hyped policy of Chavez, only a trickle really came down to the poor of the country. Are we really supposed to accept that the situation would be any different in Scotland in the event of independence?

Added to that, if the referendum had gone the other way, what sort of ‘independence’ would it have been anyway. The nationalists wanted: to keep the pound sterling – even though no one in the Westminster Parliament said they could; keep the Queen – there would have been a conflict here on the National Anthem. The current national song of Scotland is bordering on a xenophobic rant, with lines that refer to the defeat of an English army in 1314. As, in theory (but only in theory as the royal line in Britain has been broken many times and some substitute found in another country) the present Queen is descended from the feudal upstart of the 14th century that would have made for awkward moments on State visits; stay in the European Union – although even the EU seemed reluctant to take them in, without the country first going through a long drawn out procedure for new members, and Spain (even though it said otherwise) would have done their utmost to prevent such a precedent with Catalonia and the Basque Country wanting similar.

Now the vote has been lost the nationalists are already saying that it really wasn’t important for the people ‘to have their say’ as they will try to establish independence through other means, thereby ignoring the wishes of the majority of the country in a referendum that was pushed for by these very nationalists. If they had won they would have argued that the decision had been made and should stand forever, as they have lost they look for ways to circumvent the ‘democratic choice’. I have no problem them rejecting such a choice but at least bring with it some consistency.

Another aspect of recent bourgeois elections was also demonstrated a few days after the defeat for the nationalists – the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) resigned. This personalisation of politics has been going on for sometime now, not just in the UK. I believe there are two reasons for such ‘self-sacrifice’. First it perpetuates the ‘cult of the personality’ (of nonentities) in the political environment where individuals are more important than the collective. And, secondly, it attempts to deflect criticism away from the ideas and policies by giving the impression that it was the individual who failed, not that the group which was peddling failed policies.

Unfortunately the decision of the 18th hasn’t confined the issue to the dustbin of history. Because the minority of one of the small constituent parts of the United Kingdom had a hissy fit over independence now the majority of that population who had, and still have, little wish for such moves are having unforeseen changes forced upon them.

During the whole of this process, that seems to have gone on forever, the one part of the UK that has a valid claim for independence has been completely forgotten. Since the time of the Norman invasion the Irish have been fighting against the British (the Scots spent much of that period fighting FOR the British in its colonial and expansionist wars). That struggle was, and still is, deep-rooted in the Irish identity.

But on top of all the tragedies that Ireland has had to suffer under the British yoke for centuries they now have to deal with betrayal of the present day Sinn Fein and Irish Republican Army (IRA) who have turned their back on the leadership of the past, of the likes of Robert Emmet and James Connolly, and are now seen kowtowing to the British monarch.

Such diversions deflect people from looking at the picture as a whole and in that respect Scottish Nationalism has played a pivotal role in perpetuating and maintaining the divisions between the working class of Britain (already having to deal with racism, membership of the European Union, a seemingly endless stream of wars in the Middle East, and a lack of long-term perspective). It would be good to think that now Scottish Independence has been decidedly thrown out in a ‘democratic’ vote the workers of Britain would unite and fight together for a common goal. Unfortunately, at the moment, we are still some way from seeing that reach fruition.

3,397 total views, no views today

Dazzle Ship

Dazzle Ship Liverpool Biennial 2014

Dazzle Ship Liverpool Biennial 2014

On each occasion it’s been held (this is the eighth) the Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art always tries to have at least one large outdoors installation. In 2014 this is the so-called ‘Dazzle Ship’, a repainted pilot ship based at the Canning Graving Dock, next to the famous Pierhead on the shores of the River Mersey.

The project is the work of the Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez and takes its inspiration from the dazzle painting of ships which became common towards the end of the First World War.

There are a few reasons why Cruz-Diez developed this idea for the Liverpool Biennial 2014.

Not surprisingly the original concept for this after the outbreak of war came from contemporary artists at the time. There’s some debate about who actually came up with the original idea, a zoologist, John Graham Kerr, even putting in a bid but the names of Norman Wilkinson and Edward Wadsworth are normally credited with the concept.

The Biennial falls in the same year as the hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War (I’ll never understand the concept of celebrating the beginning of a war that caused such death and destruction) so funding was available from 14-18 Now – WWI Centenary Art Commissions.

Finally, Liverpool was one of the ports where much of this dazzle painting of ships took place, even down to the fact that the dry dock in which the Edmund Gardner (the pilot ship that has been revamped) now sits was used during the second half of the war.

You tend to hear a lot about such projects long before you see them and I must admit I was a little underwhelmed when I got down to the waterfront to see for myself. First it’s in bright colours – but that’s all right as this is not a reproduction of the scheme used for military purposes but an artistic twist. The problem is the regularity of the use of those colours. It was the irregularity, the uniqueness of the design for each ship, that made the project (which, although never fully proven to be successful in the misnamed ‘Great War’, was used again in Great War Part II) such an innovative one a hundred years ago.

Cruz-Diez has chosen a design which has vertical lines of 4 colours (red, green, black and orange – always in that order) on the hull and vertical lines of red, green, yellow and black on the ships superstructure.

Apart from being commissioned for the Biennial it is also part of a larger project, Monuments from the Future, which ‘invites artists and architects to bring large-scale imaginary monuments from the future into the present. In order to fulfill this paradoxical task, artists will collaborate with professional futurologists (social scientists who predict possible future scenarios) to determine possible future circumstances and set of events for which a new monument can be imagined and produced. This project will slowly turn Liverpool into a sci-fi sculpture park making use of Liverpool’s industrial archaeology to celebrate its possible new futures.’ So that’s something to look out for on the streets of Liverpool in the coming months.

Across the road, in the approach to the Liverpool One shopping complex, the pavement has been painted with similar colours and in a ‘dazzle’ pattern. This is on Thomas Steers Way and is supposed to link the shopping complex with the ship on the other side of the Dock Road. I doubt if one in a hundred of the people who walk along this 100 metres or so of painted walkway have any idea what it’s all about.

I was slightly disappointed by Cruz-Diez’s creation as I would have preferred the lines to have been less predictable, more haphazard, more (dare I say it) dazzling. Investigating the background to the whole dazzle ship project at the beginning of the 20th century I saw a photo of Wadsworth’s 1919 painting of men working on a ship in a dry dock in Liverpool. I thought that quite impressive.

Dazzle-ships in drydock at Liverpool

Dazzle-ships in drydock at Liverpool

Anyway, I was glad I went down to the Albert Dock complex to see the work as I then had the opportunity to visit the inside of the pilot ship itself. Being virtually as it was when launched in 1953 it was instructive as an indication of the class structure that existed within the pilot service at the time of its construction but also well into the 1970s. It was eventually taken out of service in April 1981.

Although the Biennial ends in October this year the Dazzle Ship will stay as it is until the end of 2015, so there’s no mad rush to have a look. The tours of the ship are run by the Merseyside Maritime Museum. These are free and will take place every Thursday till the end of August at 11.00, 12.30 and 14.30. To avoid disappointment it’s best to book on 0151 478 4499.

23,221 total views, no views today