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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
La chien lit c’est lui – Atelier Populaire – France 1968
Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making 1789-2013 at The Tate Liverpool advertises itself as the first exhibition to look at how art has been influenced by left-wing values. I don’t believe that claim is strictly correct as a visit to the People’s History Museum in Manchester presents many examples of the material, from posters, pamphlets, Trade Union banners and many other artefacts, where art has been employed by different British working class organisations to promote and explain their ideas and values. But that quibble aside this is a very good, insightful and intelligent presentation of the way that art has influenced politics internationally and has itself been influenced by the level of technology and the political environment in which they are produced.
Taking that the sub-title gives a time frame for the exhibition I was expecting that the exhibits would be in some sort of chronological order so it would be possible to see if there was an evolution in thinking and designs. That isn’t the case – in fact, the earliest piece is encountered at the far end of the second room. There’s no order whatsoever and no specific connection between neighbouring presentations. What we have instead are small examples from a number of countries throughout the globe to give just an idea of how art and the left-wing have co-existed in different historical epochs.
Before going any further perhaps it’s worthwhile quoting from Atelier Populaire, the group of students from the École des Beaux Artes (the Fine Arts School) in Paris in 1968. This was not reproduced in the exhibition but is from the preface of a book they reproduced of examples of their work in 1969:
‘The posters produced by the Atelier Populaire are weapons in the service of the struggle and are an inseparable part of it.
Their rightful place is in the centre of conflict, that is to say in the streets and on the walls of the factories.
To use them for decorative purposes, to display them in bourgeois places of culture or to consider them as objects of aesthetic interest is to impair both their function and their effect. This is why the Atelier Populaire has always refused to put them on sale.
Even to keep them as historical evidence of a certain stage in the struggle is a betrayal, for the struggle is of such primary importance that the position of an “outside” observer is a fiction which inevitably plays into the hands of the ruling class.’
I would agree with the majority of those sentiments with a proviso. I would like to think that many who have already visited (and those yet to visit) this exhibition on Liverpool’s waterfront would be doing so to gather ideas so that they could be put into practice in future struggles against capitalism and imperialism, but I think that’s more like wishful thinking. Future revolutionary artists shouldn’t need to start from scratch and an analysis of what has been produced in the past can become a springboard for the future. This doesn’t mean slavish imitation but more of a synthesis of what has come before to produce even better in the forthcoming struggles.
So what of the exhibition itself?
Although the time line suggests a period of more than two centuries the overwhelming number of the items on display are from the 20th century. The only item from the 18th century is Jacques-Louis David’s 1793 painting and etchings of ‘The Death of Marat’. I’m familiar with this painting but didn’t know until seeing it at the Tate that David’s workshop copied the original and many reproductions were distributed throughout France. The same with some of the etchings that he made as preliminary studies. This was done to break down the exclusiveness that surrounded paintings. We sometimes forget that extensive public access to the great art of the past is a very recent development and David was way ahead of his time in getting his poignant image of his friend and popular hero out to the greatest audience. It also played a political role in that he would hope that this would make the people angry and pursue those enemies of the revolution who sought to rein in the working people.
There’s then a big jump towards the end of the 19th century where we encounter a couple of the British examples on display.
First there’s a Trade Union banner from 1898. Here I have a major criticism of the curator. These banners were made to be carried through the streets as part of a march or a demonstration, the public expression of the ideas of those who followed behind. In the Tate this banner is lying flat. Not only does this make it difficult to appreciate fully it also goes against the whole meaning of its production in the first place. The manner in which they are displayed in the Manchester Peoples’ History Museum stands in strict contrast.
The second British subject from the end of the 19th century is the work of William Morris, specifically his designs for wallpaper. His inclusion doesn’t necessarily go against the general theme of the exhibition but it does take a slight veer away from art as political. Morris’s idea that good quality design shouldn’t be just for the rich is all very well and good but there would have been few working class homes indeed that could have afforded his wallpaper. As far as I could make out the work produced by Morris was the only one on display that was intentionally produced for the market. The fact that many other artefacts now have a value which the originators had not intended is just an example of how capital appropriates anything it can and tries to place a value that bears no relationship to its cost of production.
Not surprisingly the Soviet Union is well represented. Immediately after the 1917 Revolution and up to the Great Patriotic War (22nd June 1941 – 9th May 1945) artists of various schools were active in the young Soviet Union. They included: drawings made by the Futurist Eil Lissitzky, who believed in the production of propaganda for the new workers’ state through all forms of art and is represented in the exhibition by drawings he made in relation to a theatre production; posters produced by the Constructivist Alexandr Rodchenko, his work being represented by posters of a photomontage that he produced in 1925 commemorating an anniversary of the All Russian Communist Party; and the Productivist Liubov Popova who designed, amongst others, products which were of everyday use and believed that the just because something was ‘basic’ it needn’t lack aesthetic merit. What’s interesting about one of Popova’s designs is that the curator has taken the plan of a display board created in the early 1920s and has used that for the information about Tucamán Arde, the Argentinian collective, which is just a few metres away in the same room.
Five Year Plan – Artists’ Brigade – 1933
I’ve already mentioned Atelier Populaire and there’s quiet a few of their posters on display. I would like to think that most of the young students involved in the silkscreen workshop during the heady days of May 1968 would be horrified if they saw their work on the walls of such a bourgeois institution as the Tate Liverpool but, at the same time, wouldn’t be over surprised if some of them had entered main stream social-democratic parties in their home countries, as have some other ‘revolutionaries’ of that time such a Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Regis Debray.
One of the principles of Atelier Populaire is the involvement of the artists in the struggle. It’s not just designing and printing in the comfort of a school basement. It’s going out on the streets and demonstrating when the call is made as well as walking around with wallpaper paste in a plastic bag and fixing those posters where they will have an effect on the current struggle, at times playing hide and seek with the police – which in France in 1968 meant the neo-Fascist Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS), the riot police, who were responsible for an unknown number of deaths.
Also having to face the dangers of a fascistic military government was the Argentinian art collective known as Tucamán Arde (Tucamán (a region of Argentina) Burns). This is a group I’ve never encountered before and they believed that the unity of art and violence was not a choice but a given and challenged the military junta from the late 1960s onwards. One of their slogans in an English translation is ‘We must always resist the lure of complicity’.
China is represented by four posters from the era of the Cultural Revolution, 1966-76. Many thousands of these posters were printed during that period and distributed all over the world, as well as being published in magazines such as Chinese Literature and Peking Review. Many of these used traditional techniques but the subjects were the life and times of the workers and peasants, at that time the rulers of the country who were attempting to build a socialist society.
The New Classroom – Ou Yang – Cultural Revolution 1966-76
During the Cultural Revolution one of the ways ordinary people could express their points of view was by writing something and posting them on the Da Zi Baos (the wall newspapers) were people would congregate not only to read but discuss the matters raised. Social Media might claim to play that role nowadays but, to me, that lacks the spontaneity and personal interaction that made the wall newspapers so special in all Chinese communities. An effort of the American Group Material in the 1980s to transfer the idea into the home of the beast met, as far as I read, with mixed results, but if people wrote and remained to fight their corner then the principle of the practice would be retained.
One small ‘installation’ that caught my attention was by the Brazilian conceptual artist Cildo Miereles. This is a small presentation of three Coca Cola bottles, on one of which are instructions on how to make a Molotov Cocktail (petrol bomb). If Coca Cola was to adopt this policy then there would be reason for buying this expensive addictive sugar drink but I would have thought the glass in the bottles is too thick to make a truly effective weapon.
There were many other artists and groups on show, as I said before each installation was small, allowing for many to be mentioned the whole affair being much more of a ‘taster’ than a full meal. It’s worth mentioning: OSPAAAL and posters they produced in conjunction with the Cuban magazine Tricontinental; a US TV programme from the 1960s discussing the impact of Bertolt Brecht on both the American artistic and left-wing communities; the Hackney Flashers, a group of worker photographers which used their skills in community campaigns in the late 1970s; Equipo 57, a group I’ve never heard of before, who were a group of Spanish exiles from Franco’s Fascism who set up a Marxist orientated collective in Paris in May 1957; Guerilla Girls, an international women artist collective who campaign for more by women to be made available in art galleries throughout the world – I thought their small section gave the impression of whingers rather than innovative and imaginative artists; an interesting and amusing banner of The International Union of Sex Workers; an installation called ‘A Jukebox of people Trying to Change the World’ by Ruth Ewan, where visitors are invited to select from an ever-expanding collections of CDs of protest songs (and to suggest any new ones) – although when I went to the exhibition one of the attendants was making her selection so it was impossible to extrapolate the political leanings of fellow visitors; as well as a few audio-visual presentations I (foolishly) didn’t have the time to fully appreciate.
There were a few areas where I think the curator had gone slightly off beam, especially on some of the projects that took place in the last few years. Although taking pictures of, and displaying the results in places and locations normally reserved for the wealthy or just advertising of consumer goods I don’t consider that is necessarily looking at art in relation to the left in politics. Neither was the collection of photographs of locations throughout the country where individuals had decorated their homes in a peculiar way. Yes, this might well have been ignored and deserves to be recognised as valid an art form as other by professionals but this is not art that has been created in order to get across a political message
There was also, I believe, a glaring omission and that was any real reference to Socialist Realism. The small collection of Chinese posters was the only place in the gallery where workers were shown carrying out their everyday activities, even though in a stylised form. Now I accept that this could be a big topic and could flood the galleries but I would have thought the subject merited some reference. Although much of this material is not on show in the same way that it was before 1990 there is a vast treasure of Socialist Realist riches to be found and I would like to think that at some time ij the not too distant future someone at the Tate will consider a special exhibition sourcing material from Europe and Asia.
Building Socialism – National Art Gallery – Tirana
What I realised on leaving the floor was that this field is really vast and its unfortunate that political activists on the left don’t always appreciate the contribution they have made to culture through the very fact of their activity and the publicising of it. For example, how many silk screen posters have been totally lost form the late 1960s and 1970s which were the cheapest and most common medium for advertising meetings, demonstrations and making statements on the issues of the time?
Although I have a few quibbles this was an interesting and innovative exhibition. It’s a pity that once in finishes in Tate Liverpool next month there are no plans for it to go travelling to other galleries in the country. I also hope that it has been successful enough (I’m sure it hasn’t brought in such crowds as some of the recent special exhibitions at the riverside gallery) for further ventures along the same lines in the future.
Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making 1789-2013 is at the Tate Liverpool, Albert Dock, Liverpool until 2nd February 2014.