Context Lost

Ceremonial Scene
Ancient ceramic shaft-tomb figures from the West Mexican states of Nayarit, Jalisco, Colima, and Michoacán are around you. Their use as decor, props, investments, or art objects belies their antiquity and importance for understanding the lifeways of peoples long gone. These highly visible artifacts have lost their original context. Context is the environment determining an object’s meaning for the people who made and used it. Recently, archaeologists and art historians have been making progress in understanding the cultures of ancient West Mexico, putting tomb figures back into context.
Objects in this exhibition are from the William P. Palmer III Collection. University of Maine alumnus William Palmer began collecting West Mexican tomb figures around 1965 when the cultures of ancient West Mexico were little known. Certificates of authenticity accompanying the purchases contained incorrect information about cultures of origin and periods, but reliable information about groupings of artifacts, sites of origin, and years of discovery. Palmer’s collection came to The University of Maine when he died in 1982.
Twentieth-century Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and her husband, Diego Rivera, collected and were strongly influenced by ancient West Mexican ceramics. In their attempts to portray the indigenous past of their nation in paintings and murals they included portraits of prehistoric men and women based on shaft-tomb figures. Art historian Barbara Braun suggests that, both directly and through the influence of other artists trained in Mexico, the stylized and dynamic forms of West Mexican ceramic animal figures inspired the work of artists at Walt Disney Studios starting in the 1930s!
Shaft-tomb figures from West Mexico and objects produced by indigenous artists in Africa, New Guinea, and other underdeveloped areas, sometimes described as “primitive art,” have influenced popular culture by appearing in the background or as props to lend atmosphere to television shows, movies, and advertisements. Apparently attracted by the appearance of a figure from Nayarit, Alfred Hitchcock gave it an important role in his classic film, North by Northwest. An advertising campaign in magazines during the early 1990s for Kahlúa liqueur, which is produced in Mexico, used tomb figures in the background.