Chac Mool

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Artwork dimensions

height: 33cm
width: 40cm
depth: 20cm

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Accession method

Donated by Nadín Ospina 2003

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The Local, Global and Hybrid Icon

Colombian artist Nadín Ospina plays with local and global cultural icons in order to subvert preconceptions of art from Latin America. In the early nineties, Ospina’s personal quest to grasp the relationship between the contemporary subject and the region’s pre-Columbian past prompted him to travel throughout Latin America and explore original stone, ceramic and metal sculptures of this era. (1) One of the pieces that drew his attention was the Chac Mool, a distinctive icon in what is now Mexico that represents a reclining figure with its head facing forward, perpendicular to its body and holding a bowl on its stomach. In pre-Columbian times, it would have been a ceremonial stone found at the centre of Maya and Aztec pyramids which served as a table of gifts for deities ranging from feathers and alcoholic beverages to blood and human hearts. Nowadays the Chac Mool is an iconic symbol of Mexico’s tourist industry and can be found in souvenir shops on objects from key rings to fridge magnets.

In Chac Mool (undated), Ospina has replaced the body of the ‘ancient’ reclining figure, dressed as a warrior wearing a butterfly-shaped chest plate, with that of the modern Disney character Mickey Mouse, dressed in shorts, large shoes and gloves. The encounter between these two iconic figures sheds light on the infiltration of the culture of the United States into Latin America, challenging preconceptions of the region’s fantastical and untouched culture. For the execution of this piece, Ospina worked with famous Colombian specialist forgers from the town of San Agustín. Known for their skilled replicas, Ospina asked them to sculpt the reclining Mickey Mouse in the same style as their identical reproductions of pre-Columbian sculptures. Though sculpted in limestone and aged to emulate centuries of deterioration, Chac Mool does not intend to represent a messenger between mortals and deities which serves ceremonial purposes, nor does is it a multinational mass media corporation mascot that attends to marketing aims. Rather, it intends to be an original hybrid character, symbolic of the complex dynamics of cultural exchange.

Nevertheless, Chac Mool can also be understood as an updated Mickey Mouse. Perhaps it embodies the fears of enforced uniformity triggered by globalisation, and suggests that, slowly, everything will be Disney-fied. These ideas echo misconceptions of art from Latin America as derivative of the United States. Yet, Chac Mool owes its identity to the Mouse as much as to the Chac Mool. Its authenticity no longer lies in being faithful either to the United States or to the remains of pre-Columbian cultures. Instead, it relies on the fusion of characters of different degrees of ubiquity. Whilst the Mouse is known internationally, the Chac Mool remains a local icon. Ultimately, Chac Mool suggests that no matter how strong and pervasive a dominant culture intends to be, it will always be modified upon entering a different one. Perhaps, as in this case, even the Mouse changes its identity by getting a new name.

1. Pre-Columbian refers to the time before Christopher Columbus encountered the ‘Indies’ in AD1492.

(Text commissioned by ESCALA for the exhibition Connecting through Collecting: 20 Years of Art from Latin America at the University of Essex, 2014)

Gisselle Girón, 2014

Like Idolo con Muñeca, this stone carving reflects on the exchange between two cultures as represented by two figures: in this case the Chac Mool and Disney's Mickey Mouse, representing ancient indigenous culture and the newly invasive mass-media respectively.
The Chac Mool, a ceremonial reclining stone figure found in Maya and Aztec pyramids, is one of the most sacred and also most easily recognisable figures of pre-Columbian culture. In the coming together of these two figures as a hybrid character, Mickey not only lends his popularity to the pre-Columbian figure; it is a reciprocal exchange wherein the Chac Mool also endows Mickey with an aura of the sacred. This hybrid figure is ostensibly 'fake' but, as a representation of cultural relations between North America and Latin America, it is an authentic icon. Within contemporary dynamics the only common cultural place is the point of exchange and translation that this idol embodies; and it is no coincidence that the artist has chosen a figure that was believed to dwell at the four cardinal points. In other words, like the mass media Chac Mool is an omnipresent idol; ideal for a culture that is at once everywhere and nowhere.

Maria Clara Bernal

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