Thursday, September 6, 2012

Face to Face With the Ancient Mayans

HCWDC Intern Reviews the Mexican Cultural Institute's Current Exhibit, Hina Jaina: On the Threshold of the Mayan Underworld

By Priya Dadlani

This past Saturday, I had a chance to visit the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, DC which is hosting an art exhibit called Hina/Jaina: On the Threshold of the Mayan Underworld from May 16th- September 22nd. The exhibit is three rooms large and filled with over 50 Jaina style figurines, which were discovered on the man-made island of Jaina off the northern coast of the Yucatan peninsula in the state of Campeche.  From 600-900 AD, this specific location was an extremely important Mayan ritual and religious site, where many sacrificial burials took place. The Jaina style figurines were some of the most interesting artifacts included in the burials on the island, although scientists have proven that the figurines were made in Jonuta, Tabasco- a well-known pottery center over 275 miles away.

The very intricately detailed figurines gave me a chance to get a little bit closer to the daily life of the Mayan people by illustrating their activities, dress as well as strong mythical and religious customs. The insight to the ancient Mayan civilization obtained from these fine clay figurines is unparalleled to any other Mayan artifacts from this time period. The Jaina figurines in the exhibit are especially telling because they depict the Mayans’ relationship between their man-made island, Hina/Jaina,  the underworld and their ancestors. The statuettes also depict life as it revolves around corn cultivation and water. Many of the burials, which included the Jaina figurines, were sacrificial infant burials, believed to bring food and water for all the people.

The Mexican Cultural Institute houses this exhibit on the first floor, and includes many photographs representing Mayan culture. All of the rooms contain many different styles of the Jaina figurines and no two in the exhibit are the same. Each sculpture is displayed beautifully in its own little section with informative plaque that tells the gender, meaning, and dress of the statuette. Unlike some art exhibits that have so many artifacts and paintings clumped together that you can’t stop and focus and really take in the richness of each small statuette, this exhibit gives each it’s well-deserved attention.

Each statuette has a unique face, dress and expression that is somewhere between  horrifying or peaceful depending on which you are looking at. From massive headdresses to jewelry to facial expressions, these little figurines bring the Ancient Mayan culture to life right here in Washington DC. I would recommend that anyone interested in Mayan culture or even in artifacts or art to visit this exhibit because there is none quite like it in our area. These Jaina sculptures are extremely rare and the traveling exhibit came directly from the INAH Regional Museum of Campeche, Mexico.

Apart from the amazing Hina/Jaina exhibit the rest of the floors in the Mexican Cultural Institute house murals painted by Roberto Cueva del Rio, a student of Diego Rivera, in the 1930s. The murals cover all the walls around the staircase on all the levels of the building. Painted with vibrant colors and depicting daily life in Mexico, these murals add to the experience of the Jaina sculptures on the lower level.

DC area residents should take advantage of this opportunity and visit the Mexican Cultural Institute before September 22nd, when the exhibit closes. When most people, including me, think about Mayan culture their minds may go straight to December 21st 2012, the end of the world as predicted by the Mayans' ancient calendar. But instead of connecting the Mayans only with their calendar readings, we could all benefit from learning more about the daily life of the people, their religious traditions, and cultural attributions. Their rich culture surrounding birth, death, reincarnation, corn cultivation, water, gods and ancestors is right at our finger tips at 2829 16th street, in an exhibit that can be explored in less than an hour. And if the world is really going to end in four months, the opportunity to learn more about the people who wrote our fate should be seized by everyone.