The Seeds of Divinity: An Interview with Antonia Foias and Robert Rock

This spring and summer, the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) features an exhibition entitled The Seeds of Divinity, curated by Antonia Foias, Chair and Professor of Anthropology at Williams College, and designed by David Gürçay-Morris, Associate Professor of Theater. In the fall of 2017, students in one of Foias’s courses collaborated on the interpretation and display of the artifacts. As the exhibition text explains:

Pre-Columbian civilizations in Central America used the human body as a prism for understanding and depicting the supernatural. Artworks from the era portray a human head emerging from the jaws of a monster, the transformation of bodies into divine beings, and passage into the afterlife. Objects from five Mesoamerican civilizations—Maya, Teotihuacán, Nayarit, Zapotec, and Aztec—explore the spiritual and the sacred, plumbing the mutable line between humans, gods, and animals.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that contributing editor Ashley Elizabeth Drake conducted with Foias about the exhibition and its relationship to her broader research and teaching. The interview also includes responses from one of Foias’s students, Robert Rock.    

Ashley Drake: Can you describe the origins of The Seeds of Divinity exhibition? What was your motivation in making student collaboration and curation a key component of the project?  

Antonia Foias: I have long wanted to involve students in archaeological research, but it is close to impossible to take all of my students to the field in Guatemala. Therefore, I wanted to design an experience that would be similar to fieldwork in giving students an opportunity for close interaction with and exploration of ancient artifacts. Such interaction would, I thought, help them to discover not only the civilizations and peoples who created these objects, but also to ponder the function, meaning, and social life of these masterpieces, from tiny to monumental.  

AD: The exhibition explores concepts of divinity in Mesoamerica from 0 to 1421 CE. Each of the exhibition’s thirty-three objects exemplifies one of six main themes, ranging from funerary rituals to animal co-essences, in order to explore the human body as “a prism for understanding and depicting the supernatural.” How do the material objects on display serve to refract and extend our concept of personhood beyond the corporeal into the social and the divine?

AF: We wanted the exhibition to bring to light the distinct Mesoamerican worldview and its central concepts. One of these is the principle of distributed personhood: personhood does not end with one’s skin, but is distributed into objects that depict that person. A Maya stela rendering a ruler actually is the person of the ruler. A small figurine is the ancestor it depicts.

Another religious concept in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica is that everything in the world (except maybe plants and rocks) is alive with a life force that connects the divine to humans to lakes, mountains, clouds, rain, animals, trees, and crops. This life force is expressed through the concept of souls, and humans have multiple souls. One of these souls is an animal soul (called nagual among the Aztecs, and way or chanul among the Maya), which is portrayed by combining features from both humans and animals. Humans, especially rulers and priests, could also embody the gods, which meant that the soul(s) of the god intermixed with the soul(s) of the person. The human became the god, and this transformation is depicted on three Zapotec funerary urns that show rulers or priests wearing the masks of several gods, including the lightning god Cociyo.

The belief in this life force that connects everything in the universe means that everything is interconnected and interdependent. For Mesoamerican peoples, when they eat corn, they are actually eating the body of the maize deity (who was male for some cultures, female in others, and both male and female among other groups).

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Urn with male embodying lightning god, Zapotec, Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico, 600–800 CE. Baked clay. Gift of Susan W. and Stephen D. Paine, Williams College Class of 1954. Image courtesy of the Williams College Museum of Art.

AD: There are six audio stops placed throughout the exhibition where visitors can listen to rich descriptions, written and narrated by your students, of how the objects were once regarded, decorated, and used in each of the five civilizations. These audio stops go beyond providing basic background information on each object by blending elements from different sensory registers. They entreat the listener to “hear the drums beating” in a ceremonial house scene or to try “quietly growling back” at a coyote urn, ultimately animating the objects inside their glass cases. Both in your own scholarly work and in The Seeds of Divinity, how do multimodal experiences function to shape our interpretation of material culture?  

AF: The hardest part of archaeology is understanding the daily lives of ancient peoples, what their world smelled or  felt like. Thus, we tried very hard to bring the objects in the exhibition to life by showing visitors how they were employed in daily as well as ceremonial contexts. We often miss how complex these ancient societies were, including their musical and performative repertoire, because few records of such performances are preserved archaeologically or in written documents (if they had any). Their worlds were filled with smells, music, and dance, and we wanted to bring attention to these aspects of ancient life.  

Among the first objects that visitors encounter is a West Mexico architectural model of a ritual being held in a circular plaza in front of a building occupied by two drummers. Similar motions among the dozen or so participants in the ritual indicate that they are dancing, while three pairs of figures are pulling rods through their cheeks, an autosacrificial ritual in this region of Mesoamerica. The first audio stop begins with the invitation to “hear the drums beating” in order to bring visitors into that ancient world and ritual. The audio stops gave us an opportunity to bring the visitor’s full attention to the objects themselves rather than to reading labels about them. We hoped that by placing visitors as close as we could to the events in which these objects functioned, they could then feel close to the animate world in which ancient Mesoamerican peoples lived.

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House scene with musicians and dancers, Nayarit, West Mexico, 100 BCE–250 CE. Ceramic. Yale University Art Gallery, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Fred Olsen. Image courtesy of the Williams College Museum of Art.

AD: The exhibition does a remarkable job of bridging the past and the present, or what Paul Stoller (2015) describes as “being-there and being-here.” To what extent do you see the exhibition as a reflexive interplay between Mesoamerica and your class? How, if at all, might this reflexivity influence visitors—that is, in what sense are they also a part of “being-there and being-here”?  

AF: At the beginning of the fall semester, I told my students that I wanted to get as close to the minds of these ancient Mesoamerican peoples as possible, while remembering that it is impossible to completely remove our cultural biases. I wanted us to understand the worldview of these civilizations because, in the end, the way you conceive of the world and your place in it determines how you behave. That’s the “being-there” of the exhibit.

But I also wanted us to maintain a “being-here” reflexive attitude in considering that their worldview is alternate to ours, that it is not irrational, and indeed that maybe our worldview should be seen as the more irrational one. Another layer of the “being-there and being-here” approach in the exhibit is that we wanted visitors to know that the peoples that created these artworks are still with us: their descendants number in the millions; reside in Central America; speak Nahuatl, Maya, or Zapotec; and still subscribe to the same central religious principles as their predecessors.

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Example of an audio stop. Photo by Ashley Elizabeth Drake.

AD: What advice would you give to someone who is not a student of material culture, but who is interested in engaging with objects for pedagogical purposes? And what kind of knowledge do students glean from this type of project that might not be as readily accessible in a traditional classroom setting?  

AF: My perspective is that there is no better way to teach students about ancient civilizations than to give them the opportunity to research artifacts in museums. Such experiential education affords them a much more profound experience. Instead of looking at a slide of a Maya pot, they can hold the pot, examine it, and try to understand the people who made it. They have learned much more about the civilizations that made these objects than I would have been able to teach them through a lecture. My students formed close links to the objects they researched, and they keep coming back to the exhibition to look at the objects or to take friends or other groups on a tour.  

AD: Could you say something about the process of selecting which pieces would be included in the exhibition? Is there a particular object that you feel strongly about and, if so, why?  

AF: Once we decided that the exhibition would focus on how the human body is used as a prism for understanding the universe, the selection of pieces was easy, as all of the objects had to depict the human body. I also decided to narrow the number of civilizations to be included in the exhibition so that we could explore them in more depth. We opted to focus on Classic period (or later) civilizations because these cultures are best known from archaeological research, hieroglyphic texts, ethnohistorical documents, and ethnographic studies of their descendants.

It is hard to say which of the pieces is my favorite, but if you had to pin me down, I would choose the red-painted Aztec maize goddess. The stone sculpture is rich with symbolism, but the female goddess also exudes a powerful sense of peace, while at the same time being so completely human.

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Fertility Goddess, Aztec, Mexico, 1450–1521 CE. Stone. Worcester Art Museum, museum purchase. Image courtesy of the Williams College Museum of Art.

Each student conducted in-depth research on two or three of the objects included in the exhibition throughout the semester. This information was used to craft the object labels, audio stops, and exhibition layout. The following two questions were put to Robert Rock, who is a second-year student at Williams College.

AD: The exhibition starts on the exterior edges of the room and travels inward on a path that reminded me of a Fibonacci spiral, guiding the observer to each of the six thematic collections. What was the inspiration for the overall layout of the exhibition and for the highlighted themes?

Robert Rock: The layout of the exhibition and the themes we selected are deeply intertwined. We set out with the intent to communicate the experience of Mesoamerican spirituality and to craft a space in which the objects could attain a voice of their own, engaging the viewer in a meaningful visual-audio discourse. We sought to include visitors in this communicative process with respect to the prominent modes of experience in Mesoamerican spirituality.

As such, we presented collections around the themes of community scenes, figurines and domestic worship, instruments, animal co-essences, deity impersonation, and temple ceremony. We constructed the exhibition to physically resemble the axis mundi, a figure of interconnectedness in which all energy and spiritual force revolves around one central axis with an arm branching off in each of the four cardinal directions. The central pillar of the exhibition is meant to symbolize the axis mundi and, as the bearer of four significant and visually impressive objects, to serve as the point around which the exhibition revolves.  

AD: What did you find most surprising about the research process?   

RR: The most surprising part was my own enthusiasm. Although I expected working on a museum exhibition to be both interesting and academically stimulating, I did not anticipate just how thrilling the process of discovery would be. Uncovering the mysteries behind the artifacts became an obsession and, despite many hours of lost sleep, I found myself eagerly digging through a massive stack of articles to find answers. By the end of this process, I had fallen in love with Teotihuacan, produced a 135-page paper, depleted my printing budget, and most importantly, discovered my own passion for archaeology. Because of the joy I took in this process, I have decided to pursue archaeology as a career and will be attending an archaeological field school this summer in Varna, Bulgaria, where I will participate in the excavation of a Byzantine monastery complex. At the start of this project, I never would have expected that it would take me this far or shape my life so dramatically.      

Reference

Stoller, Paul. 2015. “The Bureau of Memories: Archives and Ephemera.” Visual and New Media Review, Cultural Anthropology website, March 20.