Art is often used as a stand-in for historical information. To be clichéd, a picture’s 1,000 words fill in, correctly or not, so many muted expanses of an ever-fleeting past. Historical information, on the other hand, rarely stands in for art.
That’s not the case in New Mexico History Museum’s The Threads of Memory: Spain and the United States El Hilo de la Memoria. This bilingual exhibition, curated by Falía Gonzales of the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, propels sundry utilitarian documents, maps, illustrations, treaties and records to objets d’art. The result is both a show and history that are illuminating and intriguing, beautiful and brutal.
In a press preview, representatives from Spain—where the show had a highly attended debut—touted the importance of this exhibition to Spain and America’s continued relationship. The show smacks of, “Hey, remember me? I colonized you first.” But, then again, Spain did colonize us first, and there are hundreds of years of history, pleasant and awful, that refuse to go away.
In 1512, Juan Ponce de León was given permission by Spain to “discover and populate” Bimini, an island off Florida that became the geographical stepping stone for American conquest. More than 2½ centuries and countless enterprises later, Spain assisted America in its War of Independence against Great Britain. In 1821, the viceroyalty of New Spain became independent of Spain; the United States absorbed New Mexico, which, nearly 100 years later, would become a state.
Fortunately for everyone, many records from that era still exist. This archival exhibition bequeaths myriad historical treasures, gives them context and pale wood frames, and creates the artiest Art around.
Francisco Álvarez Barreiro’s chorographic map of New Mexico, replete with illustrated trees, houses and mountains, gives an inaccurate, but fantastic, account of the residing pueblos in 1727. An alliance against the Apaches is made between Gov. Juan Bautista de Anza with Comanche Captain General Ecueracapa in 1786, and is recorded by the latter’s bilingual son. He documents the conversation using Spanish as well as illustrations: Little mounds visually represent horses, while straight notches enumerate soldiers.
A graphite drawing, done in New Mexico by Sgt. Maj. Vicente de Zaldívar, of cíbolas—or buffalo: the weird, monstrous cows found when the Spanish were looking for the Seven Cities of Gold—suggests just how novel this new world was. The Spanish government commissioned Giuseppe Perovani to make a large-scale oil portrait of George Washington to commemorate the Treaty of Friendship between the US and Spain. A comparative view of the United States tabulates the population and territory of the states that formed the country in 1792.
The exhibition includes magnifying glasses to inspect further the curious intricacies of recorded history. Pieces especially relevant to New Mexico feature note cards to bring the past home.
Though the exhibition presents a one-sided history that excludes the subaltern viewpoint, it’s an honest representation of surviving documents, whose very human errors (inaccurate maps, stereotyped representations of Natives, visions of golden cities) glaringly point to those other missing histories.
On now-faded paper and with expert craftsmanship, penmanship and finesse, these maps, illustrations, notations and other historical documents showcase human existence in all its fury, love and wonderment. Such feelings are inextricable from these objects, made at once for utilitarian purposes, but with clear care and precision. Perhaps the Spaniards were aware of their works’ import, but it’s unlikely they fully considered their artistic value—it was just their part of history.