Melchor Pérez Holguín, Pietà (detail), Bolivia, c. 1720.
The LACMA’s recent publication Archive of the World: Art and Imagination in Spanish America, 1500–1800—a companion catalogue for an exhibition of the same name and the first comprehensive study of the museum’s notable Spanish American holdings—is a remarkable and important piece of work. 
Though many exhibitions of colonial art have occurred over the centuries, too few (especially in English-speaking countries) even attempt to acknowledge the pivotal influence of indigenous cultures on the artwork of the period. For too long, it has been common practice to view art produced in the colonies as a shadow form, a mere attempted reproduction, of some European ideal. 
Thankfully, Archive of the World presents a more balanced and well-reasoned approach to the era. Better yet, it has been lengthily documented in this splendid publication, something generations of scholars and researchers will surely utilize and build upon going forward.
 Archive of the World: Art and Imagination in Spanish America, 1500–1800. Written and edited by Ilona Katzew, the book includes a text about the formation of LACMA’s collection and nearly 100 catalogue entries by various scholars.
The book begins with a fascinating section that doubles as a focused study of an eighteenth-century Sewing or Jewelry Box and a broad preview of the exhibition’s ethos.
Written by the show’s curator and museum Department Head of Latin American Art Ilona Katzew, these introductory pages explain that the origins of this box and others like it have long been considered “slippery to categorize.”
Though its inlaid shell and red interior suggest the item is a product of Asain—specifically, Chinese—craftsmanship, items like this were exceedingly popular across Viceregal Latin America, particularly within the wealthy circles of Lima and Mexico City.
Sewing or Jewelry Box (Costurero o joyero), Guatemala (for export market, possibly Peru), last third of the 18th century.
Sewing or Jewelry Box (Costurero o joyero), Guatemala (for export market, possibly Peru), last third of the 18th century.
Scholars have presented a variety of theories regarding who produced this type of box. Many believe they were imported from the Philippines, another site of Spanish colonization. Others, that such items were produced in the wealthy Spanish American cities in which they were most popular. Yet, researchers associated with this show believe the box was made in Guatemala—a finding supported by “documentary and material evidence.”
One cannot overstate how important it is to acknowledge that this object, and so many others like it, “were intended to evoke—not mechanically copy—particular items by reinterpreting and combining distinct forms and uses of materials, often with the aim of surpassing the beauty and craftsmanship of their models.”
The incredibly complicated and long-misunderstood history of this particular object type is not unique. The dismissal of indigenous agency has been too common for too long in scholarship. In the words of Katzew, “Artworks created within a colonial context were often the result of a highly subtle process of negotiation and the creation of new symbolizations among the different social constituents.” It’s time to start acknowledging as much.
Anna Claire Mauney is Managing Editor for Art & Object. A writer and artist living in North Carolina, she is interested in illustration, the 18th-century, and viceregal South America. She is also the co-host of An Obsessive Nature, a podcast about writing and pop culture.
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