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Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico

Now Showing in Los Angeles

By Marita Adair

The  Olmec have arrived. Again. Three thousand five hundred years after their debut as a civilization, another  exquisite exhibition, Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico is front and center at the new Resnik Pavilion of the Los Angeles County Museum (LACMA) through Jan. 9, 2010. It’s been 15 years since the last pull-out-all-the-stops Olmec exhibit at Princeton University, “The Olmec: World Ritual and Rulership.” Since then the Olmec began revealing even more of their significant secrets.

This exhibition brings together not only the newest revealed secrets in the freshest scholarly research of this ever-changing subject, the Olmec who flourished 1400-400 B.C., but direct from Mexico, more than one of the famous colossal basalt stone Olmec portrait heads weighing between 7 and 10 tons each. Among the rarest objects is a carved wooden human bust buried in a spring-fed bog three thousand years ago. When it and 39 other wood busts were plucked from the muck in the 1980s, the news made headlines. Then came the carefully supervised, agonizingly slow, drying process. And now we can learn why they didn’t rot.

In all, the carefully assembled  exhibition showcases “more than 100 monuments, sculptures, adornments, masks, and vessels, many of which have never traveled beyond Mexico’s borders.”

Olmec hands created this magnificence with the rudimentary tools of  chert, water, and sand.

And we, through the brawny strength of modern transport, reap the visual benefits.

When a multiton Olmec head is moved anywhere, the question always arises about how the Olmec tussled these enormous pieces even an inch, much less from stone quarry and carving to placement, without knowledge of the wheel. It’s an ongoing puzzlement. But these days they are transported by multiwheeled flatbed trucks preceded by carefully orchestrated wrapping, crating, and lifting by crane.  The LACMA site provides a film of this process. beginning at the open-air Parque Museo La Venta (La Venta Museum Park) in Villahermosa, to the LACMA exhibition where children are gathered around the featured sculpture. It’s not one of the portrait heads, but we get the idea. And just in case we wondered how tricky it might be to put this exhibition in place once it arrived at LACMA, see behind-the-scenes installation photos at Among those photos is a sneak-peek of one of the wooden human busts once submerged in mud.

And we,  through the highly evolved modern printing process, reap the benefit of up-to-this-moment knowledge of the Olmec in the exhibition catalog published by Yale University Press.

I jest, of course. Not to trivialize the value and history of the printing process, but creating a catalog of this significance (or any catalog of a major exhibition for that matter) involves a tad more than printing. There’s a major assemblage of knowledge (specialized scholarship, sweaty, dirty digging, evaluation, and discussion), government and institutional cooperation, gathering and writing text, procuring permissions, and attention to detail. Oh yes, an editor, a publisher, layout artist, and a major pile of cash.

In the end, the birth process complete, from exhibition to catalog, the latest news of the Olmec is ours for the devouring  from the comfort of our lounge chairs, and/or at the exhibition itself.

From Los Angeles the exhibition travels to the de Young Museum in San Francisco, for display Feb. 19-May 8, 2011.

The exhibition is organized by Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, LACMA, and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. It is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

Anita Brenner’s Journals Published Two Volumes Rich in Detail and Illustration

Susanna Glusker and Anita Brenner

by Marita Adair

Avant-Garde Art and Artists in Mexico: Anita Brenner’s Journals of the Roaring Twenties (University of Texas Press, 2010) had it’s first public outing in San Antonio last week.

Edited and compiled by her daughter, Susannah Glusker, the splendidly illustrated work in two volumes, includes the years 1925 to 1930 when Mexico, fresh from Revolution, experienced a torrent of renewed appreciation of its history, culture, art and artists. Anita Brenner, then age 20 to 25, and intelligent beyond her years, became embraced early by the inner circle of that brilliant renaissance. The diary she kept swirls with the names of Mexico’s literati of the time, their gatherings, and her daily life and work as translator and writer. The book finishes in the 1940s as this renaissance matures and changes along with Brenner’s ever broadening world.

Glusker’s two other books inviting the world into her mother’s life and times include: Anita Brenner: A Mind of her Own (University of Texas Press, 1998) and Anita Brenner: Vision of an Age (Editorial RM, 2005) authored  with Carlos Monsivais. Avid students of Mexico recognize Anita Brenner’s name from her groundbreaking books Idols Behind Altars (1929) written when she was 24, The Wind That Swept Mexico (1943 ) at 38, her guidebook Your Mexican Holiday 1932) published at 27, and her magazine Mexico this Month (1955-1971). Her voluminous literary output also includes books for children illustrated by renowned artists in Mexico.

Without doing the numbers it’s easy to overlook the full scope of Anita Brenner’s powerful drive to learn, experience, and accomplish. Such focus. Despite being cut off financially when, instead of finishing college in the U.S. as her father wanted, at 18 she hied to her beloved Mexico in time for  induction into Mexico’s cultural renaissance that changed her life. Besides those early accomplishments mentioned above, at 25 she won a Guggenheim Fellowship, 1930-1932, to study Aztec art in Europe and Mexico, while also marrying. At 29,  two years after finishing the Guggenheim, she completed a Ph. D  in Anthropology  from Columbia University,without first earning a bachelor or master’s degree. She spent 17 years in New York before returning to Mexico to live and work.

When I literally crossed paths with Glusker, just  before she spoke about the book at the Instituto Cultural de Mexico in San Antonio, I had come to hear her talk about the new book. In that brief moment of quiet, before she was swarmed by San Antonio relatives and well wishers, I inched in a burning question. “Through the journals, did you learn things about your mother that you never knew?” She answered part then, and part during her talk that followed. Her mother was known by many people in many different ways. Michael Mehl, who introduced Glusker to the audience, worded the thought as “universal ownership of Anita.”

In our evening with Glusker she described the beginning process of reading her mother’s journals as part curiosity and part invasion of privacy.  The voyeur in me is overjoyed that curiosity won..

While she  wove a picture of Brenner, and the people who frequented their home, and/or who were mentioned in the journals, photographs appeared on a central screen, flanked by  two screens displaying photographic portraits of Brenner by Edward Weston and Tina Modotti..

Famous names populated Brenner’s world:  Dr. Atl, Francisco Goitia, Jose Clemente Orozco, Jean Charlot, Frida Kahlo, David Siquieros, Edward Weston, Tina Modotti, Carlos Merida and others including  “the fat man” Diego Rivera. When the portrait painted by Diego Rivera of Peter, Glusker’s brother, appeared, she quipped “I found reasons to escape being painted by the fat man,” mentioning his unpleasant body odor. Such are the memories from a child’s point of view. So undazzled by fame.

Near the end of her presentation Glusker  said, “I must confess, the most interesting part of her  life was her personal life.”

When question time I asked if there were questions she wished she’d asked her mother. Someone else mentioned her relationship with her mother. Like so many of us, she described their life as busy, stretched between overseeing the farm in Aguascalientes, Brenner’s writing obligations, and Glusker raising her own family. Then she reflected, “We don’t make time to talk to our parents when we can.” Later, in reference to her relationship with her mother, she added, “I didn’t have unresolved issues when she died; we were friends.”

And finally almost in answer to the unasked question “Do we  ever really know our parents,” appearing on the screen was the famed Edward Weston photo of  Anita Brenner’s nude backside bent into a pear shape (one of several similar poses taken the same day). The Brenner who Glusker knew was “prudish” and had written that she believed sex would destroy her creativity. An idea held by Brenner, age 20 in 1925, when the photo was taken. “This is the mother I didn’t know.” she said of the photograph. She recounted that her mother barely mentions the day in  her journal. Weston’s journal, however, describes the event in detail. He was shaving. She wasn’t expected. It was inconvenient, etc. But when he saw the pose, his artistic eye seized the moment..

Susannah Joel Glusker teaches Mexican Women of Note and Mexican Art of the Early Twentieth Century at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.

Anita Brenner’s papers are held at the University of Texas, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Austin, Texas. A full description of the Brenner archives can be found at:

Charles C. Kolb provides a  thoughtful review  of Glusker’s A Mind of Her Own at:

1,800-year-old tunnel found at Mexico’s Teotihuacan archeological site

By Marita Adair

A robot went exploring  under the Temple of the Plumed the pre-Hispanic Teotihuacan  archaeological site outside Mexico City.  Instituto Nacional de Archeologia Historica (INAH) officials announced last week. It rolled into a tunnel where mankind has not trod for 1,800 years.

Looking more like a miniature moon buggy, it slipped, through a small hole in an entrance that had been sealed off with rubble almost to the ceiling all those years ago. During its outing  the four-wheeled robot snapped photos of  at least three chambers just begging to be explored. This is the first time a robot has been used for archeological purposes in Mexico. Ground penetrating radar revealed the existence of the tunnel.

Teotihuacan, so magnificent to see even today, roughly 1,900 years after its founding, continues to deliver new information, new discoveries, and more for us see and ponder. Perhaps as many as  250,000 people lived there. Its influence spread at least as far as Guatemala where a Teotihuacan-type city, Kaminaljuyu, flourished,  and to cultures all along its path. Teothihuacan-style pottery has been found as far south as Peru.It’s known that some of those cultures established neighborhoods at Teotihuacan.

Discovery of this tunnel and chambers promises to reveal something  about those early years. Perhaps even some idea of what the Teothihuacan people looked like. Despite decades of exploration, we still don’t know for sure who the founders were or what they looked like.

Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea A Groundbreaking Exhibition

Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth
August 29, 2010-January 2, 2011
Saint Louis Art Museum
February 13, 2011 – May 8, 2011

By Marita Adair

It’s happening again. Revolutionary, knowledge-changing insights into the ancient Maya world.  Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea, an exhibition opening Aug. 29, 2010 at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, breaks new ground about the Maya and their relationship to water.  It turns out the Maya had an all-encompassing, birth-to-death-to-rebirth relationship with water and the cosmos that permeated their entire life view.

If scholars keep this up, soon the Maya won’t have any secrets.

Arriving from  it’s first venue at the Peabody Essek Museum, in Salem, Mass., Fiery Pool opens at the Kimbell for a a four-month run ending  Jan. 2, 2011. Plus, for an even firmer grip on the subject, the Kimbell is hosting a free, day-long symposium on Aug. 28, entitled Diving into the Fiery Pool: New Understandings of the Maya and the Sea. Just be prepared for “ah ha” moments when aquatic themed embellishments on architecture, jewelry and household objects suddenly reveal the mighty power of water throughout the ancient Maya world.

Co-curators of the exhibit, Daniel Finamore, Russell W. Knight Curator of Maritime Art and History at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass., and Stephen D. Houston, Dupee Family Professor of Archeaology at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island selected more than 90 artistically conceived objects to illustrate how the Maya embraced water in their interconnected natural and supernatural lives. Many of these, made in stone, clay, gold and jade, are so recently excavated that they’ve haven’t been shown widely. Others, we’ve seen in previous Maya exhibitions. But it’s all new in the context of  water as central to every aspect of Maya life.

That the Maya were seafarers and a riverine society is known. A look at the map of the Maya world, which stretches from southern Mexico into Central America, shows bodies of water on all sides. Ancient Maya ports have been located along shorelines north and south. Inland rivers, sinkholes, and canals were used in daily life. But now we learn that the water relationship extends far beyond trade routes, transport, and a food source.  Divided into four themes —Water and Cosmos, Creatures of the Fiery Pool, Navigating the Cosmos, and Birth to Rebirth—the exhibit brings new understanding to the numerous artistic aquatic expressions of the Maya..

A richly illustrated catalog accompanies the exhibit. And an  insight-filled film of the co-curators talking about their discoveries is viewable here. And for fun, try the glyph game by clicking here.

After the Kimbell, Fiery Pool will appear at the Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis, Mo., February 13, 2011 – May 8, 2011.

The Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts, organized the exhibition, which  is made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional support is provided by ECHO (Education through Cultural and Historical Organizations), a program of the U.S. Department of Education,
Office of Innovation and Improvement. The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

For more about the far-flung Maya lands and water trade routes visit

Olmec Symposium and Exhibit In Austin

Marita Adair

Olmec Symposium NOV 21-22

Austin, Texas

9-ton Olmec Head The Centerpiece

The unveiling of a gift replica 9-ton colossal stone Olmec head on Nov 19, at the University of Texas’ Mexican Center of the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies (LLILAS), in Austin, Texas is such a big deal, that it spawned a free, two-day Olmec Symposium on Nov. 20 and 21. It’s the first major Olmec symposium since the one held in 1996 at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C and it brings together a world of Olmec scholars.

They’ll reveal the latest discoveries about Mexico’s “Mother Culture” as it is often called, which flourished 1500–400 BCE.

The colossal head, that started it all, is a gift of the Universidad Veracruzana at Xalapa, Mexico to LLILAS, where it will be installed amidst great fanfare. It’s one of several such “gifts” in the U.S. The colossal heads are only part of the Olmec mystery, but an eternally intriguing one. Seventeen of them have been unearthed to date. See photos of all the heads and their diverse appearance at: The replica head being presented to LLILAS is of San Lorenzo Monument 1 “El Rey” considered a signature piece of pre-Columbian Olmec culture. What a clever and unforgettable “calling card” for Mexico’s vast pre-Hispanic cultures, and one of the most elusive of them all, the Olmec.

The enigmatic Olmec have provided such deeply buried clues that I never expected to learn much more about them my lifetime. Besides the unknowns of Olmec daily life and beliefs and mystery of their link to other Mesoamerican cultures, the Olmec left behind amazing stone sculptures, primarily in the state of Veracruz, but little in the way of pyramidal structures or writing. To my relief, scholars have been digging and unraveling some of the Olmec mysteries and will tell all at the symposium.

Here’s a sample of specific topics and participating scholars:

– Votive Axes and Celts in Formative Mesoamerica – John E. Clark, Brigham Young University

– Thrones – Ann Cyphers, Director of Research at La Venta

– Olmec-inspired Influences on the Nature of Early Maya Divine Kingship – Virginia Fields, Curator of Pre-Columbian Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

– Flesh of God: Maize and the Consolidation of Power in Mesoamerica – David Freidel, Maya scholar and Professor in Anthropology, Southern Methodist University

– A Glimpse at Olmec Rituals at La Venta, Tabasco – Rebecca González Lauck, Director of Research at La Venta

– La Blanca in the Olmec World – Julia Guernsey and Michael Love, authors of 2007 Monument 3 from La Blanca, Guatemala: A Middle Preclassic Earthen Sculpture and its Ritual Associations.

– Symbols of Power among the Olmec: Monumental Sculpture – Sara Ladrón de Guevara, Director of the Museo de Antropología in Xalapa

– The Origins of the Cult to the Sacred Mountain, Springs, Bodies of Water, and the Ball Game at El Manatí – Ponciano Ortiz Ceballos, Instituto de Antropología e Historia (INAH) in Veracruz

– Olmec and the Middle Formative Ceremonial Complex on the Rio Balsas Frontier – F. Kent Reilly III, Texas State University expert on the roll of Olmec rituals.

The Monuments of La Merced, Veracruz, and the El Cascajal Carved Block – María del Carmen Rodríguez Martínez, lead author of The Cascajal Block: The Earliest Precolumbian Writing

Other preeminent Olmec scholars have also been invited to attend, so this could be a chance to meet the most knowledgeable experts on this topic.

Students of Mexico’s museums and culture already know that the exquisite Museo Antropologia in Xalapa is the primary repository of Olmec remains, and rewards any visitor who sees it.

Details and reservation information for the free Symposium are at:

Placido Domingo Concert Update

Update on the Placido Domingo Concert
Chichen Itza, Oct. 4, 2008

By Marita Adair

 August 4, 2008. Placido fever is spreading, or so it seems. One message I read has a daily countdown to his Oct. 4 concert at Chichen Itza. There’s expectation that the concert will be a sellout and that hotels will fill. One source mentions 5,000 tickets will be sold, another reports 7,000 while the official release is mum on the count. One thing is certain, the grounds have ample space for either number.

 Below are reassuring organizational details from event organizers.

Placido Domingo will attend the dinner after the concert that’s included in the $1000 Premium VIP tickets.

At the archeological site, where the concert will be held, visitors can expect bathrooms, paramedics, strategic directional signs, assistance for those with disabilities, ushers, section assistants, sale of soft drinks, public telephones, and security.

Parking will be in five lots with shuttle transportation from parking lots to and from the concert entrance:

            Parking lot at the Archeological Zone

            At the Hotel Mayaland.  The Mayaland abuts the Chichen Itza grounds.

            At the old airport.

            In Piste (Piste 1). Piste is about a mile from Chichen Itza.

            At the baseball field (Piste 2).


The Placido Domingo site previews the concert and its setting at Chichen Itza, as well as the organizational arrangement for the concert at the site. All, of course, with Domingo singing in the background.

Tickets, available through, range in price from $50 to $1000. They should be arranged in advance of arrival since none are expected to be for sale at the concert or through travel agencies. The concert  will start at 8:30 p.m. and  end around 11 p.m.

Hotels with concert packages

A couple of hotels have already created special “concert packages.” The 18th-century Hotel Hacienda Xcanatun, near Merida, is offering a concert package that includes transportation to and from Chichen and a special evening of dining and music prior to concert day. The historic Hotel Hacienda Chichen, beside the Hotel Mayaland, and next to the ruins, plans a special dinner after the concert. Hotels as far away as Cancun and Cozumel are expected to participate and include transportation.

In the area

Of course, anyone who goes this far to hear Placido Domingo sing won’t want to concert and run.  To explore the latest information about the Yucatan Peninsula, go to The superior website is loaded with cultural as well as practical information including maps, and what’s new from haciendas, to food, to historic convents, to the latest in where to stay, eat, and relax.

As for Chichen Itza, an astounding amount of restoration makes it seem like a whole new site. Many of the fallen stones that littered the ground at the perimeters of many structures for decades have been put in place. 


Placido Domingo To Star At Chichen Itza

Placido Domingo To Perform  Oct. 4, 2008 at Mexico’s Chichen Itza
Tickets Available Now
By Marita Adair

Luciano Pavarotti appeared there in 1997.  So will Placido Domingo, Saturday, October 4, 2008. “The Concert of the Thousand Columns, Placido Domingo at Chichén Itzá, will feature the world-renowned operatic tenor using the same memorable backdrop as for Pavarotti: the “Temple of the Warriors” flanked by “ Group of a Thousand Columns” and opposite the ancient “Temple of Kukulkan” or “ El Castillo,” as it’s also knownSeating, under the stars, will be limited to around 5,000.  

Joining Domingo will be the Yucatán Symphony Orchestra, Yucatecan composer Armando Manzanero, Puerto Rican soprano Ana María Martínez, and  American director Eugene Kohn. Domingo made his debut at 16 in nearby Merida; his family settled in Mexico from Spain when he was 8. He will perform “Adoro created by Manzanero, classic opera, Mexican favorites, and Zarzuela.

The performance celebrates the 1500-year-old Maya site’s recent designation as one of the Seven Wonders of the World and 20 years as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Proceeds benefit preservation of Chichen Itza. Tickets are available now through (Search word: Placido Domingo). Prices are in Mexican pesos. For a rough estimate of the price in dollars, the conversion below uses 10 pesos to the dollar. Tickets must be purchased in advance through Ticketmaster and will not be available at the site or through hotels or travel agencies.

Three different levels of tickets are offered: Platinum VIP, Gold VIP, and General.
Platinum VIP costs 10,000 MXN pesos (U.S. $1000) and includes a welcome cocktail and dinner after the concert.
Gold tickets cost 7,500 MXN pesos (U.S.$750) and includes a welcome cocktail
General tickets are in four different zones:
Green zone    5,000 MXN pesos (U.S.$500)
Yellow zone  3,500 MXN pesos  (U.S. $350)
Purple zone   1,500 MXN pesos  (U.S. $150)
Orange zone     500 MXN pesos   (U.S. $50)

concert begins at 8.30 p.m. and ends around 11 p.m.Check with better hotels and travel agencies in Merida, Valladolid and Piste about transportation. The city of Merida is 75 miles southeast of the Chichen Itza archeological site on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The Chichen Itza archeological site lies just outside the small town of Piste, where there are also hotels. Valladolid, 25 miles east of Piste/Chichen Itza, is another option for lodging.

If you are wondering what such a concert might be like, and if organizers can accommodate a crowd of 5000, see this YouTube video of the 1997 Luciano Pavarotti performance. Reportedly 17,000 attended that concert.  For those of us who don’t live where Domingo regularly performs, this concert presents a unique opportunity to experience his voice in a magical setting.