For Phoenix Artist, Ancient Mexican City Teotihuacan Inspires Creativity
Artist Diana Calderon used a small brayer to spread dark ink on a glass plate.
“Most of my work is about crossing barriers and borders and boundaries,” she said.
Born in Mexico, Calderon has been migrating for much of her life, which made her feel displaced while growing up.
On a recent Wednesday, Calderon stood in the courtyard of Phoenix Art Museum, making a print from a linoleum carving that was inspired by a trip to Teotihuacan.
“I was really drawn to this architectural masterpiece,” she said of her visit to part of the site called Quetzalpapálotl.
Calderon would normally have to travel to Mexico for this kind of artistic stimulation. But right now she can get at least a touch of it inside the museum, where artifacts from the ancient city are on display.
“It’s just more than exciting to have a piece of that, here in Phoenix, here in a museum,” she said.
Phoenix is the temporary home of an exhibition of archaeological treasures also regarded as fine art. The collection is from Teotihuacan, the ancient city in Mexico the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has designated a world heritage site.
In its prime, Teotihuacan was a diverse city with migrants, like Calderon. More than 2,000 years old, it has become an integral part of Mexico’s national identity.
Teotihuacan’s secrets are still being unlocked. Some artifacts in the exhibit were excavated from a tunnel discovered less than 20 years ago. They may just be the tip of the iceberg of what’s in the underpass, said Gilbert Vicario, Selig family chief curator of Phoenix Art Museum.
“It will probably be a 30-year project to really unearth everything they’ve discovered in that tunnel,” he said.
Vicario went to Teotihuacan for the first time as a 13-year-old visiting family in Mexico City.
“I was so excited, I ended up stepping on my retainer,” he said. “That was kind of my inclination. I was always drawn to art.”
Teotihuacan was home to a migrant population, according to a guide of the exhibit published by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco de Young. There’s evidence Teotihuacanos spoke multiple languages and practiced different religions.
Trade routes stretched to the sea and Central America, Vicario said.
“So the Zapotec Indians of Oaxaca had an influence in Teotihuacan, the Olmecs, the Mayans,” he said.
The state of Teotihuacan collapsed around the year 650. There have been multiple excavations since. The most recent dig, which Vicario said was a key reason for bringing the exhibit to Phoenix, started after rain opened what appeared to be a sinkhole.
The pit turned out to be a tunnel leading underneath the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, a symbol adopted by the Aztecs, who also came up with the name Teotihuacan.
“(The Aztecs) ended up naming a culture that really left nothing,” Vicario said. “They left no evidence of a written language, and it’s really been just a puzzle to try (and) put together who they were, what they stood for, what was left behind.”
The Aztecs’ recovery of Teotihuacan was one of several key points in history, said Seonaid Valiant, curator of Latin American Studies at the Arizona State University library.
“Teotihuacan is a historically significant site because since the time it was built, it has been in use as either a political or religious site,” she said.
Another key development came about a hundred years after Mexico’s independence from Spain. Teotihuacan was part of a broader government strategy to separate the country from the colonizers.
“They started promoting the indigenous symbols as a way of creating their own national identity,” Valiant said.
The result of the effort, which included an excavation of the site, as well as some revising of history, survived Mexico’s revolution. Folk movements in the 1920s and 1960s helped bolster Mexico’s pride in its indigenous roots. Now living in a modern country, young Mexicans still feel a strong connection to Teotihuacan.
“And you are accustomed to a lifetime of seeing these iconic images over and over again,” Valiant said.
As daylight faded in the courtyard of Phoenix Art Museum, Diana Calderon used a small press to make a print of her carving inspired by Teotihuacan. The 2016 trip led to a personal breakthrough with her art, which has taken her career in a positive direction.
“I became more brave with my own work,” she said. “I was already working on being honest and vulnerable with my work. But it just gave me the extra strength to be brave, because I was afraid to be me.”
Calderon plans to migrate back to Teotihuacan in 2019. For now, she can draw inspiration from its artifacts on loan to the Valley of Sun.