Artifacts from ancient Mexican culture displayed at de Young
By Matthew Gomez
Outside the Diego Rivera Theatre is a statue of a head that is linked to some of the oldest inhabitants of the Americas — the Olmec, an ancient civilization that lived in what is now Mexico.
The statue was offered to City College in 2004 by then-director of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco Harry Parker III. The museum received two of the colossal head statues from Veracruz, Mexico and decided to donate one to a local school.
The statue is a copy of the one displayed at the museum and was carved by Maestro Ignacio Perez Solano, who was granted permission by the governor of Veracruz to make such replicas.
“They really do look like human portraiture,” said Edgar Torres, chair of Latin American and Latino Studies at City College. “I hope that we keep adding more pieces that reflect different artistic traditions throughout the Americas.”
Reigning from 1400 to 400 B.C., the Olmec left behind relics and clues that tie them to multiple parts of Mexico, but their existence is mostly a mystery to archaeologists.
Kathleen Berrin, curator of a new Olmec exhibit at the de Young Museum, has collected 150 Olmec pieces that will hopefully help to answer some questions. The exhibit, Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico, will run from Feb. 19 to May 8 at the de Young Museum.
“There are many things we do not know about the Olmec,” Berrin said. “But we know they were a beautiful civilization.”
The Olmec left behind no written record of their existence, only the statues and artifacts that are still being discovered by archaeologists today.
The exhibit took three years to put together, said John Buchanan Jr., the current director of the Fine Arts Museum. The pieces came from 12 museums throughout Mexico and the collections of a few museums in the United States.
So far, 17 colossal head statues like the one at City College have been discovered. They were carved using no metals, and can weigh as much as 25 tons. Over half of them were discovered in San Lorenzo, Mexico, which is 40 miles from the source of the basalt rock from which they’re carved.
“It’s most commonly thought they represent rulers,” Berrin said. “It requires a very, very powerful leader to make this all happen.”
The pieces being displayed in the exhibit came primarily from museums throughout Mexico. This is the first time they have all been brought together in this way, and it will probably be the last.
“After this you’ll have to go to Mexico and go to 12 different museums,” Berrin said.