I enter the Olmec show at the de Young Museum with great anticipation. ("Olmec- Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico: Feb 19- May 8, 2011) The Olmec were the Mother Culture of all succeeding cultures in Mesoamerica. They arose in the riverine lowlands along the Gulf of Mexico in the the present day states of Veracruz and Tabasco around 1400 BC. Like all emerging "civilizations" east and west, they organized themselves around the cultivation of grains and their compiimentary crops. They developed specialized social classes, early forms of writing, and monumental art. There are many more questions than answers about the Olmec culture at this time.
Colossal Head 5 from San Lorenzo. Carved from a giant Basalt boulder. 1200-800 BC Discovered in 1946. Click on photos to enlarge.
When I confront the first large stone sculptures the first thing that I feel/think is "Africa". These awesome pieces just look African- in both in their features and their styling. However, this "African influence" idea is not the view of the current scholarly consensus. Although the web teems with independent researchers who claim direct African influence on the Olmec culture, there is little direct, conclusive evidence for that at this time. Apparently, material for DNA testing is scant.
Monument 8 (Twin II) 1200-900 BC from Loma del Zapote-El Azuzul- Represents a young Olmec ruler paying homage to a feline-jaguar diety. Does this not look Egyptian?
Corresponding in time with the Golden Age of Greece and the Zhou Dynasty of China, Olmec architects and artists produced the earliest monumental stone structures and sculptures in North America, including enormous portrait heads of their rulers weighing up to 24 tons.
Figure Wearing Incised Loincloth Mexico, Puebla, 900-400 BC. Greenstone. On either side of the skirt are paired signs that suggest a cosmic diagram with the figure himself as the central axis or "world tree'. Olmec artists were unsurpassed in their ability to work this hard stone with elementary tools of chert, water, and sand.
One of the most striking pieces for me was a carved relief, about three feet high that looked so natural and so graceful. I would love to know more about it, and I'm sure I'll be returning to the de Young for another encounter and hopefully some helpful lectures.
Olmec, Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico is curated by Kathleen Berrin, curator in charge of Africa, Oceana and the Americas at the Fine Arts Musuems of San Francisco and Virginia M. Fields, senior curator of art of the Ancient Americas at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.