Art is also politics. And how. It was when Moctezuma and Hernán Cortés met in the Mexican territory in 1519. The tlatoani gave precious gifts to the white bearded man who in this century return to the center of the dispute between countries on a recurring basis. Those sumptuous presents were dispersed throughout the world and the thing was just beginning. Mexico today has a rich heritage distributed by museums on several continents due to colonialist marketing, archaeological robberies, the robbery of nineteenth-century travelers, laziness or the need of the natives and other forms of trafficking with what is not one, but of all.
The historian Beatriz Gutiérrez Müller has been sent by her husband, the Mexican president, on a trip to Europe to borrow part of those historical objects that are preserved in distant Italian, German, French museums … Andrés Manuel López Obrador wants them to return to its territory to be exposed, next year, on the occasion of several patriotic anniversaries, but especially the fifth centenary of the Spanish conquest. It is about showing the artistic, cultural and scientific greatness of those peoples that Cortés found so exotic. And incidentally, give a push to the recovery of the heritage “usurped” or “plundered”, as has been said from the Government.
500 years have passed and the relationship between art and politics cannot be the same. Take this example: Los Angeles is the second city with the most Mexicans in the world, they represent 80% of the Latinos in the county. Many of them visit the LACMA every day, a museum with an exceptional collection of Latin American art. And Mexican. Are those unlucky to visit your valuable artistic past at your place of residence? The museum’s deputy director, Diana Magaloni, thinks so. Recovering a heritage does not necessarily mean moving it to its territory of origin, and offers this conciliatory formula to smooth things over. “It would be a matter of making a record in Mexico of the heritage that belongs to it, of cataloging all those scattered objects under its ownership and reaching agreements with countries and museums so that it remains there under Mexican ownership, which would prevent their purchase, sale and other assignments without prior permission. In return, Mexico would have exceptional artistic consulates in those art rooms in the middle of the world where the art of native peoples would dialogue with that of other worlds as equals. Are there better ambassadors?
Magaloni does not rule out that some objects have to return to Mexico, but he is aware that if the entire world returns to each country what it owns by origin, it would be comparable to a planetary earthquake. Not to mention other practical or justice considerations. Magaloni, responsible at LACMA for the Ancient America and Conservation program, says that the Codex Fiorentino In 1577 that these days Italy is claimed was considered by the Catholic Church after the conquest as “a work of the devil” and left Mexico to take refuge in Europe from the divine flames. “They kept it there and appreciated it. It could belong to Mexico, but perhaps it is justice that it continues in Italy, “he says.
Disagreement is de rigueur between art experts and historians. The idea that Magaloni raises is not from today. Years ago, well-known people in Mexico gave birth to her: a man of law, Alejandro Gertz Manero, the current attorney general, the renowned archaeologist Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, and herself. In some conferences at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), what was discussed “was ready for a regulation to be enacted” on the registration of the dispersed treasure. But no progress was made on it. In 1972 Gertz Manero was one of the authors of the Mexican Law of Historical Monuments which declared that all pre-Hispanic objects belong to the nation and cannot be bought or sold. It was about tightening regulations from the 40s that offered cracks when it came to controlling the traffic of ancient art.
“If it was shown that something had left Mexico as of that year, it had to be returned,” says Miguel Gleason, an independent researcher on Heritage. Demonstrating when an object left a country is not easy. You can find a work at auction in France, and claim it, but sometimes that only causes a diplomatic problem that often win the same countries that once filled museums with art from remote places. In these times, a smooth diplomatic relationship is more effective than bravado.
Gleason is in favor of that at least those objects that are unique in their category remain or are returned to their places of origin. Moctezuma’s plume, to Mexico, the Parthenon frieze housed in the British Museum, to Greece. “Politics is very influential, for something the best collections in the world are in countries like France, Great Britain or the United States,” he says. “The objects should be, preferably, where they appeared and close to the descendants of those who made them. At least among those who can prove that they left illegally ”, adds the researcher, who joins the Unesco guidelines on the World Heritage Site. He is also aware that such a disrupted world cannot be suddenly ordered. “I am not for everything to return, it also makes me proud, as a Mexican, that there are objects from my country in the temples of world culture, they are cultural ambassadors”, agrees with Magaloni. “There would not even be warehouses to store everything if it came to Mexico,” adds the Conservation expert.
Both praise Gutiérrez Müller’s diplomatic activity for Europe. “It may be difficult to bring results, but there is no worse fight than the one that does not happen,” says Gleason. “It is important that pressure is exerted,” he adds.
Not all cultures have the same understanding of their art. In the case of Mexico, the opinion of the native peoples who created them and how they feel their loss is of vital importance. At the beginning of the 20th century, the savvy US consul Edward Thompson dredged, with machinery that the locals did not have at all, the sacred cenote at the archaeological site of Chichén Itzá, in the Yucatan peninsula. He took out jewels of all kinds that ancient peoples threw there in rituals. “That is sacrilege,” says Gleason. “In this debate we should take the original vision of those who made those pieces and consider the opinion of their descendants,” adds Magaloni.
There are several ways to remove priceless antique pieces from a country. Gleason has them listed: as spoils of war (illegal); drawn by the colonialists under their rule (confused); gifts (legal); theft or looting of archaeological sites, very common in the nineteenth century (illegal) sale (legal or illegal); from an archaeological mission in which another country intervenes (some legal, others illegal).
More practical in current times are the formulas proposed by this expert to recover what left its original place: through a friendly return. It’s rare, but Pope John Paul II returned to Mexico on CCruz-Badiano odex. The most valuable, which Gutiérrez Müller is now asking for, are still in the Vatican. The second proposal is for someone to go and steal them, says Gleason. It already happened in the eighties, when the lawyer José Luis Castañeda stole the Aubin’s Codex Tonalamatl from the National Library of Paris and returned it to Mexico. Great unsolved diplomatic conflict yet. You can prove the illegality with which you left your place of origin, continues the expert, or initiate diplomatic agreements; it is also plausible to negotiate when the wind is blowing in your favor. The exchanges may be more comparable in kind, for example, one piece for another of similar value. And you can always resort to purchase, by the State or some wealthy who brings it to their museums in the country, see Slim.
The Moctezuma plume is difficult to fix due to its delicate condition, in which Austrian and Mexican experts agree. Such a trip would pluck it and it is a unique object of feather art that astonished Europeans because they did not know those techniques or those birds. The plume has become the symbol most coveted by Mexico, where political voices almost deposited reparation for the “wrongs” of the conquest. And it is in this tone that Magaloni disagrees: “Today we can no longer pose that in terms of conquest, or repair of damage caused, or usurpation.”
Whose plume is it, Moctezuma?
Historians can be used to shed some light on that 1519, when two men are amazed by the other’s appearance. An impression impossible to experience in this century. It is known that the tlatoani, the most powerful lord of the Mexica, a brave warrior who did not usually receive enemies, welcomes the Extremaduran with postinero entertainment and gives him dozens of gifts. Or were they not strictly gifts as we understand them now? “Yes they were, it is the tradition of those peoples to give gifts when establishing relations that today we would call diplomatic. And they were very sumptuous because with them they implied who was the mighty one, who ruled there. It is quixotic to think that they handed them over because they believed the visitors were magical, ”begins Miguel Pastrana, from the Institute for Historical Research of Mexico, UNAM. There is no reliable documentation that proves whether the famous plume that Austria wears today was one of those gifts or if it left Mexico with other tricks. “There was no catalog, as now, it could have been another similar one that was delivered.” “It is probable, but it is not known,” he concedes.
For María Castañeda de la Paz, from the Institute of Anthropological Research, which these days ends with her husband, Michel Oudijk, from the Institute of Philology, a publication on Moctezuma’s accused religious beliefs. This vision of the tlatoani as an extremely religious man, attends the story of the gift given to a being that they presumed sent by the god-man Quetzalcoatl, the great Mexican deity who led the Aztecs to what is now Mexico City and was He went through the Atlantic Ocean promising to return. Some representations draw him bearded like Cortés, recalls Castañeda de la Paz. “Moctezuma had already made inquiries about those strangers who arrived on the coasts of Veracruz. Cortes himself writes to the king saying that they were made to believe that they were emissaries of the one they were waiting for. How can it be explained if not that they opened the doors and received them in a ceremony with all the honors, that they were accommodated in the best palace and that they were given the clothing and accessories of four gods? ”, Asks the historian. “In fact, the second time he receives it, he submits as a vassal and asks the nobles to do the same. Moctezuma was very religious and grieved by the consequences of not doing the right thing. If it was shown that Cortés was the envoy of that deity, he should give him the throne, ”continues the historian. Then it all ended in tremendous battles that were called conquest, as is known. But Castañeda de la Paz does not doubt that Moctezuma’s plume was among those present that Cortés received. Whether that is enough to claim it from Austria or not is a debate that he believes belongs to others.