About this website

Despite the significant advances in modern scholarship on ancient American civilization that have resulted in ever-more-nuanced knowledge while firmly discrediting earlier false characterizations and misunderstandings, popular consciousness of the pre-Columbian past remains dominated by a number of incorrect—and often outright harmful—stereotypes, many of which perpetuate racist ideologies dating all the way back to the first generations of European writing about the cultures of the Americas. Even when represented in a more positive light, such as when an idealized Indigenous past is placed at the center of nationalist identity, the resulting reductive and romanticized characterizations can be equally misleading. In most instances, ancient American people and their cultures are held in juxtaposition with modern, Western society, whether as a negative contrast (e.g. barbarism vs. civilization) or in a positive light, as exemplars of a more noble and authentic way of life. More recent critical engagements by some artists and writers have directly grappled with—and posed challenges to—these conditions of representation and encounter of the ancient American past in the modern world.  

Created by Andrew Finegold (Associate Professor of Art History, University of Illinois Chicago), this website aims to document and analyze modern representations of and allusions to Pre-Columbian cultures and their material remains. Such appropriations are found across media, with examples occurring in both artistic and popular contexts and reflecting a wide range of motivations and attitudes. Of particular interest are questions of by what (narrative, formal, iconographic) means various characterizations were enacted at a given time and place, as well as of what work the representation of—or allusion to—the ancient Americas is made to do in any one instance: What associations are imputed to it? What connotations is it used to signify, and to what ends? By bringing them together in one place, individual examples can be situated in relation both the specific cultural contexts and moments to which they belong, as well as to broader trends in the ways the ancient Americas have been characterized and represented. In addition to being of general interest, it is hoped that this archive will prove useful to educators, both as a reminder of the manner in which the Pre-Columbian past circulates as a signifier in the contemporary popular cultural milieus encountered by students, and as a resource of material to use in class as potential entry points for discussions related to the issue of cultural appropriation.

This site is organized into two main areas. The first section consists of essays that analyze individual instances of art or popular culture that depict, allude to, or otherwise invoke the ancient American past. These vary in length and complexity, some consisting of a few hundred words and others containing multiple linked pages each addressing a different aspect of the example in question. The second section is a database that catalogues more than one thousand instances of art and popular culture that invoke the ancient American past, dating from more than a century ago up to the present day. As far as possible, each entry includes one or more images; data about the item’s creator(s), distributor(s), country of origin, date of creation, and other key information; and one or more links to online resources for further information. Each entry has also been included in one or more item sets to facilitate searches by culture, site, or other key terms of interest. By using the Browse pages, it is possible to sort the database in quite focused ways, for example: allusions to the Maya in Italian comic books from the 1980s. While the database is currently limited to mostly artistic and fictionalized allusions to or representations of the ancient Americas, it may be expanded in the future to include other categories of popular culture, such as advertisements, pop-archaeology television programming, literary travel accounts, and other non-fictional materials.

Your comments, suggestions, corrections, and other feedback are very welcome!

Contact: afineg2(at)uic(dot)edu
 

Acknowledgements

The development of this Omeka database and website was supported in part by an Award for Creative Activity in the Fine, Performing, and Applied Arts; the Humanities; and the Social Sciences, sponsored by UIC’s Offices of the Chancellor, Provost and the Vice Chancellor for Research.

Thanks to UIC librarians Sandy DeGroote and Kate Flynn for assistance with and advice about the Omeka platform.

Thanks to Ziad Ali, Kaveh Mohammad Rafie, Saksham Somani, and Claudia Weber for assistance with website development and design.

Thanks to Julian Adoff, Sarah Ahmed, Sydney Barofsky, Jailine Gomez-Mendoza, Rong Lin, Sean Loach, and Javian Walter for assistance with research and data entry.

And many thanks to Leobardo Álvarez, Sydney Barofsky, Kim Basile, Claudia Brittenham, Teri Carson, Kate Coe, Ramon Folch Gonzalez, Amanda Gannaway, William Gassaway, Jailine Gomez-Mendoza, Ellen Hoobler, George Lau, Rong Lin, Sean Loach, Olivia Lothary, Lois Martin, Zack Martin, Virginia Miller, Emmanuel Ortega, Jacki Putnam, Alanna Radlo-Dzur, Usha Rahn, Emmanuel Ramos-Barajas, Franco Rossi, Leonardo Ruiz-García, Adam Sellen, Yuko Shiratori, Andrea Vazquez de Arthur, and Theodore Watler for bringing examples to the attention of the site’s creator.