As part of its celebration of the Mexican Bicentennial, The Trammell Crow Collection of Asian Art is staging an exhibition called “Black Current: Mexican Responses to Japanese Art, 17th to 19th Centuries.” KERA’s Rob Tranchin reports that the show also has a lot to say about politics, religion and international trade:
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“Black Current,” is what Japanese sailors called the ocean current that for centuries carried Spanish galleons from Manila across the Pacific to ports in Mexico, or New Spain as it was called back then.
This small but fascinating show tells a dramatic story about a time when the prospect of making money and saving souls brought Europe, the Far East and the Americas together.
SMITH: “Well, I think that was one of the surprises was to recognize how much global exchange was part of life as early as the 15th Century—global exchange.”
That’s the exhibition’s curator, Caron Smith.
SMITH: “New Spain, Mexico, grew so quickly to a cosmopolitan community.
And I think there’s a misconception about the Manila galleon trade, that it actually used New Spain as a place of trans-shipment, when in fact, these goods were consumed in Mexico.
And there are letters written by women in the 17th century to their sisters in Spain, saying, ‘Oh, you can’t get in Spain what we can get here in damasks, and taffeta and silks!’ “
The exhibition showcases folding screens made in New Spain, Japanese chests with mother of pearl inlay made for export, and a series of paintings called enconchados that use mother of pearl but to a different purpose—the shell illuminates the surface from beneath the paint.
Smith says the show was organized around a deceptively simple question.
SMITH: “Well, I think the question is, “What happens when we encounter something new? What do we do with it?”
We experiment with it in ways. And we copy it. We learn how it’s done. We quote it for specific purposes.”
A four panel screen in the show from 1640 depicts life in and around Mexico City. The piece is clearly modeled on the Japanese screens that had made their way to New Spain and were valued not only for their exotic imagery, but for their everyday practicality.
SMITH: “The portability, the flexibility and the beauty provided a stimulus that set in motion what I think we see ultimately belongs to Mexicans cultural identity. You can identify a reference, or an inspiration or a point of departure, but what you find in the screen of Mexico City is so very particular to the Mexican environment. You see the different castas, or classes of people, represented in different places and in different relations to one another. So you have a social study of how Mexicans wanted to represent their city as an ordered community.”
Four hundred years ago, this kind of connection between the arts of Japan and New Spain was made possible only by trade winds and ocean currents. Today, in a world of instant communication and shipments overnight, Smith believes that the show’s central theme may be even more meaningful.
SMITH: “We can certainly see that change and integration of ideas and spontaneous movement in new directions can happen through exposure! So it says, “Get around. Keep your eyes open, and use what you see.”
“Black Current” is at the Trammel Crow Collection of Asian Art through Jan. 2.