"In the middle of the water where the cactus stands, where the eagle rises up where the serpent is torn apart, where the fish fly, where the blue waters and yellow waters join ... among the reeds where the battle is joined, where the people from four directions are awaited, there they arrived, there they settled...."
- an Aztec legend
A mythic homeland, as described in the poetic narrative above; geographical region as sought by the 16th-century Aztec leader, Montezuma; a rallying cry for the mid-20th century Chicano movement in the American Southwest; word that translates "place of the herons": Aztlan is both a place and an enduring cultural myth.
For many people whose ancestry lies in the American Southwest, Aztlan is also the answer to such fundamental questions as: Where do we come from? Where are we going? Who are we as a people?
A new exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), "The Road to Aztlan: Art from a Mythic Homeland," explores the power of myth and history to continue to deliver a sense of place and identity to people with ancient roots in this part of the world.
"Aztlan is a metaphoric center," says Virginia Fields, the curator of Pre-Columbian art at LACMA. "The concern it has with the importance of place and a dynamic engagement with the past continues today."
The mythic homeland of the Aztec people dates as far back as 1200 BC and endures in Aztec legends as a place of origin for all the native people in the region.
The earliest records show that Aztlan helped spread the knowledge of maize agriculture farther north.
The concept of Aztlan entered the Western imagination in the 16th century with the publication of the Spanish "Codex Boturini," a record of the search for Aztlan, a facsimile of which is in the LACMA show. The codex details the search to find and return to an abundant, nurturing homeland, similar to the biblical ideal of Eden.
The notion of a lush paradise led Spanish colonial expeditions north from Mexico City in search of gold. Feathers were considered a treasure in early Aztec culture, and rare feather paintings of Roman Catholic saints from the period show the two cultures blending.
When the Chicano movement of the 1960s awakened Mexican-Americans to their heritage, Aztlan became a rallying cry. The word appears in paintings and other works from that period.
All the pieces from the three eras represented in the exhibition - pre-Columbian, colonial, and contemporary - show the evolution of cultural self-awareness, from the pre-Columbian pottery and jewelry through colonial religious works and into the contemporary period, including striking works by Frida Kahlo and other modern Latin artists. These objects, perhaps the most powerful for contemporary audiences, show the persistent desire to belong.
"In this age of quick travel and globalized culture," says co-curator Victor Zamudio-Taylor, "this exhibit talks about the centrality of place, the importance of relationship to a place."
The quest to answer questions about myth and history is central to the show.
"Even in contemporary cities, myth and history are enmeshed," says Mr. Zamudio-Taylor. Los Angeles, he adds, where myth and physical destination have intertwined since the beginning of Hollywood, is a perfect home for the exhibition.
Interaction between myth and history is what ultimately allows people to feel a sense of spiritual as well as physical belonging, Zamudio-Taylor says. He points to a Kahlo self-portrait, in which vines creep up from the ground and wrap themselves around a reclining figure of the artist.
"She has become one with the landscape, literally, in this case," the curator says.
In a sequence of paintings by a contemporary Mexican painter, Roberto Juarez, he employs peat moss beneath layered abstract landscapes. "Landscape appears as a motif that evokes lyrical and poetic views of self and the culture," writes Zamudio-Taylor in the show catalog.
"This is a mapping of both private landscapes and public territories," says Mr. Juarez. "The theme of memory and sense of place is central to the Chicano experience."
While these are rooted in the Mexican experience, he says these multilayered worlds resonate for modern audiences.
"Our contemporary world is not as new or uncharted as we imagine," he says.
'The Road to Aztlan: Art from a Mythic Homeland,' continues at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through Aug. 26.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor