The Rijksakademie partners in Pressing Matter, a four-year research programme, coordinated by the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, that connects fundamental theories of valuation and property to postcolonial debates on heritage.
The goal is to develop and test new theoretical models of value and ownership and new forms of return that extend current approaches to heritage restitution. Participating artists are invited to think about the ways in which art practice can reimagine different forms of return, repair, and reconciliation broadly conceived, working with objects/collections in the project's partner museums – amongst others the Rijksmuseum and the Dutch National Museum of World Cultures – collected during the colonial period.
Other partners include, amongst others, Foundation Academic Heritage, the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, The Black Archives, HAPIN Papua Support Foundation, Framer Framed and the Peace Palace Library.
— 1 September until 30 November 2022 —
For the Pressing Matter Residency Daniel Aguilar Ruvalcaba proposed to work with one of the main pieces of the Central and South American collection of the Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden(NL): a Mexican skull decorated with turquoise mosaic that was produced in the 20th century but had been erroneously considered a Late Postclassic (AD 1300-1521) Mixtec artifact until the 21st century. For decades, the creation of this mosaic skull was attributed to the Ñuu Savi people: it was thought they made it before the Spanish Conquest. The skull was purchased on the art market so nothing was known about its origin before 1962. As a result, some questioned its provenance. So, the research conducted in 2012 by Dr. Martin Berger (Leiden University and Museum of World Cultures) was set out to determine if the skull was spurious or original. After all the results of studies and evidence at hand, Dr. Martin Berger concluded that the Leiden mosaic skull is a modern combination of authentic elements. A détournement of authentic pre-Hispanic materials —skull, mosaics— assembled with a modern type of glue —Shellac: Laccifer lacca—.
In the article, “Real, Fake or a Combination?”, Dr. Martin Berger recounts the history of the skull. This meticulous research is my principal guide for composing the biography of this object. According to Dr. Martin Berger, Dr. P.H. Pott bought the skull from a gringo dealer in 1963 while serving as director of the Museum Volkenkunde. The gringo dealer who sold the piece asserted it had been found in a tomb at an archaeological site near Teotitlán del Camino, a small town on the border of Oaxaca and Puebla, in Southern Mexico. Due to the finish of the mosaic on the skull, the piece was stated to be an authentic manufacture of the Mixtec / Ñuu Savi culture, dating to 1300-1521. Dr. Pott was seduced by it because it was ‘an object of such rarity and value that I would feel it wrong to reject this offer without first having made the utmost effort to obtain the resources to acquire it‘. So, he decided that the museum must acquire the mosaic skull without confirming its authenticity. He was fascinated with the beauty of it. It full filled the fantasies about Mesoamerican artifacts after discovering the treasures of the Tumba 7 of Monte Alban.
Finding that the mosaic skull is ‘fake’ affected how it is perceived, identified, and shown in the museum collection. I started questioning, can a fake be more Real than we think? What is a forgery forging? Is the Mexican State the biggest counterfeiter of the preHispanic past? And what can we learn from it? Is it possible to find the cultural descendants of this phony mosaic skull device? How to write a claim for restitution for a fabrication like this sort? What was happening in Mexico during the time of the Mesoamerican archaeology boom? How did the close relationship between archeology and politics after the Mexican Revolution play a role in the forgery market? Is the glue, this Modern, spurious element, something else than that? Could it be a forgery, perhaps a little more than that, a crucial site for an extemporaneous political fiction?
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