Indigenous Visual Cultures and Aesthetic Practices in the Americas’ Past and Present

By Sanja Savkić

The volume “Culturas visuales indígenas y las prácticas estéticas en las Américas desde la antigüedad hasta el presente” brings together fifteen essays in three languages (Spanish, English and Portuguese). It is published both in print and online open access formats. This collection of academic articles aims to promote an interdisciplinary dialogue by bringing together different areas of knowledge and inquiry regarding the specificities of indigenous visuality in the Americas in its historical dimension; to rethink some ‘old’ problems and offer some ‘new’ directions, encouraging and enriching the generation of knowledge in the humanities and social sciences; and to insert its effects in the framework of the studies of the visual throughout the world.

The book is available open access here.

In using the word indigenous it is not our intention to generalize the enormous cultural diversity of the peoples that have lived and continue to live in the Americas, which constitutes a veritable kaleidoscope in terms of its various productions and practices. Following Tripura,[1] the notion of ‘Indigenous people’ is meant to serve two main objectives: to replace various pejorative terms used in the past to refer to the communities that were placed under the new designation; and to promote and protect various rights denied to these peoples for centuries within colonial states and projects. Since the general category of ‘Indigenous people’ includes several societies with different histories, it is not possible to speak about their ‘culture’ as a single concept. Even within a single ethnic group with strong historical continuities—e.g., the Maya—we cannot speak of a homogeneous culture across time and space. Nevertheless, at a certain level it is possible to speak about ‘Indigenous culture’ in the singular because, having undergone similar historical trajectories, practically all Indigenous groups embrace a set of fundamental cultural ideas including, for example, cosmologies that privilege the stewardship and protection of the natural environment as opposed to its unrestricted domination and exploitation, as well as the bestowing of agency to the various things/beings that constitute the cosmos. Similarly, the Amerindian communities maintain a complex relation with modern national states, which have been organized following European political, economic, cultural and religious models . Thus, in the term’s strictest sense, ‘Indigenous’ makes reference to native groups whose own practices are distinct from those of European culture,[2] which are exogenous in nature. Therefore, the designation ‘Indigenous’ here is intended to show what is particular to the productions and practices examined in this book and, with it, how enriching they are to the field of visuality in the world; what is not sought is exoticization and isolation.

That said, ‘Indigenous’ in this volume refers just as much to the communities and their languages and productions as to practices of various kinds that were already present on the American continent before the arrival of the Europeans (pre-Columbian period). It also includes those manifestations made by peoples who survived the expansion of Western civilization after the contact between two worlds at the closing of the fifteenth century (Colonial or Early Modern period [within the framework of a global chronology]). Likewise, it encompasses groups from recent times—roughly speaking, from the nineteenth century on (Modern and Contemporary periods)—which belong to organizational traditions other than the modern state, as well as individuals whose productions are informed by ideas of ancestral knowledge and attitude. As Julie Nagam rightly argues in this volume, “[w]e are not stuck in the archaic past, nor are we out of time. Instead, we are constantly moving throughout time and space with the knowledge of the land and the stories we hold.”[3] Similarly, contemporary Indigenous art synthesizes new relationships within past and present, native and colonial forms of experience, participation and spectatorship. Thus, the Indigenous offers ‘an additional way of being’ for Aboriginal, Native or First Nations peoples, or ‘a new mode of being Native.’ Whether it stands between colonial and native, between past and present or between local and international, Indigeneity is a site of contention and agency.

Figure from Johannes Neurath’s essay (p. 276): Bird-man with snake arms. Cup 238 of engraved marine snail shell, Braden B style, Spiro, Oklahoma. Drawing by Acelo Ruiz Villanueva, 2018.

Speaking of visual culture raises the question of the concept of image and its functioning. The difference between Amerindian and European traditions concerning the image gave rise to the need to understand native images. In Indigenous thought, through ritualized artistic creation images/objects embody sacred forces and acquire the power to act. The study of ritual art has become a strategic field for new transdisciplinary practices, because it is there where it is especially evident that images are never ‘simply’ images: ritual objects not only ‘represent’ but have a tendency to ‘present’ powerful beings. Therefore, aside from producing figurations that can often be read from a symbolic plane, artistic creation engenders creatures with their own life and will, as Neurath argues.[4] Some Amerindian concepts of image, which imply a set of ideas that are rarely addressed in studies of the visual outside this area in spite of their profuse historical-visual heritage, are: b’aah,[5] known to us from Maya hieroglyphic inscriptions from the Classic period (AD 292–909); ixiptla, the Nahuatl word which is among the best known pre-Columbian concepts to address the subject of the image;[6] nierika, one of the most important notions in the study of modern Huichol art;[7] unancha and waka, terms used in the Andean area to allude to the notions of representation and ‘presentification,’ respectively;[8] or kene, demi and yuxin, a trilogy of concepts of the modern Huni Kuin (Cashinahua) from Amazonia, which may be translated as graphism, figuration and spirit, respectively.[9]

The concept of visuality, concomitant to the notion of the social (in contrast with what would be a scientific study of sight), questions the idea of universality and progress in the art of seeing/showing, given that visuality is—beyond anything else—a phenomenon related to local knowledge. From this perspective, this volume examines those visual cultures that are foreign to the European model, from different periods and places, their standards of seeing and looking which, in this specific case, are the Indigenous visual cultures of the Americas.

Further, this volume works with the concept of aesthetic practices, which combines two terms that allude to two distinct and rather separated discursive fields: philosophy and sociology. This works against a disciplinary isolation of art history and visual studies and tries to bring them into a dialogue with related fields, including anthropology and archaeology. Investigating artistic productions and artifacts from a praxeological point of view means to study them in processual, temporal dimensions and in relation to, but not in dependence on social practices, economy, politics or religion. The aim is to understand societies and groups, but also individuals, through their actions, rather than through structures. If conceived in praxeological terms and tested in a plurality of fields, working with a notion of aesthetics might be a tool to understand processes of creativity and their possible social dimensions in broader perspectives – those of making as well as those of perception, transformation and use.

Terminologies, linguistic and aesthetic concepts, translations and transformations, and rituals are recurrent topics in the essays addressed in this volume. It is part of an opening and reconceptualizing of the disciplinary field of (plural) art histories and visual culture studies within the ‘global turn.’ As a collaborative endeavor, the essays in this volume look into various forms and problems of aesthetic practices within, among, and beyond indigenous visual cultures. They invite readers to think through Amerindian visual cultures, past and present. Their aim is to open new and fruitful discussions across disciplines and among scholars and to incite a critical engagement with artistic and aesthetic processes and productions, historical and contemporary.

The essays in this book

The essays collected in this volume are the results of the individual research of scholars whose works focus on the Amerindian world’s visual manifestations and aesthetic practices past and present. In order to maintain the diversity of perspectives and considerations, the essays were not grouped along chronological or geographic-cultural divisions. At the same time, several studies bring together the results of their authors’ personal field experiences. Although each of the essays—specifically and from the perspective of their own goals—deals with the general subject of ‘Amerindian visuality’, they all share the combination of certain principles stemming from different disciplines, which has allowed contributions of a theoretical-methodological nature.

The book’s first section, called “Cosmologies and Visual Histories of Power: To Name and to Show”, explores productions both from the pre-Columbian past and from the period following the Conquest. All four essays address the subject of power in socio-cosmological terms and the ways to articulate them visually. These studies combine tools from different disciplines in order to address ‘what is said’ and ‘what is seen’. In this context, one finds possible answers for the name of an ancient city in the modern State of Guatemala by bringing various types of sources—i.e. visual and verbal—into play (Ruud van Akkeren); the ‘reading’ of a pyramid—which has come to us in a severely fragmented state—and its iconographic program in the Highlands of Central Mexico, by contrasting archaeological evidence with other material remains (Debra Nagao); the comparison of a pre-Hispanic codex with a book written/painted in New Spain, in search of a better understanding of the ancient image in its manner of alluding to ritual (Alonso Rodrigo Zamora Corona); or a painted wooden vessel that is the product of the encounter between the Old and New Worlds, by combining Andean socio-cosmological and Spanish/European socio-religious thoughts (Andrew D. Turner).

The second section called “Perceptions and Creative Interventions in Urban Spaces” is composed of two articles that address questions of space, place, perceptions and creative ‘native’ interventions, and their possible effects on observers/users in different urban contexts — one touches on the pre-Columbian past, the other on modern times. Through an analysis of the ‘pure form’ of the architectural remains in two Maya cities, which are integrated into and transform the natural environment, the first essay by Arianna Campiani posits that buildings and their placement are ‘capable’ of guiding people along intentional routes, thus adding signification to these spaces. The second essay by Julie Nagam puts forward questions such as: How has public art facilitated and questioned the illusion of territorial ‘discovery’? What role can the narration of indigenous stories and contemporary artistic practices play in disrupting the ‘official’ language perpetuating colonialist practices?

Figure from Els Lagrou’s essay (p. 308): Huni kuin stool with various motifs including xamanti kene (joining legs). Photo: Els Lagrou, 1995.

The third section is composed of five articles that underscore the connection between art/image and ritual. In this intersection we can also find the impact of the ontological turn coming from anthropological studies and the possible analogies between visual/material culture (from different times and peoples) and the ontological principles described in the ethnographic framework as well. The status of ‘representation’ is not inherent to the (plastic) image, but rather depends on its role and function in the contexts of its circulation/usage. In this sense, an image becomes ‘presentification’—i.e., a being with a ‘social agency’ that is specifically linked with the maintenance of cosmic order—inasmuch as having a capacity to ‘cause events’ that affect the lives of those who interact with it. This implies the attribution of interiority, an awareness from which an intentionality emerges. The articles by Marcia Arcuri, María Alba Bovisio, Johannes Neurath, Els Lagrou and Antonio Reyes address this subject in connection with diverse materials from Amerindian cultures, both archaeological and modern.

Figure from Bianca Monserrat Castillero Vela’s essay (p. 372): Original miniature costume made by Jan Cristhian Ferrer. Photo: Bianca Monserrat Castillero Vela, 2015.

The contributions to the fourth section, “The Encounters of Past and Present: Mobile Memories” address appropriations, transformations and inventions of memory in its visual (and textual) productions, connecting the remote past with the present, but always creating new manifestations (and practices) and never mere copies. Verónica Cereceda investigates how modern textile designs from the Jalq’a area of Bolivia link rock art imagery from the remote past with modern-day textiles, thus witnessing the survival and re-signification of an old motif from indigenous memory. Bianca Castillero’s essay approaches the various traditional Mazahua attires which combine and integrate elements from current Otomi culture in novel ways and hint at clues of an original pre-Hispanic culture. According to José Luis Pérez Flores’ contribution, the history of the Conquest as narrated in book XII of the Florentine Codex vindicates a ‘new’ memory, and raises questions concerning what is authentically indigenous in the documents written by members of conquered ethnic groups from the 16th and 17th centuries. The last article by Élodie Vaudry deals with the problems raised by the use of pre-Hispanic (Mexican and Peruvian) arts in the production of (European) decorative arts.


Sanja Savkić, ed., en colaboración con Hannah Baader [in collaboration with Hannah Baader], Culturas visuales indígenas y las prácticas estéticas en las Américas desde la antigüedad hasta el presente [Indigenous Visual Cultures and Aesthetic Practices in the Americas’ Past and Present], Estudios Indiana 13. Berlin: Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut – Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Gebr. Mann Verlag, 2019, 431 pp. Published both in print and online open access.



[1] Prashanta Tripura, “What Does or Should ‘Indigenous Art’ Mean,” in Sovereign Words. Indigenous Art, Curation and Criticism, ed. by Katya García-Antón (Amsterdam: Valiz; Oslo: Office for Contemporary Art Norway, 2018): 43.

[2] ‘European culture’ should not be understood either as a homogenous entity, for only a few European countries were involved in the colonization of various parts of the world and not ‘Europe’ as an undifferentiated or uniform continent.

[3] Julie Nagam, “Disrupting Toronto’s Urban Space through the Creative (In)terventions of Robert Houle,” in Indigenous Visual Cultures and Aesthetic Practices in the Americas’ Past and Present, Estudios Indiana 13, ed. by Sanja Savkić, in collaboration with Hannah Baader (Berlin: Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut – Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Gebr. Mann Verlag, 2019): 208.

[4] Johannes Neurath, La vida de las imágenes. Arte huichol (Mexico City: Artes de México, 2013): 59.

[5] See Stephen Houston and David Stuart, “The Ancient Maya Self: Personhood and Portraiture in the Classic Period,” Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 33 (1998): 73–101; Erik Velásquez García, “Capítulo 9. La entidad anímica b’aahis,” in Los vasos de la entidad política de ‘Ik’: una aproximación histórico-artística. Estudio sobre las entidades anímicas y el lenguaje gestual y corporal en el arte maya del Clásico, PhD diss. (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2009): 523–69.

[6] See Emilie Carreón Blaine, “Un giro alrededor del ixiptla,” in XXXVI Coloquio Internacional de Historia del Arte. Los estatutos de la imagen, creación-manifestación-percepción, ed. by Linda Báez Rubí and Emilie Carreón Blaine (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, 2014): 247–74.

[7] Johannes Neurath, op. cit., 37.

[8] See María Alba Bovisio, “Representaciones y ‘presentificaciones’: funciones de la imagen plástica en el mundo andino prehispánico,” in Indigenous Visual Cultures and Aesthetic Practices in the Americas’ Past and Present, Estudios Indiana 13, ed. by Sanja Savkić, in collaboration with Hannah Baader (Berlin: Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut – Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Gebr. Mann Verlag, 2019): 241–66.

[9] See Els Lagrou, “La figuración de lo invisible en Warburg y en las artes indígenas amazónicas,” in Ibid.: 303–27.


About the Author

Sanja Savkić holds a Ph.D. in Art History from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). In 2012, she was honored as the most distinguished graduate in art history and received the Alfonso Caso Medal for her doctoral dissertation. Savkic was a postdoctoral fellow at the UNAM’s Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas (2014-16); an “Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices” postdoctoral fellow at Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien (2016-17); and at Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – Max-Planck-Institut (2018). She collaborated with Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin (2017-18) concerning the exhibition of its Mesoamerican collection at the Humboldt Forum. Presently she holds the position of Research Associate within the International Research Group “Bilderfahrzeuge: Aby Warburg’s Legacy and the Future of lconology,” while based at Institut für Kunst- und Bildgeschichte of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. The interdisciplinary approach she cultivates (art history–anthropology–archaeology) has been an integral part of her research regarding pre-Columbian Mesoamerican visual cultures, as well as the new realities that emerged in artistic production after the Conquest in New Spain during the sixteenth century.

Citation: Sanja Savkić, Indigenous Visual Cultures and Aesthetic Practices in the Americas’ Past and Present, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 09.01.2020, 

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Editorial Board (2020, 9. Januar). Indigenous Visual Cultures and Aesthetic Practices in the Americas’ Past and Present. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 17. Juni 2024, von

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