„I was curious about knowing what it means to exist in the vast universe“ – 5in10 with Sanja Savkić

Sanja Savkic received her Ph.D. in Art History (Indigenous Art of the Americas), as well as her M.St. in Mesoamerican Studies from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). In 2012, she was honoured 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 Institute of Anthropological Research from 2014-16. Most recently, she was a postdoctoral fellow of the research program Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices, an initiative of the Kunsthistorisches Institut (KHI) in Florence – Max-Planck-Institute at the Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien. At present she is affiliated fellow of the same research program with her project „Engaging Preclassic Maya Visual Configurations at San Bartolo, Guatemala“. Currently, Savkic also collaborates with the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin on developing the concept for four media stations related to the exhibition of the Mesoamerican Collection at the Humboldt Forum. The cross-disciplinary approach she cultivates (art history–anthropology–archaeology) has been an integral part of her ongoing research relating to pre-Columbian visual cultures from Mesoamerica, particularly the ancient Maya. Savkic has published the results of her investigations in international media and presently she is preparing a book monograph on the ancient Maya art and architecture; she is also engaged in coediting a collective book on indigenous visual cultures in the Americas past and present together with Hannah Baader.

What was intriguing to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?

Sanja Savkić. Picture: private.

Since my early childhood I have loved gazing at starry night skies. I imagined all sorts of beautiful distant worlds and different kinds of life forms. I have been very curious about knowing what it means to exist in the vast universe, which I understand as a place full of possibilities that can unfold before one in distinct ways. On one side, it is a sort of aesthetical approach to life, and on the other it is about a real interest in different ways of being in life. And when the gaze comes back to our home planet, one sees that here there are so many fascinating forms of life. Particularly I got interested in learning about cultures − past and present − all around the globe and their singularities. At some point the Maya civilization got my full attention: first it came through my eyes and then also by way of reading about many of its facets. There was a moment when it became much more than a mere curiosity, and therefore I decided to cross the Atlantic Ocean and ‘see’ it from close.

How do you explain your current research project to your students?

My current research project examines early Maya visual culture, particularly the one present in the ancient city of San Bartolo, located in the Peten region of modern-day Guatemala, notably its “Las Pinturas” architectural complex (ca. 5th c. BCE – 1st c. CE) as a case study. It considers the ways in which the ancient Maya created narratives − through architecture, sculpture and mural paintings − as means of making contact with ancestors, thereby formulating connections between the past and the present. Related to this issue stands the conception of space-time as an indivisible entity. The notion of integración plástica (loosely translated into English as expressive/artistic integration) is also of substantial importance. It refers to the necessity to study certain ‘objects’ in their totality, particularly those complex realizations where architecture, sculpture and mural painting are complementary and so closely linked that if any element of any of these artistic endeavors would be removed, this dynamic and hybrid visual manifestation would lose its conceptual unity and disintegrate. Lastly, the Pinturas built environment was envisaged as a setting for social interaction and activity, relating to both the mundane world and to sacred rituals, and articulates ancient Maya beliefs, mythology and power.

3rd, 6th, and 7th architectural phases of the Pinturas complex, San Bartolo, Peten, Guatemala (Image by Massimo Stefani, 2015)


Which stations of your academic journey were particularly formative to you?

Being a fellow of Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices − one of the programs of the Berlin-based research organization Forum Transregionale Studien − has had a special impact on my formation, as it opens art historical studies to a global horizon and goes beyond the traditional boundaries of the discipline. Also, it introduces a very productive concept of ‘aesthetic practices’ related to the study of multiple aspects of artifacts. This transregional and transdisciplinary approach has been inspiring for my ongoing research and actually helped me to develop new ideas. I benefited and learned a great deal through discussions with fellow colleagues engaged in studying visual cultures from different periods worldwide. Furthermore, it has been thought provoking to exchange views with the fellows from Connecting Art Histories in the Museum. I would dare to say that apart from us all being colleagues, we became friends who share interests and learn from each other. Our trips to Mexico and to the Kunsthistorisches Institut (KHI) in Florence – Max-Planck-Institute (during 2016-2017) certainly contributed to and enhanced our mutual understanding.

At the same time, I owe so much to Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) where I studied Mesoamerican cultures for several years and consider it as my alma mater. Lastly, I would be amiss not to mention the excellent education in the humanities that I received at the University of Belgrade, laying the foundation for my future endeavors.

North Wall, ca. 100 BCE, Sub-1A, 6th architectural phase of the Pinturas complex, San Bartolo, Peten, Guatemala (redrawn by Debra Atenea Díaz Zúñiga, 2015, after Heather Hurst)

How is it to do research in Germany?

It definitely is a fertile ground to conduct research. There are many institutions that have been important for my own work. The rich collections of the Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut in Berlin are indispensable for every person studying Latin America. It also has produced a wide range of important academic publications; in regard to this, it is noteworthy to mention that currently I am editing a book in collaboration with Dr. Hannah Baader on indigenous visual cultures in the Americas past and present, to be published with the Institute. My engagement with the Ethnologisches Museum – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, has been of a particular significance; presently I am collaborating with Dr. Maria Gaida, chief curator of the Mesoamerican Collection, on developing the concept for four media stations related to this collection for its exhibition at the Humboldt Forum. Also, there are extensive resources in Berlin’s Staatsbibliothek, as well as relevant academic gatherings hosted at Free University and Humboldt University. Similarly, the Institute of Archeology and Cultural Anthropology – Department of Ancient American Studies at the University of Bonn plays an enormous role in the field.

If you had one wish, what would you wish for the further development of your subject?

Without any doubt that would be the formulation of a project that seeks to reflect on the circulation and transfer of images, the propagation of ideas associated with the mobility of objects and the impact of these ideas on the changing definition of conceptual territories (i.e. the making and definition of cultural spaces by the discipline of archaeology) in the paradigm of the Preclassic Mesoamerica, especially its southeastern portion. By focusing on the study of networks and not on origins of cultures, this project understands Mesoamerica as a model for interregional, intercultural and interdisciplinary research (notably, but not exclusively, art history–anthropology–archaeology). The intention would be to examine the visual transmission and construction of knowledge, as well as the concepts of images and their agency in religious, political, social and economic contexts.

In addition, I am particularly interested in collaborating with colleagues who study indigenous visual cultures of the American continent, with a view to create a space for discussion on diverse theoretical and methodological approaches, as well as on specific case analyses, and their effects within the framework of visual culture research worldwide.


Citation: Sanja Savkić, “I was curious about knowing what it means to exist in the vast universe” – 5in10 with Sanja Savkić, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 22.11.2017, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/8224

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