(Re)discovering Conquest-era maps of Mexico

An exhibition at the Blanton Museum suggests a more complex view of the Conquest of Mexico, and asks crucial questions about how we represent place, community and ourselves


One afternoon when I was a student at the University of Texas, my art history professor took the class to see some maps at the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Library. We went to a back room and gathered around a long table covered with large pieces of parchment and stretched deerskin — materials from the Benson’s Mapas de las Relaciones Geográficas, a collection of maps created by indigenous artists around 1580. Each map was its own world of carefully painted plants, bodies of water, European and indigenous buildings, colorful glyphs, and delicate Spanish script. I was astounded by the maps’ beauty and variety, and it was exciting to see something in person that rarely left the Benson’s vault — until now.

The Blanton Museum of Art’s exhibition “Mapping Memory: Space and History in 16th Century Mexico,” opening June 29, features more than half of the 43 maps from the Benson’s Relaciones Geográficas.

This summer marks the 500-year anniversary of the Spanish arrival to what is now Mexico. And while the name given to this historical period – the Conquest – implies a complete destruction and erasure of indigenous life, the documents in “Mapping Memory” suggest a more complex view of the Conquest and ask crucial questions about how we represent place, community, and ourselves in times of drastic change.

In 1577, Spain’s King Felipe II ordered the Viceroyalties of New Spain and Peru (areas now Central and South America) to provide him with information about the demographics, political jurisdictions, languages, physical terrain, and native vegetation in their cities and towns. The resulting Relaciones Geográficas were created between 1579 and 1585, largely by indigenous artists. The maps chronicle 16th-century architecture, the spread of European religion, and the colonial economy. But they also provide clear evidence of indigenous agency, resistance, and durability both in their visual aesthetics and subject matter.

Exhibition curator Rosario I. Granados describes the Conquest as a multi-layered process in which different identities clashed and commingled. For example, in a map made in Amoltepec, Oaxaca in 1580, three central emblems — one Spanish, the others from the indigenous Nahuatl and Mixtec cultures — illustrate the complex hierarchies and histories that appear across the images. Likewise the maps demonstrate how indigenous and European conceptions of time and space overlap and diverge. In a map of Peñoles, Oaxaca from 1579, a sun signals the east, while two compass roses mark the north and south (the Spaniards’ preferred measure of direction).

In another, (Iztapalapa, México, 1580), Aztec-style footprints pass between an indigenous building and Spanish churches, each oriented on separate axes. Each maps’ mixture of techniques and symbols is indicative of great change and conflict. By contrast, the exhibition’s handful of European maps from the period demonstrate that cartography and spatial representation were not standardized in the Old World, either.

Martín Cano (attributed), Ixtapalapa, Mexico, 1580. Aztec-style footprints pass between an indigenous building (left) and Spanish churches, each oriented on separate axes. Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin

The Relaciones Geográficas have rarely left the Benson, and never in such large numbers. And presented as they are in a museum art exhibition, “Mapping Memory proposes that we not only see them as maps, but that we see them as works of art too. Indeed, the original Spanish king’s decree requested pinturas, or paintings.

As images, the maps, rendered in watercolor and ink, are arresting. In one of Acapistla, México from 1580, taffy pink buildings float over rich fields of color crisscrossed by flowing white pathways. Bold black outlines from a map of Cuzcatlán, Tlaxcala (1580) contrast with the airy brushstrokes of a map from Meztitlán, México (1579). Examining each piece’s individual aesthetic and technique makes for an enveloping viewing experience. And most of the maps are displayed horizontally, activating us to stand over and walk around them.

Unknown Artist, Acapistla, Mexico, 1580. Tempera on paper. Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin

Our current time is an especially important one to (re)discover these maps. Though they represent a history that seems long past, it’s a moment that’s still very much part of our world. In March, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador called for Spain’s King Felipe VI to apologize for the massive human rights abuses committed during the Conquest. His request was rejected.

Closer to home, five immigrant children who have died in U.S. custody since December 2018 have come from indigenous communities in Guatemala. Today’s U.S.-Mexico border wall dispute shows that we remain obsessed with delineating territories as a way to define who we are.

The ones who create the narrative and the ones who control it aren’t always the same people. “Mapping Memory” maps out a way for us to tell a different story.

“Mapping Memory: Space and History in 16th-century Mexico” continues through Aug. 25 at the Blanton Museum of Art.

Lauren Moya Ford
Lauren Moya Fordhttps://www.laurenmoyaford.com/
Lauren Moya Ford is a Texan artist and writer based in Austin.

Related articles