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Israel Museum debuts ‘Divine Food’ exhibition

CM 05/08/2021


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We can argue all we like about politics, sports or the music of our choice but, at the end of the day, we all need to tuck in. Food has been our literal sustenance since time immemorial.
Then again, as the “Divine Food” exhibition, which opened recently at the Israel Museum, shows, even the vittles we put on our plates or in our bowls can be used as a pawn to further the political gains of our leaders.
In fact, as curator Yvonne Fleitman explains, that has been the sad case for millennia. 

“The exhibition covers a very wide period of time, from prehistory – from 1500 BCE – up to the present day. What I would like the visitor to come away with is how a symbol is created and what can be done with a symbol.” 
The latter infers dark political undertones. 
“It is about how people exploit the symbols in which we believe, in order to generate personal wealth or, maybe, they really do believe in the symbol.”
The icons in question appear, front and center, in the showing’s full title – “Divine Food: Maize, Cacao and Maguey – From Precolumbian to Contemporary Art.” The exhibition is based on a brace of triads. There are the aforementioned crops, which we are told were domesticated in Mesoamerica 10,000 years ago. And the Israel Museum spread – tastefully designed by Tal Gur – takes in artifacts produced by three civilizations that settled the region that today comprises Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and northern Honduras – namely the Olmec, Maya and Aztecs. To put matters in chronological context, the Olmecs were around from the mid-third millennium through to around 400 BCE. The Mayans proved to be a more enduring civilization, dating back to a similar era, from the pre-classic era of around 2000 BCE through until the Spanish invaders finally finished them off at the tail end of the 17th century CE. And the Aztec culture flourished in central Mexico in the post-classic period, from 1300 to 1521 CE.
Yes, food has always been a staple of life but, as Fleitman notes, there is a higher meaning to the thematic crops. To the Olmec, Maya and Aztec civilizations of the Precolumbian period, maize, cacao and maguey were much more than just vegetables or agricultural produce. They were, she says, “considered a gift of the gods for the benefit of humanity. They were often seen as the personification of the deities and placed at the center of the universe, forming the core of entire belief systems.”
That is a recurring presence across the hundreds of exhibits that include statues, figurines, ceramic and stone vessels of various ilks, informative and entertaining videos, and some compelling contemporary works of art. The Mesoamerican cosmos was envisioned as a square, with a central axis – the axis mundi or center of the world. The vertical pivot represented the link between heaven, earth and the underworld, and the horizontal boundaries referencing the four geographical directions.
That geometric form was employed by artists and artisans in the Precolumbian era, including architects, potters and sculptors. The latter of the time is particularly intriguing for anyone with some knowledge of the development of Western civilization and how, for example, the Egyptians and early Greeks conveyed the idea of movement and emotive expression. While the Greeks made do with what became known as “the Archaic smile,” by later standards a pretty lame attempt at showing even a modicum of inner feelings, and completely static two-dimensional figures, Divine Food shows that the Mesoamerican artists were way ahead of them, several centuries earlier, and were able to demonstrate dynamic corporeal agility, as well as highly expressive facial gestures.
The personal database of most of us Western-centric culture consumers starts off with the Greeks and Romans and, possibly, delves a little into the ancient Egyptian civilization. But how many of us know much about what the inhabitants of Mesoamerica were up to all those eons ago? Fleitman’s exhibition should help to address that knowledge deficiency, and open a few eyes to the evolution of human consciousness, how we once lived in harmony with our planet and its natural resources, and what the politicians of the day did with all of that.
 THE OFRENDA de Maiz sacrificial ritual is still practiced in churches in the former Mesoamerican region. (photographer: Flor Garduño) THE OFRENDA de Maiz sacrificial ritual is still practiced in churches in the former Mesoamerican region. (photographer: Flor Garduño)
THE CURATOR spent years researching the field. “Divine Food” is clearly a labor of love. An abundance of both went into assembling several hundred artifacts in a sumptuous display that reflects the riches of the featured peoples of yesteryear, and their take on life, Mother Nature and divinities.
Fleitman spared no effort, both in her research and in the design of the layout. Together with Gur, she crafted a towering reconstructed Maya temple façade frieze, complete with godly images and all manner of ornamentation. 
“I wanted the public to appreciate the scale of what these civilizations did and made,” says the curator. That comes across loud and clear. The centerpiece of the frieze is a monumental mask of a young Ajaw, or Maya political leader.
Naturally, there are also representations of maize, which was the staple crop of the time and, hence, was viewed by the rank-and-file as the most important means of keeping body and soul in the same place – nothing short of the source of life. Intriguingly, maize – or corn – can only proliferate through human intervention. Consequently, cultivating maize was viewed as the upshot of the divine confluence between humans and agricultural yields.
The political upper echelons were wise to the PR advantages on offer, and promptly began associating themselves with the provision of maize, and did their utmost to benefit from the profile-boosting dividends to be had.
There were other iconographic elements in vogue in Mesoamerica of yore. Another standout aesthetic on the reconstructed frontispiece is the stylized mat pattern. The motif signifies the power and authority of the ruler whose title, Aj Phop, translates as “he of the mat.” Once again, there is a fundamental existential basis for the high esteem in which people held the roll up rug. Mats were made from reeds that grow in well-watered spots. Thus, by presenting himself seated on a mat or a woven reed throne, the ruler associated himself with blessed fecundity and abundance, thereby ingratiating himself with the proletariat.
All three crops have endearing universal qualities. 
“You could see that globalization began centuries ago in America,” Fleitman notes. The geographic location to which she refers is not today’s USA, rather the full stretch of North, Central and South America. Maize is said to be the most widespread of all agricultural products around the world, while cacao, of course, is the raw material for chocolate. “Wherever people go, they take chocolate with them as a gift,” the curator continues. “Chocolate is so popular because it is sweet and also a stimulant.”
Maguey is a highly versatile plant that yields components used to make sweeteners, for human and animal ingestion, as the basic ingredient for soup, and even in the manufacture of ropes. It also features in the production of alcoholic beverages, such as pulque and tequila. 
The latter are, of course, still popular in Mexico, the home base of the wealth-laden post-classical Aztecs. For the Aztecs, corn was of great religious importance. The most popular deities of that time were gods associated with fertility and water, by dint of the fact that the Aztecs largely inhabited the semi-arid Central Mexican Plateau. The Aztec pantheon included male and female personifications of corn. The male young maize god was called Centeotl, while the female attributes of the crop were conveyed in the form of the seven-serpent goddess Chicomecoatl. The latter did particularly well in the popularity stakes. Both deities appear across the Aztec material culture and were incorporated in religious practices. Chicomecoatl was impersonated by chief priests who took on the role of the axis mundi, with four other priests representing the geographic directions.
When we got to this point in the curator’s guided tour I was in for a surprise. Presumably, the color we all associate with corn is yellow. However, it seems that corn kernels also come in white, black and red. All four shades appear in artistic creations, and religious artifacts, in the three civilizations featured in the exhibition.
And there is a lot more in the way of rich hues on offer in a compelling video about the quetzal – the bird that is, today, the national symbol of Guatemala and is also the name of the Guatemalan currency. The Central American feathered friend is a riot of iridescent colors, ranging from blue to green, and much betwixt, with shades of red, brown and white. It has an impossibly long tail that can reach up to one meter. In Precolumbian Mesoamerican mythology the quetzal is considered divine and is associated with the snake god, Quetzalcoatl, and the Aztecs and Maya looked upon it as “god of the air” and as a symbol of goodness and light. Its feathers were greatly prized, and Mesoamerican rulers, and members of nobility, wore headdresses made from quetzal feathers. It is a recurrent element in Mesoamerican art and artifacts across the centuries.
“Divine Food” also comes right up to the present time, with a clutch of emotive and thought-provoking works by contemporary artists such as leading 20th century Mexican painter Diego Rivera, political mural painter José Clemente Orozco, who died in 1949, and 64-year-old Mexico City-based photographer Flor Garduño.
There is something for everyone in Divine Food, plenty to catch the eye, tug on the odd heartstring, and open our eyes and minds to the material and spiritual riches that once ruled the roost in Mesoamerica, some of which are still with us.

Source: Jerusalem Post

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The host of Coffee Mouth Scare Crow Show and CEO of 452 Impact, Inc. Here is food for thought. Romans 6:23 "For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." John 3:16 "For God so love ed the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall be saved."

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