The Silent Rattle
Updated: Nov 22, 2020
A Silent Rattle in Conversation with Genesis Canon
The Jalisco Rattle (Fig. I), currently on display in Gallery 684 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is exhibited alongside the museum’s impressive collection of over 5,000 musical instruments. Though categorized and displayed by the Met as an instrument, the Rattle might rather be considered as a representational work of art; its form depicts a mother breastfeeding her child as if perched on the rattle’s handle, obscuring the instrument body’s silhouette. The highly illustrative aspects of the work cannot be considered as mere ornamentation to the instrument’s utility. Unfortunately, if museum visitors find themselves faced with questions regarding the significance of such representation (particularly alongside the familiar pianos, trumpets, and string instruments exhibited in the same space), the accompanying plaque offers no answers, reading: “A large perforated rattle typical of Jalisco rattles of western Mexico is concealed behind the nursing female figure.” 2,500 miles apart from the Jalisco Rattle, in the Xalapa Museum of Anthropology, the Señor de las Limas (Fig. III) is on display in Sala 2. Its plaque states that it is “considered one of the most important works of the Olmec culture. It shows two figures, one of them possibly a priest, sitting cross-legged, holding a limp infant in his arms, as if he were dead or asleep.” The geographic distance between New York’s terracotta Rattle and Xalapa’s greenstone Señor de las Limas is matched by their thematic distance from one another, if one is to accept their Museum’s plaques at face value. Both the Rattle and Las Limas portray a seated, larger figure cradling an infant in their arms, but the apparent visual similarity present between the two works seem to end there. The Rattle presents a human mother breastfeeding her child, and its significance is purportedly direct and corporal. Las Limas, despite its earliest interpretation as depicting a Madonna and Child, is now considered to present Olmec cosmological principles and the origin of Man. Beneath such aesthetic comparisons, however, the two works might be considered in regards to their makers’ conception of genesis. The scholarship regarding these two pieces is rhetorically disparate, which makes such a consideration ambitious; yet rather than compare the rattle and sculpture themselves, whose provenance and scholarship are respectively debated, one might put the academic treatment of Rattle and Señor de las Limas in conversation with one another. Doing so, one might begin to reflect on anthropologists' historical removal of the Woman from Mesoamerican society’s narratives of origin.
Looking toward what is known and written about the Rattle presents a case study for this retrospective removal of the Woman from Mesoamerican genesis narratives. The Met purchased the terracotta and kaolin instrument from William Siegal Gallery in 2007, whose website describes that the ceramic artists who worked in present-day Jalisco expressed “their intrinsic relationship with nature and their cosmology in figurative objects and vessels.” This purportedly essential quality of Jalisco art is likewise used to describe the Aztec, Chinesco, Maya, Olmec, and other collections of Pre-Columbian artifacts. The gallery’s owner, Bill Siegal, expresses on his website his mission to collect antiquities “of the highest historical integrity and quality,” yet one must approach the professed authenticity of Rattle with due caution. The Met provides that the work was created between 100 BCE and 200 CE, dating it between the Late Formative and Early Classic Periods of Mesoamerica. Its style along with its survival to the present day suggests that the work was preserved, through millenia, within a shaft tomb. Shaft tomb artwork, broadly associated with the present West Mexican states of Jalisco, Nayarit, and Colima has been abundantly preserved and is thus aesthetically diverse, yet within the field of Ethnoarchaeology its examples are approached with hesitation: wide-scale looting of West Mexican shaft tombs removed ceramics from the context so critical to their most basic interpretation. Their provenance, often established by speculation, looks toward ceramic works’ adherence to the observed visual traditions found within contemporary geo-political boundaries of West Mexico. Yet Nayarit-style ceramics have been discovered at the same excavation sites as Colima and Jalisco-style ceramics, and this method of determining place their origin and cultural heritage is controversial. Given that the Met’s website references the Rattle’s “provenance” as William Siegal galleries, and that William Siegal galleries offers only an unsubstantiated claim of commitment to verifying its collection’s authenticity, one should not assume that the work is certainly from Jalisco. Further, its designation as “Jalisco,” a contemporary state and aesthetic criterion, does not reflect any verifiable cultural heritage which might elucidate the work’s meaning. Further, without certain true provenance, one might never gather significance from the rattle’s placement in relation to the people buried within its shaft tomb, or from its placement alongside other works.
The indisputable aspects of the work, if it is to be considered genuine, must be gathered through observation of its present display. The Rattle depicts a woman breastfeeding the infant she cradles within her arms. She seems to be simultaneously clothed and naked; while her breasts are anatomically delineated, suggesting that she is nude, she also appears to be wearing a skirt or dress, whose hem is visible where her knees bend to wrap around the instrument’s handle. There is no delineation between her seemingly naked chest and clothed legs, which lends physical ambiguity to the moment being depicted. Both she and her child wear large, circular earrings painted with black crosshatch. Other examples of geometric embellishment are abundant: she wears a circular septum ring, stacked bands on her upper arms, and a tiered collar necklace. Further, her face and body, as well as that of her infant, are painted with more instances of lines and crosshatch. Raw umber stripes trace the contours of her cheeks, chin, chest, and exposed calves, while two perpendicular black lines wrap around her child’s belly. The work is mostly smooth, and photographs show the dim reflection that its polished surface diffuses. The greatest exception to this reflective quality is found in her hair, whose fine, waving striations produce a matte finish. In two heavy, paddle-shaped sections, her hair falls down her shoulders. An interesting aspect of the work, as mentioned by its plaque, is observed in its perforated body. Not only is the rounded back of the rattle-- which extends from the mother’s back like a turtle shell (Fig II)-- perforated to form vertical lines, but her necklace, bellybutton, and mouth are pierced through to the instrument’s hollow center. These perforations are presumably present for acoustic reasons, yet their location (used both as ornamentation and anatomical illustration) raise the question of whether the object is truly a sonical device decorated by the two figures, or if the “Rattle,” really, is a sculpture of two figures who produce sound.
Such questions, given the scant literature available on the “instruments” of West Mexican shaft tombs, might begin to seem more as rhetorical exercises than investigations. But without the information needed to speak to implications of the Rattle with confidence or authority, it is worth bringing to conversation with it an equally enigmatic work of Mesoamerican sculpture: the Señor de las Limas.
Much more scholarship is available on the latter work, whose larger figure, sometimes described as a human youth and sometimes a priest, cradles an infant in their arms (Figure III). Inscribed glyphs are found throughout the work (Fig IV), on the seated figure’s face, shoulders, and legs, as well as on the body of the infant. Like the Jalisco Rattle, Las Limas’ form is defined by smooth curves, and its surface has been smoothed to a polished finish. The labor required to produce this effect from such a large body of greenstone would have been tremendously laborious and expensive. Its immediately evident material value and beauty have likely aided in Las Limas’ elevation to the Mesoamercan art history canon, yet other qualities of the work may also play a role in its recognizance.
The gender of the priest/youth figure, if one was ever suggested, has yet to be established. Even more strangely (to those unfamiliar with Olmec sculpture), the face of the infantile figure, upon closer inspection, is enlarged and squared, with curled lips and slanted eyes. This humanesque child has been identified by many scholars as emblematic of the cult of the “were-jaguar.” Carolyn Tate, in her book Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture: The Unborn, Women, and Creation, poses an interesting question toward the validity of the were-jaguar, as might be instanced in Las Limas. Gesturing toward the Kunz Axe (See Fig. V) she asks:
The overarching claim of Tate’s book closely relates to the connection, however abstract, which might be found between the Jalisco Rattle and the canonical Señor de las Limas. The first work, as a simultaneous depiction of nursing and sound (and thus motherhood, generation, proliferation, and the rhythm of life) is not given due analysis by the Metropolitan’s description plaque. If even the most terse, overt interpretation of its status as an instrument can be met with skepticism, then what might this work signify for the broader treatment of Women and Motherhood in Mesoamerican art history? Returning to the claims made in Tate’s book, the case of the Rattle might be considered one instance among an ongoing pattern of the dismissal of Women, and their power held not only through physical generation, but spiritual and historical generation, in Mesoamerican history. In Heritage of Power, while describing four pregnant ceramic figures in the San Sebastian style (c.a. 100 CE), Kristi Butterwork suggests that “all four might depict… an important woman who was pregnant four times-- each birthing figure legitimizing a future heir to the bloodline.” Her seemingly innocuous proposal reduces the power of the woman or women depicted (Fig VI) in these figures to her/their ability to provide heirs to the family. As is the case here, the depictions of Women’s bodies-- particularly during pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding-- have historically been met with literal interpretations which fail to consider possibly spiritual and metaphysical meaning. In the case of Las Limas, conversely, the lack of evident gender grants an opportunity to project additional meaning, however quixotic, onto a sculpture that to this day is little understood. In spite of the abundant cave imagery at La Venta, in which many have interpreted as symbolizing the womb, Olmec Ethnoarchaeologists have in retrospect parsed an origin story which omits notions of gender. Several of the authors cited in this paper discuss what contemporary Mesoamerican scholarship might gain when approached through the lens of gender studies. Such a radical reframing of the field, while perhaps necessary, will require not only significant time, but efforts to reduce those many systematic barriers which deter Indigenous women from academia.
But at a smaller scale, the Metropolitan Museum of Art would benefit greatly (and immediately) from the revision of its presentation of the Rattle. Firstly, its authenticity should be proven for the sake of determining its scholarly merit. Regardless, its present display in Gallery 684 refuses viewers knowledge of the shaft tomb setting for which its maker intended it to remain. But rather than merely relocating the Rattle to another solitary glass tomb in the company of similar “things,” one might consider a more radical approach: a replica of the work could be created and displayed instead (while the original is preserved until advances in forensic technology offer opportunities for further study). If this was done not only for the Rattle, but for other ceramics like it, financial incentive for the production of fakes could be discouraged by systematic devaluation of genuine works. More critically, making replaceable versions of these ceramics would allow them to be experienced in more meaningful ways than mere viewing. This Rattle replica, alongside others of its genre, could be arranged in a full-scale, dimly lit “tomb” together, so that they can be seen, touched, and heard.
Authenticity, after all, can and should be considered beyond provenance. The once animated Rattle, distanced from the body and memory of those it was dedicated to, has been “buried” in a way it was never intended to be. Trapped behind a glass wall and propped beside art deco trumpets, the memories, sentiment, and context intrinsic to it are deafened. The Rattle once contrasted its depiction of recurrent life against a context of death; it and its tomb would have been revisited by a living family across generations. Yet while the memories and sentiment imbued in it are lost to time, its context (as we must imagine it) might be returned in some form by departing from museological convention. The terms of museum “viewer” and “visitor” are often used interchangeably, but to really be a visitor to a work such as the Rattle, one must perceive it not only through sight, touch, and sound. To do so would reanimate the work, inviting the visitor to at least hear-- without ever comprehending-- what its creator has sung of Women for some two thousand years.
“rhetorically disparate…” Las Limas is written about frequently and with the treatment expected of Pre-Columbian canonical works. Its symbolism and significance to Olmec society have been investigated at length. While the writer was unable to find literature specifically relating to the Rattle, the scholarship of related shaft tomb works typically evade notions of the spiritual and metaphysical, particularly as this relates to figures of Women.
“back like a turtle shell-- perforated…” The majority of the Rattle’s perforations are located on this smooth, rounded back (the Met’s website has no photos from the dorsal perspective, but this can be inferred from the profile perspective seen in Figure II). The authors of Communing with Nature, in their analysis of Formative Period Oaxacan instruments, propose that such acoustic directionality could lend important context for interpretation of direction that observed in Rattle. In the context of an instrument’s direction of acoustics versus direction of image, they write: “If anthropomorphic instruments were also social agents, playing them may have permitted communication with the instrument or with the being the instrument invoked. Rather than requiring exuberant public events, such ‘conversations’ could be private moments involving only musician and instrument.” While these authors’ article investigates the ceramic instruments of another time, culture, and context that that of the Rattle, their argument is interesting to consider. The majority of sound would emanate from the smooth, non-figurative back of Jalisco work. If the musician were to direct its sound toward an audience, the image of mother and child would not be seen by that audience. And if the musician were to show the audience the figural side of the instrument, the sound would radiate toward the musician. The authors’ claim that Formative ceramic instruments might have been played in an intimate setting, whether for the musician’s sensorial experience or in the presence of their ancestor’s spirit(s), seems particularly relevant to figures found in West Mexican shaft tombs. To return to a question previously posed in this paper, why would an instrument be left alongside the dead?
“figures who produce sound.” If one is to approach the Rattle’s provenance with skepticism, would it then be too radical to doubt even its status as a musical instrument? There are two aspects of Rattle which raise questions as to whether it is indeed a rattle at all; firstly, if the work was a tomb offering, then who would have played it, and when? Secondly, the handle of the “rattle” is obstructed by the mother figure’s folded feet. It is difficult to imagine how one would hold the object ergonomically, particularly given how top-heavy it appears. This is not to say that the work does not depict a rattle, but rather that it may simultaneously be a representation of music and motherhood. That the woman’s mouth is open, as if she sings to her nursing child, does not seem to be a mere utilitarian choice in regards to acoustics. The exact implications of this relationship between music and motherhood are difficult, if not impossible, to discuss without speculation because of the work’s removal from its original context. However, that a woven depiction of two particularly animated, living themes-- generation of life, and vibration-- would have almost certainly been placed among the buried dead, is worth reflection.
“Not given due description…” If the other instruments which share the same gallery space as Rattle were treated with similar descriptions, the author’s concern would not be so severe. Compare the description given to Rattle: “A large perforated rattle typical of Jalisco rattles of western Mexico is concealed behind the nursing female figure” (as quoted in its entirety) versus that given to Trumpet in B-Flat (c.a. 1934): “The streamlined and minimalistic form of this trumpet presents a strong American art deco aesthetic and captures the visual and musical style of the Jaz Age. Particuarly notable are elements such as its streamlined water keys, valve casings and touches, finger hook and braces. The instrument displays many decorative surface finishing techniques including…” (The plaque continues for several paragraphs). Despite the fact that the latter plaque includes several typos, its aesthetics and cultural context are explored with lush detail. Can the same not be done for Rattle?
“...ability to provide heirs to her family.” The act of placing such figures alongside the deceased would honor what she was able to give rather than who she was. Would the family member of the depicted woman/women-- who would have invested time, land, and labor in the preservation of their ancestor’s body and memory-- create not one, but four figures of pregnancy for the sake of honoring pregnancy itself? The authors of Communing with Nature touch on the theory that the frequent depiction of women and domestic subjects in the West Mexican ceramic genre indicates that “figurines were mostly produced by and used by women” (383). If the figures Butterwork describes were indeed made by a female family member, who would have almost certainly observed, if not experienced, pregnancy and childbirth in their lifetime, it’s doubtful they would have made such figures in honor of progeny. Butterwick does touch on the individuation of the figures, suggesting that the one wearing the turban might depict the elder of a lineage of four. This might have been explored further: the individuation of the figures (two with protruding navels and two with inverted navels, for instance) alongside common features across all (such as rain-like bodypaint and dimpled shoulders) perhaps suggests the connection between subsequent generations of mothers.
“not assume that the work is certainly from Jalisco.” The question of not only the Rattle’s authenticity, but of all West Mexican ceramic figures not recovered through methodical excavation, is one of the most troubling aspects of this paper’s argument. The authors of Archaeological Interpretations of West Mexican Ceramic Art discuss the extent of this issue of authenticity and its implications: “At this point in the analysis, almost no North American museum collection is considered to be free from replicas, fakes, or modified figurines. However, it is probable that the oldest collections are less likely to be trained than recently acquired ones, e.g., anything accessioned after 1960 is suspect.” It is the author’s opinion that the Metropolitan should be more candid in its disclosure of how the object came to be in the museum. Given that it was purchased in 2007, well into the timeline of “suspect” acquisition, stating the commercial gallery from which it was acquired is insufficient. The authenticity of the Rattle might be investigated by the methods described in Archaeological Interpretations, which pursue “nondestructive or minimally destructive techniques.”
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