- Constitutive Visions: Indigeneity and Commonplaces of National Identity in Republican Ecuador by Christa J. Olson
Christa Olson’s book contributes significant insights to the topic of national identity studies. By expanding the scope of rhetorical theory to incorporate visual sources, [End Page 180] the author identifies parallels and symbioses across traditionally separate academic disciplines. One of the many strengths of the book is Olson’s analysis of multiple types of textual and visual sources, including works of art, illustrations, petitions, proclamations, articles, and essays. The book focuses on the period between the mid nineteenth and the mid-twentieth century, and successfully traces both continuity and change over that extended period to identify historical patterns. Given its interdisciplinary approach and theoretical rigor, the book makes contributions along the way to various fields of inquiry including visual culture studies, Latin American studies, rhetorical and cultural studies, art history, and others.
The book is organized thematically rather than chronologically, with each of the five chapters presenting a couplet of case studies or ‘visual commonplaces’ stemming from the long history under consideration. Olson proposes that the repetition of the familiar or commonplace over time is not necessarily a sign of stagnation, but rather that these commonplaces serve a generative purpose and gradually shape the national consciousness. The text is shaped by various questions, including how national identities come into being and sustain themselves, how citizens and social entities influence their government through visual and rhetorical means, and the relationship of indigeneity to the coherence of the nation-state.
Chapter 1 takes up the issue of Ecuadorian citizenship and the role of indigenous peoples in society. After introducing the various revisions to the Ecuadorian constitution, Olson looks into the “constitutions-behind-the-Constitution,” in other words the paintings, poems, and prints that gave credence to the constitution in the national imaginary. Employing examples from the artistic trends known collectively as costumbrismo in the nineteenth century and indigenismo in the twentieth, she examines how these movements, while distinct in motivation and presentation, made indigenous peoples visible to the middle class, thereby providing a justification for social authority. The following chapter, titled “Geography as History,” looks at assumptions about the relationship of indigenous peoples to the land in the context of nation- building, which by definition demanded that national territories be cultivated, used, and mapped. Through a close analysis of romantic landscape painting alongside reported cases of indigenous resistance, Olson demonstrates how the land-indigeneity topos was simultaneously flexible and enduring, providing both white-mestizos and indigenous peoples a foundation for articulating claims to land. Chapter 3, “Burdens of Nation,” turns to the issue of indigenous labor, once again through an examination of costumbrista and indigenista images. The nation-state depended on indigenous labor to modernize, but it failed to incorporate indigenous people into what was being built. The contradiction is manifested in the visual production of the time.
The next chapter focuses on the theme of indigenous exteriority within the nation- state, in other words, “internal otherness.” Through an astute analysis of photographs of public spaces and indigenous subjects, Olson reveals how these images address issues of order and beauty, and representation and responsibility. The final chapter takes up the topic of performing indigeneity, examining cases in which white-mestizo’s adopted the role of indigenous peoples as a means to articulate local problems and claim their own [End Page 181] legitimacy in a nation defined by its indigenous population. Olson deems this strategic appropriation a form of rhetorical imperialism that simultaneously reinforced divisions and claimed identification.
Olson’s book provides a unique approach to the analysis of national identity formation in Ecuador. Her rigorous analysis of visual sources, the diversity of her selection, the sophisticated interpretation of these sources, and her interdisciplinary methodology provide a new interpretive framework for this material. However, while Constitutive Visions makes significant contributions to studies of the formation of Ecuadorian nationhood, it lacks selected comparisons with how this...