- New Worlds “Discover” Asia
Among the extraordinary pieces collected in the exhibit Made in the Americas: The New World Discovers Asia, at the Museum Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston, is a mid-eighteenth-century desk and bookcase made in Puebla, Mexico (fig. 1). The piece, possibly commissioned by Pedro José Ovando de Rivadeneira or a member of the Gaspar Miguel de Rivadeneira Osorio y de Cervantes family, was crafted by mestizo artisans out of imported traditions and indigenous materials. The outside of the desk is decorated in a Moorish pattern of inlaid wood and engraved and painted bone, typical of Islamic architecture that derived from the eight centuries of Moorish occupation of southern Spain that ended with the Spanish Inquisition of 1492. Yet the writing desk with tall bookcase is fashioned after a traditional Anglo-Dutch style bureau, rather than a Spanish one, with wood embellishments that allude to Dutch ripple moldings and German engraving techniques. Moreover, when the cabinet is opened, the interior is painted in a striking red and gold chinoiserie style, in keeping with an achinadotradition in which Latin American artists borrowed and embellished Chinese and Japanese styles of furniture, china, silver, and textiles that had been imported from Manila to Acapulco during the 250 years of the Manila galleon trade. While achinadodesigns and techniques may echo Asian ones, they are distinctly Latin American, and in this way the desk makes reference to European and Asian artisanal styles, and evokes the complex histories of colonialism, slavery, indenture, and transhemispheric trades.
On the red interior of the desk’s two cabinet doors is the representation of a map of a Veracruz plantation, adorned with symbols that the curator Dennis Carr has identified as Nahuatl hieroglyphs or pictographs for representing towns and estates, rivers, and mountains. Figured in the maps and on the desk drawers are scenes of plantation life that include ranchers and farmhands, among them free blacks or enslaved men, on the one hand, and mythical warriors, unicorns, elephants, reindeer, birds, and lions, on the other. Positioned centrally [End Page 413]in the spatial layout of the larger exhibit itself, the Puebla desk suggestively brings together a complicated history of European colonialism, Asian trades, Islamic design, indigenous materials and traditions, and African and mestizo labor. Curated with imagination and erudition by Carr, Made in the Americasdistinguishes itself as an unprecedented linking of Boston, Massachusetts, and the region, New England, with the circuits of Spanish American trades with the Philippines, India, Japan, Korea, and China in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Another evocative piece, positioned at the entry to the exhibit, is a painting by Juan González, Saint Francis Xavier Embarking for Asia(1703), which portrays the sixteenth-century missionary St. Francis as he contemplates a voyage to Asia, regarding a map encircled by figures representing the continents of Africa, Asia, America, and Europe (fig. 2). In a frame inlaid with mother of pearl inspired by Japanese export lacquerware, the painting is from Mexico City during the viceregal period, a time in which Mexico City’s market in the main zócalowas named El Parián after Manila’s Parián, the commercial plaza in the Spanish-colonized Philippine city that was home to Chinese merchants and whose port docked ships of Muslim traders from India, Africa, and other parts of the world, marking the established connections between Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas in the early modern period. The painting reminds us that it was the search for faster sea routes to Asia that would lead the Spanish to the West Indies in 1492, and that trades in Asian goods and people have had an enduring, powerful influence on the culture, society, and economy of the Americas for the last five centuries.
Indeed, the entire exhibit foregrounds transoceanic trades in goods, peoples, and ideas as the formative conditions for the emergence of the United States, and the larger Americas. While this history is more commonly narrated as the European “discovery” of the so-called New...