America Was A European Invention, So The Getty Asked An Indigenous Artist To Reinvent It

Creating a compendium of modern inventions, the Renaissance artist Johannes Stradanus featured the printing press, the canon, the clock, and distillation. And then there was his drawing depicting the invention of America.

Stradanus did not bother to distinguish between North and South. He scarcely referenced the sixteen million square miles of land. In his image, America is a woman sitting in a hammock, naked except for some feathers worn as adornment. Her inventor stands beside her. He is the Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci, and the feat of invention is shown as the act of naming her. Issuing from Amerigo’s mouth is the word America.

Published as a set of nineteen engravings, Stradanus’s album of inventions became one of the most widely referenced works of his time, coveted for its technical detail; in an age before the internet or the encyclopedia, his illustrations were a valuable source for anyone wanting to know how to make books or alcohol or war. Yet it was Stradanus’s allegorical representation of America that became most famous of all. The 17th century engraving, faithful to his drawing save for the omission of Vespucci’s utterance of America’s name, is currently a centerpiece of Reinventing the Américas at the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

As the Getty exhibition makes clear, Stradanus was not the only artist to represent geography in female form. In the 17th century, it was typical to show Europe as a crowned queen surrounded by emblems of culture and learning such as musical instruments and leatherbound books. Asia was also sumptuously dressed, but her garments and furnishings were exotic. Africa was often bare-chested and might be accompanied by elephants or lions. Stradanus added America to this cast, enlisting ethnographic details such as the feathered headdress and hammock as evidence of savagery, which he accentuated by depriving his figure of clothing, forefronting her sexuality, and including spurious allusions to cannibalism. Many other artists followed this archetype. Most Europeans believed it.

In other words, America truly was a European invention. The New World conjured in allegories by Stradanus and his contemporaries was invented as a counternarrative to the ground truth of two great continents, their estimable peoples, and the challenges history posed to claims of European discovery and colonial rule. Naming is an act of subordination. Allegory is a mode of possession through imposition. The impact of propaganda created by Stradanus and his contemporaries may have been more ruinous to pre-Colombian civilizations than Vespucci’s fabled landing.

What, then, is to be done in the present?

America has been reinvented more than once. For instance, the United States conjured Liberty as an allegorical figure in the 1800s. Elegantly dressed – and never cannibalistic – she was intended to show how much the New World had matured under the influence of Vespucci’s heirs. In other words, the reinvention reinforced the invented origin of the New World, suppressed the prehistory of America, and justified the genocidal removal of prior inhabitants. Subsequent reinventions have usually followed similar patterns. Most all have been instigated by beneficiaries of the invented Americas, North and South. None of these reinventions have succeeded in righting the wrongs of the past five hundred years.

The Getty has admirably set out to address this situation by inviting Denilson Baniwa to reinvent historical imagery including Stradanus’s allegories. An indigenous artist from the Brazilian Amazon, Baniwa has responded by reworking the old imagery, often satirically. His most interesting work superimposes his ancestral imagery on the allegorical America, offering a sort of corrective overlay. The aesthetic juxtapositions are visually stirring. They also remind us of the capacity of imagery to change perceptions today as much as during the Renaissance.

But the overall context is arguably more significant than any specific content. The Getty Center represents tradition, and serves as a guardian of historical works by the likes of Stradanus. Physically setting Baniwa’s drawings atop the original etchings, even if only temporarily, creates a symbolic relationship that might just be a first step toward tangible reinvention of the American power dynamic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Previous post This Hotel Built By 19th-Century American Settlers Is One Of Tel Aviv’s Most Stylish Stays
Next post Chicago Named Best Beer City, Followed By Portland, Oregon