Matthijs Jonker: Negotiating the Representation of Natural History between Mexico and Europe

In recent years globalizing approaches have become more and more popular in the historiography of art and science. This development can be seen as a critique of the practice and material turns of the last two decades of the twentieth century, in which the local production of art and knowledge were highlighted. One of the central points of the criticism on these “localist” approaches is that they seem to be unable to explain large-scale developments and the apparent globalization or delocalization of art and science. One of the main goals of my research project is to develop a practice approach that is able to connect the local production of art and knowledge to their global dissemination. In line with the current developments in global historiography my approach rejects the center-periphery dichotomy as well as notions of “influence” and “survival”. Instead, it focuses on processes of negotiation, as well as on the circulation, appropriation and translation of artistic forms and knowledge in the trading or contact zones where cultures and practices meet.

In this paper I want to apply my practice approach to the images of flora and fauna in the Tesoro messicano and the sixteenth-century mural paintings of the Augustinian monastery in Malinalco (Mexico). In both cases the images are the product of an exchange or negotiation between Amerindian and European “artists” and “scientists”. Whereas the woodcuts in the Tesoro messicano are the result of the transformation of the color drawings of the Amerindian tlacuiloque (painter-scribes), who aided Hernández during his scientific expedition, into images that were understandable to a European audience, the Malinalco murals are the product of native artists who had been trained by European painters. During the Academy I will interpret both cases in spatial terms, namely as contact zones where European and Amerindian knowledge and artistic forms were interchanged in spiritual and healing practices. In this interpretation the Tesoro messicano is seen as an epistemological contact zone, while the paintings in Malinalco are conceived as a physical contact zone. Comparison of these contact zones is fruitful both for understanding the concept of space in art historiography and for furthering the understanding of process of negotiation and transformation of Amerindian knowledge in the production of the Tesoro messicano.

Matthijs Jonker studied Philosophy and Art History at the University of Amsterdam and the University of Pisa. Over the past ten years, he has taught courses on Philosophy, Art History, and Cultural Studies at all levels and at various departments at the University of Amsterdam. In the same period, Matthijs also conducted research for his PhD thesis, “The Academization of Art: a Practice Approach to the Early Histories of the Accademia del Disegno and the Accademia di San Luca”, which he successfully defended in December 2017 at the same university. An award for his PhD thesis from the Royal Netherlands Institute in Rome allowed him to spend three months in this city in 2018 to start his current research project on the Tesoro messicano. This book is an encyclopedia of the natural history of Mexico that was published by the Roman Accademia dei Lincei in 1651. The importance of this publication for the history of science consists in the use of the original material that was collected and produced in Mexico, partly by indigenous ‘artists’ and ‘scientists’ with knowledge of botany and medicine. In this project, which Matthijs is continuing as a postdoc fellow at the Bibliotheca Hertziana, he focuses especially on the translation and appropriation of this indigenous knowledge in the Tesoro messicano.


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