Mother’s Day with the Mother Culture!

Come celebrate Mother’s Day with the mother culture of Mesoamerica—the Olmec!

It seems fitting that the last opportunity to visit our exhibition on the Olmec is this Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 8th. Often referred to as the “mother culture” of Mesoamerica, the Olmec were a lasting influence on Mesoamerican art, culture and civilization. And, like any good mom, their influence is clear in the subsequent, or epi-Olmec, cultures that came after them. Come celebrate with your mom, and make sure to visit the handful of female representations that are here with the exhibition.

Olmec Stela

Stela 1 (female figure), Mexico, Tabasco, La Venta, 900–400 BC, basalt, 98 7/16 x 38 9/16 x 27 9/16 inches. Parque-Museo de La Venta, Villahermosa, Tabasco (PMV–033). Photo: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes–Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia–Mexico–Javier Hinojosa

Nearly all of the human figures in Olmec art are male, including all of the colossal heads for which the Olmec are especially known and that depict male rulers. One of the few known pieces representing a female is here at the de Young, and it rivals some of the heads in size. At 9,000 pounds, it weighs as much as the smaller of the two heads we have on display, and at eight feet it is taller than both of them. Archaeologists don’t know whether the figure is a goddess, an idealized ancestor, or a historic Olmec individual. She is standing in a niche, which archeologists think may represent a cave or the open mouth of a supernatural being; she is wearing a short pleated skirt, and there is a hint of long hair under her turbanlike headdress.

Seated figure

Seated female figure with polished hematite disk, Mexico, Tabasco, La Venta, Mound A-2, Tomb A (Columnar Tomb), 900–500 BC, jadeite and hematite, 3 x 1 7/8 x 1 1/2 inches. Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico City (10–9652). Photo: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes–Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia–Mexico–Javier Hinojosa

There is also a small jadeite and hematite seated female figure that was found at what is thought to have been the burial site of an elite Olmec woman. The figurine has her hands clasped to her chest, below a piece of polished hematite, which the Olmec used for mirrors. Researchers believe the Olmec regarded mirrors as an entryway from the underworld to the living, and they were used in ritual and burial events. Only powerful, highly respected people in Olmec society are thought to have had them.

The Pretty Ladies

The last two galleries contain a collection of epi-Olmec artwork from subsequent Mesoamerican cultures. All of these pieces exhibit Olmec influence. Among them are the “pretty ladies,” a small band of tiny carved female figures. They are curvy and voluptuous, and rich in pigment color. One of them has a mirror in a similar place as the seated female figure, while another carries a child on her back. All of them represent the use of valuable pigments and in the case of the mirror, materials that were obtained by trade.

We hope you have a wonderful Mother’s Day, and that if you’re in the area, you come by to celebrate and bid our Olmec exhibition, and its handful of lovely ladies, a celebratory goodbye.

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