Paired with a Purpose

As NCMA staffers work hard behind the scenes to reinstall hundreds of works of art spanning over 5,000 years, I asked two curators to share what excites them most about The People’s Collection, Reimagined, which opens to the public on October 8, 2022.

 Lauren Applebaum, Jim and Betty Becher Curator of American Art

We are excited to display works from across the collection together to create new and unexpected dialogues. For example, a landscape painting created in 1859 by the American artist Louis Rémy Mignot entitled Landscape in Ecuador will be in conversation with an ancient Guatemalan incense burner.

Louis Rémy Mignot, Landscape in Ecuador, 1859, oil on canvas, 24 × 39 1/2 in., Purchased with funds from gifts by the American Credit Corporation in memory of Guy T. Carswell, and various donors, by exchange

Alongside fellow artist Frederic Church, Mignot went on an arduous trip to Ecuador in the summer of 1857. While there he sketched the tropical scenery to create grand vistas of faraway places for the American public. In this work the artist invites the viewer on a journey both adventurous and spiritual. Through tangled vegetation, across a viaduct and rolling foothills, our gaze is led upward to a snowcapped volcano. In the right middle ground, a cluster of buildings signals a small town dwarfed by the rugged natural world. Beneath the glow of the rising sun, this landscape suggests a place and time before the encroachment of industrial society. In actuality this town in the region of Riobamba was a bustling metropolis by the mid-1850s, situated adjacent to the volcano El Altar.

Ángel González López, Research Curator of Ancient American Art

While Mignot’s painting is an American tourist’s fantasy of this tropical region, with a volcano at its center, the incense burner prompts us to consider Indigenous perspectives and traditions related to volcanic activity in Mesoamerica. For thousands of years, Indigenous people created artworks that display humans’ interpretation of the afterlife. This solar spiritual domain has been envisioned as emphasizing sensory pleasure—a landscape filled with flowers, dance, songs, birds, and butterflies.

Guatemalan, Tiquisate region, Incense Burner, circa 300–600, ceramic with traces of white, yellow, and black paint, H. 23 × W. 17 3/4 × D. 10 in., Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Francis Robicse

The incense burner embodies a mountain of fire and the place of celestial ascension through cremation. It employs a metaphor drawn from nature to associate the transformation of the deceased person to the metamorphosis of a butterfly. The clouds of smoke that would have poured out of the object when in use reenact the funerary pyre and the apotheosis (elevation to the divine realm) of the deceased. In viewing pairings like this, visitors can gain new understandings about cultural practices represented in the People’s Collection.

Picture of Laura Napolitano
Laura Napolitano is an editor at the North Carolina Museum of Art.

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