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Under Their Wings:
The Rockefeller Collection Arrives at San Antonio Museum of Art


Isla of Jaina, 700: The air carries a scent of salty sea spray, making the man's nose tingle. He sits quietly under the corbel stone archway, meditating on tomorrow's game. Dusk collides with the island in full splendor, its red sky highlighting the polychromed temple walls of the city of the Deceased. He adjusts the heavy stone beads around his neck and the wide padded belt, which will help protect him during tomorrow's game of pelota. The turn-out should be good, he muses. The city nobles will be dressed in their finest plumed shawls and wide cotton skirts cheering the player to run faster, to throw the ball harder. He will spend tonight here in this temple in preparation to give his best performance tomorrow, so as not to disappoint the city leaders... or the gods.
Merida, 1689: Tijoo Santiago de Bautista rushes into his thached-roofed home trembling and breathless, waving a crisp piece of paper through the air as though it is a victory flag. In a way, it is. He has just received his license from the Spanish government entitling him to own and ride a horse. To his knowledge he is one of only five other indigenous men to have received such a privilege. Under the new Spanish rule native men are forbidden by law to ride. Tijoo's young wife is grinding corn on a stone metate. Rinsing her hands in a hollowed out wood tree trunk that serves as a trough, she rushed over to look at the paper.
Tijoo gently lays the license on his hammock. Accompanied by his wife, he heads to the church to give thanks to the virgin for granting him this honor. They kneel down in front of the virgin's 18 inch tall cane figure, her silver crown shimmers warmly in the ornate candle lit cathedral. Tijoo knows he is blessed with good fortune.
Taxco, 1933: One of the world's most powerful men is roaming Mexico's countryside and villages. Talk of his arrival reaches town days before he appears on mule-back, dusty and disheveled.
In the town square he dismounts. Peering into street market stalls alive with color and confusion, his head spins with the chatter of bartering and bargaining. His eyes are very bright now, almost glassy. Trance-like he reaches out and picks up a small clay bank shaped like a charging bull. He's been stung, and he knows it.
William Spratling, a local silversmith, spots the man from across the courtyard and rushes over to steady him. He knows the symptoms, there is no cure. Nelson A. Rockefeller has been bitten by the same thing that has effected many throughout the centuries-- a passion for collecting the popular arts of Latin America.
Over the next fifty years-- in between being president of the New York Museum of Modern Art; instrumental in the creation of world organizations like NATO and SEATO; Vice President of the Untied States-- Rockefeller continued returning to Mexico, and points south. He amassed one of the most impressive collections of Latin American popular art in the world before passing away in 1978.
San Antonio, Texas, 1998: Dr. Marion Oettinger is pushing back borders. Under the wings of the old 1884 Lone Star Brewery building, Dr. Oettinger is helping to open a frontier that many have longed to cross-- a frontier that spans 3,000 years of rich cultural and artistic history.
Dr. Oettinger is Senior Curator for the newly opened Rockefeller Center for Latin America Art, home to one of the largest collections of Latin American popular art in the United States. His goal, and the museum's, is to help visitors experience and better understand Latin culture through it's art.
Spanning 30 centuries, this impressive collection is divided into four areas of focus-- Pre-Columbian, Spanish Colonial, modern and folk art-- with objects set against thematic architectural backdrops.
Four Mayan corbeled arches are the form context in the Pre-Columbian Gallery, which has been designed to utilize natural outdoor lighting. Visitors will find objects dating as far back as 1,000 B.C. The collection includes fine examples of Olmec pottery, Peruvian gold, stone and wood masks from the Post Classic period and even rare examples of molded clay figures from the island of Jaina, Campeche.
There's a barreled vault (European arch) complete with keystone as the structural element dramatizing the Spanish Colonial collection. Guests will delight in the display of late 17th century silver processional banners from Guatemala, retablos and ex-votos from Mexico to Ecuador, and wonderful polychromed saints that help show the transition and influence of European culture on indiginous art.
Beautiful antique wooden beams like those one would find in an old adobe home tease us, as if we were looking into a hidden room of an old rancho in Oaxaca. Dance masks, textiles, humorous figures of painted earthenware will titillate loves of Latin American popular arts. The bulk of these 2,500 plus pieces formed Rockefeller's personal collection, which was donated to the San Antonio Museum of Art in 1985 by Rockefeller's daughter, Ann Rockefeller Roberts. The spirit of the collection truly reflects the rich heritage of American folk art.
Stark white walls with the feeling of lattice subtly carry out the architectural background for the modern art display, where works by well known painters such as Miguel Covarrubias, Francisco Castro Leñero, David Alfaro Siquerios and Diego Rivera are featured.
Dr. Oettinger, the Center's Senior Curator, explains that the San Antonio Museum of Art is South Texas only major comprehensive art museum. Serving a population of over a million people, 60% of whom have Spanish surnames, the museum campaigns to go beyond just displaying an impressive collection.
Oettinger believes that the 12 million plus people who visit the city of San Antonio annually are hungry to experience and learn more about the vibrant heritage of Mexico and neighbors to the south. He wants to help visitors not only appreciate the art of Latin America, but to also allow them to understand the culture, to look at why these pieces were created and in what context. Once museum guests enter the orientation gallery he wants them to feel they have crossed the cultural border. "We feel a responsibility to educate them and surround them with the richness and vitality that represents this part of America's artistic history," he comments.
Along with permanent and traveling exhibits, the new 30,000 square foot Rockefeller Center for Latin American Art will feature a full calendar of events to support the collection. Included among these are an annual symposium, lectures, and music and dance performances, which Oettinger hopes will help guests to better, "...absorb portions of our cultural tapestry." CD-ROM programs are stationed inside each gallery to provide background on the artwork and insight into the culture, history and religion of Latin America. Over 100 digitalized images of the collection can be examined by visitors, as well as topographical, political and historical maps, and a time-line of the development of art in Latin America.
So, leave your passports at home and come visit the colorful and vibrant culture of Latin America. Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Latin American Art, 200 West Jones Avenue, San Antonio, Texas 78215 Tel. (210) 978-8136 Web site: E-mail:
*Note: Dr. Marion Oettinger, an anthropologist and ethnologist who has spent years working with indigenous communities in Guerrero, Mexico, has just released a book on his studies. Entitled El Alma del Pueblo, the book focuses on the transformation of Spanish style folk art in the Americas.