Collecting Birds: Looking Back at Tenochtitlan

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Photo Gunnar Tufta

(C)FASHION FANZINE ISSN 2397 2580 – November 2018

Collecting Birds:

Looking Back at Tenochtitlan


By Emireth Herrera



The Cooper Hewitt Museum presents the exhibition Rebeca Mendez Selects from October 5, 2018 through June 16, 2019. This is an series of exhibitions where an artist, writer, or designer is invited to curate an exhibition by interpreting the objects of the Cooper Hewitt collection. Mendez is a Mexican-American artist who invites us to think of birds and their interaction with humans, “to illuminate design’s interplay with the natural world.” Birds are powerful cultural symbols. For nations,  birds symbolize power and hope. Eagles adorn the seals of Mexico and the United States, two nations that share not only borders but also patriotic pride. Symbols portray cultural bonds that unite neighboring nations, and birds are the characters in this exhibition that carry the this cultural metaphor. The nineteenth-century building, and very particularly the French ornamentation of the Nancy and Edwin Marks Gallery, compliments a selection of objects with different meanings; A wooden bird cage is a representation of the role birds have as a companions, kept in our homes. An egg poster on the wall is symbolic of the origin, the graphic design is also formed to remind us that birds are part of symbols used on flags.

Since the beginning of mankind, humans have ceaseless desired to dominate territory and the impossibility of dominating the sky. For birds, the sky knows no territorial limits as their wings span their horizon.  Moctezuma II, the emperor of the Aztecs during the 16th century, had his aviary collection in the great Tenochtitlan. He was aware of the spiritual bond between humans and birds. When Hernan Cortes occupied the Aztec empire he burned Moctezuma’s birds alive. Inspired by this story, Mendez narrates the story through selected objects: historical documentation, necklaces, rings, fans, codex, maps, books, birds, maps, textiles, wallpapers, and wings. On one hand the exhibition in general unifies art and science, and on the other hand technology with design.



Moctezuma’s tragedy is represented by stuffed birds which keep the beauty of their feathers even in death. Brise Fan, 1760, a fan from the late-19th or early-20th century, is made of uniquely shaped white feathers to show its exotic nature. The Feather Necklace Ornament, 1986, designed by Becky van den Brink and Nails Necklace, 1983, designed by Tone Vigeland are both stunning pieces by Scandinavian designers who have created these pieces to remind the spectator of the value of birds and their feathers in all cultures.

Rebeca Mendez Selects is a splendorous exhibition that attracts curiosity and admiration for birds. Although the exhibition is aesthetically well displayed, there is a lack of research and accuracy because some of the birds included in the exhibition did not belong to Moctezuma. The museography is meticulously presented, and the French ornamentation perfectly frames the “cabinet of curiosities”, but the exhibition also feels like a glass cage in which the accumulation of objects is slightly suffocating. Thus, it is contradictory to see free-flying birds on the Wallpaper, 1905 and Wallpaper, 1900 designs when the whole display is encased in glass boxes, as though the whole exhibition were encaged. It would have been fascinating to see more of that winged freedom represented in the exhibition.



The main character of the exhibition is the Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno), from the Division of Birds of the National Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution. The length of its tail and its vibrant colors makes the Quetzal the most beautiful bird in the world, and it symbolizes liberty. Freedom, the Quetzal reminds us, is an invaluable right that people from all cultures aspire to, but many only glimpse. Mendez clearly expressed the importance of Moctezuma’s aviary collection based in Tenochtitlan as one of the key concepts of the exhibition theme. The site of Tenochtitlan was chosen because it was where the Aztecs saw a eagle on a cactus devouring a snake, as Huitzilopochtli, Sun and War God, told the Aztecs they would see. I did not find these important symbols of Tenochtitlan and its relation with Moctezuma II represented in any of the objects. On the other hand, patterns, feathers, and divers objects trace an interesting narrative that could be seen as a series of contrasting metaphors between freedom and captivity, life and death.


(C)FASHION FANZINE ISSN 2397 2580 – November 2018

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