For as long as humans have been on earth, they have shared their space with birds. For many indigenous cultures, birds possessed a connection to the spirit world through their access to flight, and today birds have come to embody whole societies, serving as symbols of creation stories and patriotic pride. They allow us to examine humanity's complex relationship with the natural world, a history forged from fruitful bonds and shattering conflict. I have centered this exhibition around the story of the Aztec ruler Moctezuma II's private aviary, which housed thousands of birds from across the Americas in the city-state of Tenochtitlan. Following the capture of Tenochtitlan by the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and his soldiers in 1521, the aviary and all its inhabitants were burned. In this historic moment, the human impulse to collect and understand nature was overpowered by the human drive to also conquer and destroy. I used this tragic account as the context with through to explore the Smithsonian collections at Cooper Hewitt and the National Museum of Natural History, and as an impetus to reflect upon the consequences and lessons that emerged. Through a selection of design objects, bird specimens, and rare books spanning several centuries and media, I invite visitors to consider how culture, design, technology, and the natural world have converged throughout history. In a multiplicity of ways, birds have inspired us to access our imagination, our capacity to visualize, invent, and create a future for our environment and ourselves. —Rebeca Méndez
Everything about this coat makes it seem as if its wearer could take flight—its light silk medium, the silhouette that gives the illusion of a soaring bird, and the profusion of cranes amidst the clouds. In Chinese culture, the crane is a revered bird symbolizing longevity. The number five, present here in the five roundels that each contain five cranes, represents the elements of Chinese philosophy (water, fire, earth, wood, and metal) and has historically been associated with the Emperor. As such, this garment likely belonged to a woman of elevated status.
The world’s first insect-scale flying robot has a wingspan of 3 cm (1 in.) and is the approximate weight of a honeybee, its source of inspiration. Harvard researchers were responding to the alarming collapse of bee colonies worldwide and wanted to replicate their swarming behavior. Other applications include search-and-rescue missions, environmental sensors, and covert surveillance.
This European 16th-century print is from a series illustrating recent inventions and technological advancements that would aid in the advancement of Europe. The inclusion of The Discovery of America suggests that the conquest of the New World would be similarly exploited for European benefit. Amerigo Vespucci here sets foot for the first time in the New World and encounters an indigenous woman, “America” herself. He is fully dressed, including wearing armor under his robe, and in possession of various markers of power, religion, and navigation, while America rises as if from slumber, nude except for a feathered loincloth and headdress. Vespucci’s accounts of his travels in the New World led to the formulation of the stereotypes of American primitiveness, including nudity and cannibalism.
Personification of America is part of a popular 18th-century series of allegorical depictions of the Four Continents (Africa, America, Asia, and Europe) by Rosalba Carriera. These suites were so in demand in the 18th century that at least five sets by Carriera are thought to reside in museum collections today. Her version of “America” repeats the traditional clichés of partial nudity and feathered ornamentation, and adds to them interpretations of New World weaponry, notably spears and arrows.
Created for the Second International Poster Biennial in Mexico City with the theme, “America Now, 500 Years Later,” I examine how colonialism is experienced in the body—both as the receiver of its numbing iron fist and its capacity to resist and recover from this trauma. I also chose to challenge the celebration of the so-called “conquest” and reduce Columbus’s ships to a decorative wallpaper element in the background.
Following the incursions of Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci onto the continent, America began to feature in European allegorical representations of the known world. “She” was most often portrayed as a semi-nude indigenous woman adorned with feathers and accompanied by birds, crocodiles, and other exotic animals. This representation promoted the perception of the New World as lush, exotic, and docile—suited to conquest. Despite her elaborate feathered cape, skirt, and headdress, Meissen’s depiction of America—made by its most celebrated modeler—is still bare-breasted. While most Europeans would not have actually journeyed to the Americas, expedition chronicles helped to cement these tropes, which appeared frequently in works of art and design made in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries.