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HOME : Pre-Columbian Art : Pre-Columbian Masterpieces : Olmec Seated Baby
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Olmec Seated Baby - PF.0668 (LSO)
Origin: Mexico
Circa: 1150 BC to 550 BC
Dimensions: 13" (33.0cm) high
Catalogue: V2
Collection: Pre-Columbian
Medium: Terracotta

Location: UAE
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The Olmecs are generally considered to be the ultimate ancestors of all subsequent Mesoamerican civilisations. Thriving between c. 1200 and 400 BC, their base was the tropical lowlands of south central Mexico, an area characterized by swamps punctuated by low hill ridges and volcanoes. Here the Olmecs practiced advanced farming techniques and constructed many permanent settlements. Their influence, both cultural and political, extended far beyond their boundaries, and their ceramics enjoyed a particularly wide distribution. The exotic nature of Olmec designs became synonymous with elite status in other (predominantly highland) groups, with evidence for exchange of artefacts in both directions. Other than their art, they are credited with the foundations of writing systems (the loosely defined Epi-Olmec period, c. 500 BC), the first use of the zero – so instrumental in the Maya long count vigesimal calendrical system – and they also appear to have been the originators of the famous Mesoamerican ballgame so prevalent among later cultures in the region.

The art form for which the Olmecs are best known, the monumental stone heads weighing up to forty tons, are generally believed to depict kingly leaders or possibly ancestors. Other symbols abound in their stylistic repertoire, including several presumably religious symbols such as the feathered serpent and the rain spirit, which persisted in subsequent and related cultures until the middle ages. Comparatively little is known of their magico-religious world, although the clues that we have are tantalising. Technically, these include all non-secular items, of which there is a fascinating array. The best- known forms are jade and ceramic figures and celts that depict men, animals and fantastical beasts with both anthropomorphic and zoomorphic characteristics. Their size and general appearance suggests that they were domestically- or institutionally-based totems or divinities. The quality of production is astonishing, particularly if one considers the technology available, the early date of the pieces, and the dearth of earlier works upon which the Olmec sculptors could draw. Some pieces are highly stylised, while others demonstrate striking naturalism with deliberate expressionist interpretation of some facial features (notably down-turned mouths and slit eyes) that can be clearly seen in the current figure.

The piece is comparatively large, at around a foot tall, and depicts a seated child, or perhaps a paedomorphic adult male. The fierce expression on the figure's face, as well as the ornate headwear, seems to suggest that this depicts a personage of some importance. The figure is seated with splayed legs and a hand on each thigh, leaning slightly forward and bearing his teeth in a snarl. The ground of the piece is white, with a glossy patina from handling and perhaps burnishing during the process of manufacture. The eyes are small, sharp-ended ovals with pierced pupils, the eyebrows high and narrow, with a small triangular nose; these sharp features contrast oddly with the rounded, baby-like contours of the face. The most aggressive feature, however, is the half-open mouth, which droops at the edges to expose small, sharp teeth in a fearsome scowl. The detailing of the head is remarkable, with a high, ornate helmet-like hat, pierced ears and careful sculpting of the jowls and jaw. The body is more schematic – though with details such as the navel and fingers/toes well demarcated – but nonetheless effectively proportioned. The fact that the hands are a different colour from the rest of the piece suggests that the person depicted was wearing a costume of some sort, or body-paint. Condition is superb, and the piece has lost none of its latent power and even menace.

The role of a figure such as this is hard to ascertain with certainty. It could be a direct portrait, a representation of a deity/spirit, a talismanic item, or a thoroughly arbitrary exercise in the creative arts by a sculptor of exceptional talent. The first and the last of these options are unlikely, as the rigorousness of social structures at the time precluded doodling, while we lack the ability to accurately identify portraits and to distinguish them from other anthropomorphic representations (although it is rather a small piece if one considers the size of the aforementioned stone heads, and thus perhaps less prestigious as a social signalling device). It is more probable that it represents an abstract notion, spirit or god in the Olmec pantheon. The piece would most likely have belonged to someone of considerable note within society, and feasibly someone involved with otherwordly affairs (such as a shaman). The nature of the spirit/god in question is also unknowable, but the aggressive appearance of this personage does provide something of a clue. One might conjecture that the urge to wrench an urbanised society from the swamps of Mexico would demand a rather aggressive, authoritative, determined disposition, just like that reflected in this superb sculpture. - (PF.0668 (LSO))


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