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Comprehensive Aztec Exhibit Visits London - 2002-11-13

The Royal Academy of Arts in London is presenting a major exhibition devoted to Mexico's Aztec civilization. The five-month show, which opens on Saturday, is being hailed as the most comprehensive survey of Aztec culture ever mounted.

The 380 objects on display at the Royal Academy trace the origins of the Aztecs, the rise of their empire headquartered in what is now Mexico City, and their conquest by Spanish invaders in 1521.

Curators say the exhibition is unique, because it draws on collections from Mexico, the United States and various European museums, uniting items that have never been brought together before.

According to the director of Mexico's National Museum of Anthropology, Felix Solis, the show is in London because Mexican law would not allow it to be held there.

"The law is very strict," he explained. "Any piece of Mexican origin that is now abroad and that touches Mexican soil must remain in Mexico. Therefore, 30 percent of the objects on display here would not be able to go if the exhibit were held in Mexico."

Mr. Solis says it took four years to put this exposition together, and it is a must-see for anyone interested in Aztec culture.

The curator of the show, Adrian Locke, says the Aztecs were nomads who in 1325 settled down after searching for two centuries for the sign of an eagle sitting on a cactus and eating a snake.

"Before Mexico City was there, there was this incredible city, Tenochtitlan, the place where the eagle was perched on a prickly pear cactus growing out of a stone, where the Aztecs founded their capital, and built this majestic city," he explained. "So majestic in fact that the Spanish who came across it in 1519 were unable to put into words what they were seeing."

One of the 11 halls in the exhibit focuses on the Aztecs' fascination with the natural world. Much of Aztec art dealt with the cycles of life, death and rebirth represented by the sun and the moon, as Mr. Locke explains.

"The sun and the moon were the fundamental elements of the Aztec world. It is why they felt they had to sacrifice humans and offer their own blood in order to keep this cycle in perpetual motion. The fear of course was that the sun would fail to be re-born at the beginning of one day," he said.

Mr. Locke says several of the pieces in the exhibit are relics of the ritual Aztec practice of sacrificing captured prisoners to keep their gods satisfied.

"We have in front of us a magnificent double-headed serpent altar. This would of course have stood on top of a temple or the pyramid mound outside a temple. And it is on top of this kind of object that individuals would have been stretched backwards, their breastbones upwards, in order facilitate the breaking of the breastbone and the removal of the heart," he explained.

Two of the most impressive pieces in the show are larger-than-life sized depictions in terracotta of an eagle warrior and the Aztec's Lord of Death, Mictlantecuhtli, a terrifying figure with his skin flayed and his liver protruding.

The final exposition hall shows the blending of Aztec artisan work into Spanish colonial religious objects, including a chalice, a bishop's miter and a cross. Mr. Locke explains the cultural cross-fertilization.

"This exhibition ends on a high note because we are showing that as the Aztecs looked to the cultures that preceeded them for their own inspiration if you like, so the Spanish colony looked to its Aztec culture, a lot of the objects were produced by Aztec skilled craftspeople using this very same material, and gave birth to a new arts style that emerged in the Spanish colony," he said.

British art critics are hailing the Aztec show as the most important exhibit in London since a well-attended Monet exposition three years ago. The Royal Academy says it has already sold 10,000 advance tickets for the show, which runs through mid-April.