'Faces of Mexico' exhibit spans thousands of years

Tuesday, January 13, 2009 | 4:43 p.m. CST; updated 8:51 p.m. CST, Tuesday, January 13, 2009
This is the oldest of the three artifacts shown for this article. It is from the Olmec civilization, from tropical southern Mexico. It is made from green jadeite.

COLUMBIA — When it came time for senior Anna Frieden, a student curator at MU's Museum of Anthropology, to create an exhibition, her interest turned to Mexico.

"When it came to be my turn to design and research an exhibit, I searched our database of artifacts to find a theme that was interesting and hadn't been done and had a wide array of artifacts," Frieden said.

If you go

What: "Faces of Mexico," an exhibit of sculptures

When: From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday through the end of January. The exhibit will also be available for viewing on Saturday, Jan. 24.

Where: Museum of Anthropology, Swallow Hall, southeast end of Francis Quadrangle, MU

Admission: Free

For information:; 882-3573

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With her "Faces of Mexico" sculpture exhibit on display through the end of the month, she hopes to provide insight into the diversity of Mexico's history.

Figurines in the exhibit were collected from all over Mexico and cover a span of several thousand years. Most of the pieces were donated over the past 30 years. 

"It seems like people collected them or collected just head parts — that was interesting," associate curator Candace Sall said. "A lot of them we do not have the body, just a head fragment." 

Frieden thinks the explorers sometimes chipped the figurines free from larger works. Also, she said, if a figurine was broken, faces or heads were more likely to be kept and less recognizable body parts discarded.

The figurines show a wide array of styles, including Veracruz, Aztec and Mayan. The oldest figurine is an Olmec carving about 13,000 years old, and the most recent, from the Aztec empire, is about 500 years old. The majority of the figurines are male. Most are clay and were made from molds, though some were carved from stone. 

According to Frieden's research, the figurines were used for many purposes. Religion was important in the lives of Aztecs. A particular way to pay homage to gods was to leave small idols of them within their temples. The priests and nobility held the figurines for worship. Frieden has found that small figurines may also have been kept in homes to worship in private and as extra protection to ward off the gods' more capricious acts.

"Some figurines represent the great kings of history, defied warriors and the gods themselves," Frieden said. From Frieden's research, in Olmec settlements, female figures depicting the goddesses of weaving or fertility were usually found in homes and public buildings.

Sall said that because of space limitations at the gallery in Swallow Hall, some museum pieces are displayed only on the Internet, though this exhibit is not yet online.

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