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‘Inherited Images’: the Decolonialist agenda of Katherine Anne Porter and Anita Benner

Tabitha A. MORGAN


Katherine Anne Porter et Anita Brenner se sont confrontées à la question de la transculturalité dans le but de faire reconnaître le travail des artistes indigènes au Mexique. Porter et Brenner étaient convaincues que l’indigénisme, popularisé par les muralistes au cours de la période postrévolutionnaire, célébrait les populations amérindiennes sans se préoccuper de leurs conditions de vie véritables. Toutes deux se sont engagées dans une démarche « décolonialiste » en intégrant les pratiques artistiques autochtones dans le but de les mettre en valeur. Cette démarche, qui vise à faire entendre la voix de l’Indien, a contribué à l’essor d’une identité mexicaine moderne caractérisée par le lien unique qu’elle établit avec une forme d’indigénisme souvent ignorée par les tenants de la révolution mexicaine.

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  • 1 There is substantial proof that Porter and Brenner met in 1923, as they were in Mexico at the time (...)

1Both Katherine Anne Porter and Anita Brenner used the same phrase “living art” to dialogue about the Indigenous art of Mexico in the 1920s1. Porter said that during the Revolution there was an atmosphere of the “living arts” that imbued the era with what she called a “racial soul”—an Indigenismo of the Aztecs flourishing in the modern Mexican cultural mores (Uncollected 140). Similarly, when Anita Brenner writes in Idols behind Altars that Native and Mexican art is a “living art” because of the constant colonial subversion and Indigenous reclamation that surrounds it, she means that these “inherited images” are the real pictorial representations of an ancient lived experience (Idols 174, 54). Both women use this very specific language to engage with and talk- back to the perpetually threatening discourse of colonialism in Mexico that perpetuated for hundreds of years. While researchers and archaeologists also returned to Native traditions, they often treated them as inanimate and thus non-living; the cultural artifacts and peoples were objectified and dismembered from their cultural contexts to such a degree that, as Mary Louise Pratt argued, they were “revived as dead” (Pratt 134). This is to say the art then becomes subordinated to the colonizer and the peoples are relegated as static and therefore non-participatory agents in the advent of modern progress.

2While many heralded the Indio as an emblem of the era’s Mexicanidad, Porter and Brenner were two of the Revolutionary era writers who went a step further and created a decolonizing framework through which viewers and readers could engage with Indigenous art and philosophies unmediated by colonialist intervention. The ancient past was so “living” to the modern Mexican nation that the very image and idea of indigeneity became the sacralized symbol for the modern revolution. Yet this is quite complicated because the idealized utilization of the Indian stands in direct contrast to the more common lived experience of Native peoples which was more often a marginalized and impoverished reality. The transculturalism of Porter and Brenner then becomes one of constant tension between negotiating the romanticized symbol of a Native or working-class Mexican laborer and the Real Native (ways of) being in the twentieth century. Decolonization becomes a response to and a mechanism for enacting a living truth and modern ontology.

3Katherine Anne Porter’s Outline of Mexican Popular Arts and Crafts (1922) and Anita Brenner’s Idols behind Altars: The Story of the Mexican Spirit (1920) take a transculturalist approach to a historically determined moment. For Porter and Brenner the Revolution’s renaissance of Indigenismo became a place of belonging where they could embrace both a modern and ancestral pluralist identity unavailable to them in the United States. The multiperspectival encompassment of land, self, and nation stood in firm resistance to the polarizing politics and binary essentialisms forced upon them in their countries, genders or ethnicities of origin. What differentiates Porter and Brenner from the self-serving nature of the colonist’s agenda and imperialist’s behavior is the decolonizing methodologies and psychology that they employ in pursuit of their cultural connection and heralding of Mexican Indigenous art. Porter and Brenner highlight, illuminate, and problematize the issues of transculturalism, modern nation-building, and decolonization of the racialized and classed arts of the Indigenismo movement. It is this connection and reclamation rather than disconnection and disidentification that positions them as champions of the modernist agenda of transculturalism, decolonization, and interconnectivity.

4As Maori anthropologist Linda Tuhiwai Smith argues in Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, “Indigenous attempts to reclaim land, language, knowledge, and sovereignty have usually involved contested accounts of the past by colonizer and colonized.” The tribe, community, or clan usually has a very different version of “facts” and “history” than is being produced and disseminated as truth by the dominant culture (Tuhiwai Smith 33-4). This contact zone, then, between the modern culture’s utilization of the ancient lineage or image and the actual Native reality creates a third space, a historical “truth” that can be read and seen most apparently in art, as art is a first-person visual representation that crosses borders and transcends languages in ways that the raced and gendered bodies of the artists may not be able to enact.

5Alongside the Indigenous art itself, Porter and Brenner’s participation in this transnational movement is of primary concern. These two women – both white, both English speaking, both from working-class backgrounds – are in their own transcultural sphere of choosing what artifacts, what art, what images to give to Western audiences. Specifically, Porter and Brenner were writing in a highly charged time of industrialism, modernization, cultural appropriation, and political chaos. They understood that their research into Mexican art and history was heavily weighted, and they believed their contribution was helping to co-create a modern Mexican nation and a reimagined Mexican identity devoid of systemically racist stereotyping in the Mexican and American gazes. With this intention, Porter and Brenner believed they were taking part in a decolonizing framework by fully engaging in a deconstruction of cultural and literal colonization by exploring and highlighting Native art in a way that is “taking apart the story, revealing underlying texts, and giving voice to things that are often known intuitively” (Tuhiwai Smith 3).

6The Indigenismo of Obregón’s Mexican Revolution is characterized by its commitment to the Native Latin American economically, socially, and politically and a renewed interest in Native art, artifacts, and aesthetics. Deeper than a simple valorization of ancient peoples, though, is the way that a modern Mexican national identity was founded in both Indigenismo and also mestizaje. This interethnicity becomes central not only to the aesthetic of modern Mexico and its national identity but also endemic to Jose Vasconcelos’ philosophy of la raza cosmica – the cosmic race; a race, a culture, a nation that is completely intermixed in every possible way without stigmatization. Tace Hedrick, LatinX specialist, has argued that modern Mexico embraced “the mixed-race individual […] to serve for many as a symbol of racial and therefore national unity” in large part through the economically impoverished Indian population and through a now idealized and glorified conception of women “as producers of the racialized bodies” that birth the cosmic race and modern Mexican identity (Hedrick 5). Thus, the artistic philosophy of the era becomes a summation of the glorification of indigeneity, the female body, and the modern Mexicanidad of the nation.

Confronting the “ugliness of our civilization” through the counter-gaze of the indigenous perspective and artistic object

7The frontispiece to Outline of Mexican Popular Arts and Crafts describes the contours of Porter’s undertaking:

Upon the occasion of the Traveling Mexican Popular Arts Exposition in the United States of North America, under the auspices of the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Labor of Mexico, Don Xavier Guerrero, being the Art Director, has caused this book to be published. It contains a study by Miss Katherine Anne Porter, of the Popular Arts and Crafts of Mexico. (Uncollected 137)

8This fantastically wordy introduction does sum it all up neatly. Porter was commissioned by the Mexican government, via Industry and Labor, to create a traveling art exhibition that would circulate throughout North America and showcase Mexican and Mexican Indigenous art in part for President Obregón to receive more favorable recognition from the United States. Porter spent her days reading and working with many Native Mexican artists who helped to organize the pottery, decorative boxes, silver and serapes for the exhibit showcases (Unrue 91). Indigenous involvement in the displaying of Mexican art is fundamental to a decolonizing methodology and endemic to Porter’s process.

9The idea for showcasing Indigenous crafts had its beginnings in the centenary celebrations the fall before. As Rick A. Lopez writes in “The Noche Mexicana and the Exhibition of Popular Arts: Two Ways of Exalting Indianness,” an ethnicized Mexican identity did not flow naturally from Mexico but instead was a distinct movement led by cosmopolitan nationalists and artists in order to turn away from European artificiality (Lopez 23-4). The originators of the Exhibition of Popular Arts – Dr. Atl, Adolfo Best Maugard, Jorge Encisco, and Xavier Guerreo – began as the Noche Mexicana, a free and open park lined with carts selling street food, Indian crafts, and all things celebrating Mexicanidad. It was a revolution of caste and class, shades and societies, and from these beginnings, the Mexican government elicited Porter’s aid in creating a transnational exhibit.

10Porter’s Outline of Popular Mexican Arts and Crafts concretizes her love affair with Mexico; it is a love letter to the Indigenismo movement. It is also, along with her short stories of the early 20s – “Maria Concepcion,” “The Martyr,” and “Flowering Judas” – an exploration of the energy, realities and dynamics of the local towns, their residents, and the Native and foreign artists interacting to create a renaissance of unparalleled proportions. Yet when we read her non-fiction essays circa 1922 we see that Porter is not entering this relationship with Mexico naïvely or apolitically. For the decade ensuing and culminating in her late Mexican fiction of 1934, “Hacienda,” Porter is continuously disillusioned and, as with many others, believes that the revolution has failed. Outline is, then, all the more important, not for its romanticizing of Mexico or its peoples, but because in that moment it gives historical veracity and a resilient voice to all the core possibilities and philosophies that any revolution has to offer. Yet, as Porter herself astutely noted, “You know the trouble with every movement, every revolution, is that the people who do the work and do the fighting and bloodshedding and the dying, quite simply are not the people who run the thing afterwards” (qtd. in Hank Lopez 124).

11Outline is organized into four parts: Acknowledgment; Part I: Pre-Hispanic; Part II: Colonial Art; and Part III: The Present. It is a vast overview of many centuries of Mexican art and crafts put into roughly fifty pages. Its intention is clearly not to be authoritative or comprehensive as much as introductory and supportive. What is by far the most fascinating and complicated aspect is how Porter characterizes the role of ancient art in co-creating the modern Mexican identity and nation as mediated through the Indigenous movement. She does this in large part through establishing what she sees as the racialized spirit of Mexican identity. She discusses how this “racial soul” (Outline 140) is disseminated through the art and then transnationally commodified through the marketplace, local or international. It is a multilayered and, given the historical context and theories of the day, very complex essay that leads us in many directions.

12One way is how Porter confronts the problematic cultural appropriation of indigeneity at the expense of actual Native peoples and their lived experiences. For instance, even Diego Rivera tried to find the “ideal painting technique” by using cactus juice as a binding agent for his mural paintings, just as the pre-Columbians did. “Rivera proudly asserted ‘that he was using the same process to decorate the walls of the Ministry of Education as the Aztecs had used in Tenochtitlan.’” The problem being that in reality “the experiment proved to be a disaster when the mixture rotted and stained the murals, leaving them in the same ruined condition as the Aztec wall paintings” (Gallo 7). It is this level of performativity that Porter comes to eschew in Rivera and the “revolution artists” as well as in her own work.

13The most fashionable stance for the artists was one of assimilated superiority, showing how Mexicans had taken the best of the Natives, the Anglos, and the Spaniards and turned it back on them; ironically not competing with this is the notion that Mexicans – most specifically the Native population – has transcended all of this Western colonization in favor of a “natural” and more authentic, pure life. The Native then becomes the sublime and all-encompassing answer, while the Westerner is both a symbol of societal progress and cultural deterioration. Porter writes that descendants of early Mexicans

patiently wrought in the arts after the design of the strangers and continued thereby an almost unbroken record of their own racial soul […] Always the foreign influences have been assimilated and transformed slowly into something incorruptibly Mexican, personal to the race. (Uncollected 140)

14What seems a contradictory acculturation process becomes instead Porter’s diagnosis for a well-honed cultural progression and her eventual argument for a transcultural and working-class aesthetic.

15It is Porter’s firm belief that survival through and transcendence of acculturation is the highest form of not only perseverance but also of thriving and creating newer and better forms of art and society. Mikhail Epstein writes that the transcultural “is not just a field of knowledge; rather, it is a mode of being at the crossroads of cultures. A transcultural personality naturally seeks to free his or her native culture […] from self-deification or fetishism” (Epstein 296). In this way, Porter recognizes that the Indigenous artist forages through his own fine art traditions to find the best ideas and aesthetic renderings in order to dwell beyond the crosshairs of Europe’s fine art traditions. It is a resistance practice, a survival technique, and a long-standing tradition of incorporation. This understanding of art leads Porter to her overarching thesis about the racial soul” (Uncollected 140) and “national spirit” (161) of the Indian and her analysis of how this spirit is alive and flourishing in the Mexican national identity and, more so, driving the Revolution and modernity. She writes,

A peasant art: this is precisely what it is, what it should be. The alien, aristocratic influence was a catastrophe that threatened the vitals of the Mexican race, and diverted its natural expression to strange, superficial methods over a long period. Yet, once released, and only a little maimed, it settled back to its calm level, and persisted after its own way. It is not possible successfully to comprehend Mexican art from any other angle. Seen thus, harmoniously adjusted to its native background and its history, we discover it to be an invaluable, eloquent thing. (Uncollected 165)

16Porter believes that the ways in which this national racial-spirit survived colonization is through a kind of transculturalism where the Mexican spirit interacted with the Spanish colonizers and conquered them through their living art and continued survival.

17Porter uses the example of particular artistic objects in order to witness this contact zone and the consequences this had on the Indigenous Mexican. First, she describes a Mexican picture of the Spaniards with their

stiff waisted ladies with monstrous coiffures, [and] those imported dogs and incredible household furnishings. Painted chests and wooden trays of that period silently point to the ugliness of our kind of civilization as beheld by the civilized of another race and ethical code. (Uncollected 166)

18In her decolonizing effort, Porter shifts the gaze of a Westerner evaluating Mexican crafts, to the Native’s gaze and its attendant “ethical code” to view and see her own culture and upend ethnocentrism. It is not a sentimentalized re-posturing; her critical process looks to make a wholly complete shift in consciousness and gaze. The very idea that Porter would confront the “ugliness of our civilization” through the counter-gaze of the Indigenous perspective and artistic object solidifies her larger and more revolutionary intention with Outline.

19To illustrate how this process is made manifest most clearly through the material culture and in the art work itself, Porter describes a two-sided ceramic pot from Tonala. She writes that one side of the pot is “covered with figures done in that old style – ancient Mexican hunters drawing their bows against fantastic animals” (Uncollected 166). However, the other side witnesses the contact zone and the art which inevitably speaks what the Native population might not otherwise be allowed to describe. She states that the other side of the pot is

even more interesting, for it bore the detailed drawing of an automobile, of outmoded fashion, brimming with men wearing foreign hats, hastening down the streets of a Oaxaca village – the potter’s own village, no doubt, and this a first impression of the only automobile he had ever seen. Viewed through his amazed eyes, it is more mad and strange than all his warriors and animals and forests. (Uncollected 167)

20While Porter exposes a moment of the contact zone wherein the Native is confronted with unfamiliar machinery, she does not allow this moment to infantilize or essentialize the Native. She continues,

No doubt most of us would think [the two-sided pot] in lamentable taste. It warns us, too, that if the artist were removed from his fructifying contact with his mother earth, condemned daily to touch instead the mechanics and artifices of modern progress, he might succumb, as do the aristocratic arts, each in turn, to the overwhelming forces of a world turned dizzyingly by a machine. But where the civilized arts, so-called, may root themselves in another imported and cultivated soil, where the individual artist may triumph by the strength of his unique genius, the peasant workman may have none of these resources. In his own earth – his native tradition, are his strength and his happiness. (Uncollected 167)

21This is the essence of what Porter means by the “racial soul.” It is not necessarily the essentializing force that it seems at first blush, but instead, a resistance act embedded in Native arts against the forces of Western cultural imperialism. She is not simply juxtaposing earth over machine, pagan over Christian, Native over Anglo; she is actually exposing the contact zone and detailing how the arts of the Indigenous peoples are realizing themselves through the artist’s “peasant context” and through the strength of his cultural connectivity, his racial spirit.

22Porter continues this thread by asserting that redemption for Mexico is in the hands of the artists working with the Indigenous peoples. In “Where Presidents Have No Friends” (1922), Porter writes that the Revolution artists:

are all convinced, quite simply, that twelve millions of their fifteen millions of peoples cannot live in poverty, illiteracy, a most complete spiritual and mental darkness, without constituting a disgraceful menace to the state. They have a civilized conviction that the laborer is worthy of his hire, a practical perception of the waste entailed in millions of acres of untilled land while the working people go hungry. And with this belief goes an esthetic appreciation of the necessity of beauty in the national life, the cultivation of racial forms of art, and the creation of substantial and lasting unity in national politics. (Collected Essays 415)

23This passage neatly summarizes Porter’s overall conclusion to Outline and seamlessly connects all major premises of her underlying intentions: the Native and working classes cannot be left in poverty while they are also being upheld as the spiritual center of the modern Mexican nation. Furthermore, while the new and modern Mexican nation was supposed to be built upon the romanticization of the Native race, Porter’s insistence on the Native “racial temperament” is actually counter to how the nationalistic fervor attempted to inscribe it. Porter wanted to herald – for all the sentimentalizing this might entail – a spirituality and an almost divine will into Indigenous crafts and art that would further the revolution and improve Native life in Mexico and perception in the U.S. She did not want to reinscribe colonization practices. What is left to negotiate is whether or not Porter accomplished her intentions, namely to further an artistic and Indigenous revolution separate from the politicizing, romanticizing, and self-aggrandizing of the Muralists and the government. While she may have unwittingly contributed to indigenous stereotypes, she did indeed bring to the forefront an otherwise often unrecognized but very real art form – a “living art.”

Negotiating indigenous art and contemporary Mexican philosophy through a lens of subversion and connectivity

24In 1929 Katherine Anne Porter wrote a book review of Brenner’s Idols behind Altars: The Story of the Mexican Spirit and argued that it is a vastly comprehensive book and overwhelming in scope, in the most positive of ways:

The anthropologist, the explorer, the teacher, the artist, the folk-heroes, the makers of legend and miracle have joined in pouring out their riches to make this a communal work, like everything that comes out of Mexico […] the attempt to present reality is a brave one, but there is a portentous air of legend in the style, and in spite of herself the author writes in heightened mood of one enchanted and convinced by a miracle. (“Old Gods and New Messiahs” 83)

25Porter perfectly encapsulates the tone and style of Brenner’s work. Idols behind Altars is a sweeping look at the history and art of Mexico replete with poetic language, lofty ideals, and scientific inquiry. Her uniquely anthropological perspective illuminates a concrete sociological vision of Mexican arts and their impact on the revolutionary era. In exploring these arts from their historical, cultural, and transcultural perspective, Brenner’s depiction of folkloric objects, particularly the petates, ex-votos and pulquería murals, show us how representations of the real and the spiritual in artistic practices is a phenomenon unique to the “renascence” of constructing a modern Mexican national identity. Informing all of this is Brenner’s own personal positionality: her working-class consciousness, transcultural background, and belief in decolonization, especially as she sees all of these as essential ingredients for social revolution and individual transformation.

26Anita Brenner embodies what a transcultural identity promises: she was a Mexican-born woman of Jewish lineage, educated in the United States’ Ivy League world, earning a PhD from Columbia University (without a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree) under the guidance of famed anthropologist Franz Boas, and realizing adulthood in the metropolitan chaos of New York and Mexico Cities during their most revolutionary decades. As a journalist and correspondent for The New York Times and The Nation, she traveled all of Europe, yet Mexico was home. This was witnessed most clearly by the fact that the Mexican government attempted to bestow the Aztec Eagle upon her—the highest honor granted by the Mexican government to foreigners—which she promptly refused, on the grounds that she was Mexican by birth (Glusker 11). Despite the fact that Brenner was of the intelligentsia, a very accomplished woman, and a world traveler, she still felt adrift, as evidenced by a 1929 poem where she voiced she was the “Daughter of two countries, citizen of none” (Glusker 56).

27Brenner’s family was originally from Latvia, and they became part of the Jewish diaspora that landed many immigrants in Mexico. Anita was born in Aguascalientes, Mexico in 1905, where she was raised until the age of eleven. Susannah Glusker, Brenner’s daughter, writes in A Mind of Her Own: “Born shortly after the revolution began, she witnessed the armed struggle, the dead and wounded, as well as efforts to reconcile differences. She had firsthand experience as a refugee and displaced person” (Glusker 12). Her official displacement occurred when the government advised that foreigners leave the country. The Brenners returned multiple times during the Revolution, but after auctioning off all their belongings in 1916, they left for a third time never to return (Glusker 26). When Anita and her family (consisting now of three other siblings) moved to San Antonio, Texas, she was confronted with an ethnic and regional identity crisis that would haunt her sense of self for many years to follow. The other girls at the Texas school would ask “What are you?” and she was often referred to as either “the little Mexican girl” or “the little Jewish girl” – neither of which were tenable identities in 1920s Texas (Glusker 28). Brenner’s identification as Mexican and Jewish—and neither one considered acceptable—leads her to negotiate Indigenous art and contemporary Mexican philosophy through a lens of subversion and connectivity.

  • 2 Mexican Renascence” was also the title for an article Brenner and Charlot published together, as w (...)

28Idols behind Altars was originally conceived as two separate articles; one a catalogue of Mexican decorative arts and the other a comprehensive story about the role of art in the Mexican Revolution. Brenner, and French painter Jean Charlot, who worked intimately with her on the ideas and writing, quite consciously employed the term “renascence2” to discuss Idols with the intention that this spelling “reaffirmed the identification of Mexico as a place of religion and revolutions with the concept of rebirth, as if it were a messianic endeavor to undergo rebirth” (Glusker 89). While writing the manuscript, Brenner was in constant contact with Edward Weston, providing him with lists of objects and images he and Tina Modotti should photograph, and though the final book included 115 images of the 400 they intended, it remains a vast narrative of 350 pages covering thousands of years of personal and political profiles, art, history and mysticism.

29What makes Anita Brenner unique to her circumstances and her era is that she did not stop at recognizing cultural survival as necessarily transformative, but that she went a step further by promoting decolonization. Many decades before postcolonialist theory was in the dominant discourse, Brenner used her anthropological and research training to create a critical lens through which to explore the colonization practices of Spain and the United States and to see the ways that Indigenous peoples had confronted and transcended their oppression. In this way, Brenner recognized the revolution as an historical event and the philosophies attending it as potentially decolonizing dialogues.

30Brenner defines both Indigenismo and decolonization when she writes, “The return to native values, spiritual and artistic [...] is a simplified description of modern Mexican art.” She continues to say that this “gesture is very close to [a] rejection of European values” and fundamentally must include a “feeling that the artist be also a person with a definite social attitude, a consciousness that must determine his choices in daily life and in his work” (Idols 231). The ontology she urges on her readers becomes the slogan for the entire Revolutionary movement. Brenner goes on to quote David Alfaro Siqueiros to delineate how such a resistance may take shape:

Let us observe the work of our ancient people, the Indian painters and sculptors (Mayas, Aztecs, Incas, etc.). Our nearness to them will enable us to assimilate the constructive vigour of their work, in which there is clear knowledge of the elements of nature, and these things can serve as a point of departure […] We can possess their synthetic energy without falling into lamentable archaeological reconstruction [...] Let us not flee to “archaic” motifs. We must live our marvelous dynamic age. (Idols 242)

31Sisqueiros and Brenner are propelling the Revolution forward through a repulsion of “lamentable” archeological processes and instead reviving Indigenous culture as living. One way that Brenner held fast to this decolonizing methodology was to expose how Indigenous practices of artistic creation are endemic to the social construction of Mexico. For example, in chapter two, “The Pyramid Builders,” Brenner establishes this sense of modern Mexican identity as solely reliant upon ancient beliefs and continued artistic practices. She writes that it is the social structures, which were based upon professional guilds and even “older family craft groups” (Idols 50), that allowed for turn of the century artist-inspired and communally-based social roles and societal mores. The seamless transition of societal roles is in part transmitted through “personal versions of inherited images” (Idols 52). These inherited images are very similar to Katherine Anne Porter’s “racial forms of art” (Collected Essays 415), and the bloodline and cultural importation of specifically Indigenous artistic forms and practices are used to further societal advancement for all peoples, especially the working and craft peoples in a non-hierarchal modern society.

32In a long chapter on the Mayan and Aztec conflation of beauty with spirit and individualism with nature, she explains that the inherited images, like the gods in the rivers, flow without obstacle or interruption to create the world, to render the moment. “It was the static majesty of the gods which every man must reflect, as in turn that majesty, synthesis of power, was the reflection of himself” (Idols 55). Because there is no disruption between spirit-man-god-artist then the presence of colonization is destabilized through the autonomy of artistic creation. The contemporary Mexican artist is the ancient Aztec warrior. Brenner writes,

It is an artist’s mood, his sense of limitation, his struggle with limitation, and his great assertion, the purpose of making – by his own strength – his life. The control is achieved in the artist’s way, by giving a physical place to a physical fact, making an image of it. The skull is the symbol of the thing which like the rain, the trees, the colors, and the moving birds is caught, controlled, and made into lasting, visible life. And it is the artist’s way, as it is the Mexican way, to disregard other things for the sake of making images. (Idols 26)

33The recuperation of Indigenous images, not through opposition to the colonizer but through deep self-reclamation, is what makes the artist’s way tangible, and not just tangible but real; the images of the soul and the meaning of the images becomes a society worth belonging to.

34These inherited images were saved throughout the centuries because, Brenner argues, that while class-based societies were always in flux and threatened by competing economies or the in-fighting of nobility, Indigenous and “class-less” societies heralded art as necessary and valuable. One does not live by hierarchy but by craft because “whatever his work, the craftsman was certain of response, acceptance, [and] a respected place” in the communal society (Idols 51). Brenner implies that this tradition of establishing a society based upon the mutual respect of artists and their craftsmanship is what should become the societal structure of modern Mexico. Modern artists, like the muralist community, are therefore well-advised to avoid the mimicry of the colonizer’s way of being, and instead revel in the authenticity of their own racial heritage and its representations. The artists, then, need to connect on a primal level to their ancestry and, through communication with these inherited images, paint modern Mexico into being.

35Brenner asks us to imagine the Indian sitting on his petate. He has done thus for centuries. She writes, “Trace the story of the conquest. At the beginning and end, you find the Indian sitting in the same way, and it must indicate that he is living and thinking much as he always did. Was there a conquest?” (Idols 127). Brenner asks us to consider the boundaries by which we measure colonization – who is colonized and by what means? How do we know? She argues that “living the same story, the man assumed another aspect; in his mystical sense, another mask. Is this a conquest? Whose?” (Idols 128). Despite colonization, the conquest is the Indio’s. She argues that every man in Mexico is the same such manifestation; each individual wears a “mask” to survive colonization, just as each person secrets away their true practices and beliefs: he is the idol behind the altar.

36While “owning an idol made a native liable to severe punishment,” each individual and cultural community had such practices (Idols 136). What appears as Christ on the cross is actually a tree god with outstretched and embracing arms carved into the oldest oak tree in the center of town. “Native religion was sheared, pared, abstracted, driven back to the fundamental needs which formed it; to the living core; to earth level” (Idols 137). The acculturated use of Christian and pagan symbolist systems was the ultimate survival tactic and resistance act. The men hid idols in the cuffs of their pants, women tucked them between their breasts. As they were forced to build the priest’s churches, the workmen secreted idols into the wet cement. Thus, as they were also forced to attend missionary services, they could turn to almost any wall, know they were actually facing an idol and worship as they pleased. Once the friars and missionaries figured out what was happening, they were humiliated and went about destroying all the idols they could find behind every gate, in every cave, and underneath each stone. This only changed when “The idol was carted to a museum; whereupon, promptly, devotion ceased” (Idols 144). It is interesting to note that all manner of subversion and subterfuge succeeded for generations until institutionalization. The museum’s sterile consumption of the living idols finally halted the workers’ ability to participate in an often colonizing practice of syncretism. To become relegated to and confined in a historical moment by being on display, the idol lost its ability to transform and progress alongside history.

37As opposed to the syncretism of the idols, the ex-votos were solely artefacts. Brenner writes that the artist “is confident that what he is describing is real… nobody is trying to ‘sell’ anything. The picture is therefore the first thing that a picture should be, and that is, convincing” (Idols 166-7). In contrast to the personal and illegal idols, the ex-votos or retablos (small paintings often on scraps of wood) are intricate, intimate, realistic, and ubiquitous. Retablos are the embodiment of a “racialized art” form that is also very specifically Mexican in image and aesthetic. Brenner writes:

To see and to paint a miracle you should be able to recognize the combination of elements present in it. If you believe what you say when you pray, if you are ever moved to pray, you are vividly enough aware of miracles to think you can reproduce them […] whether because you paint or you pray, it would be difficult to decide. Because both are national habits. (Idols 164)

38The spiritual is depicted as part and parcel of the everyday and the transcultural aesthetic promotes the Indigenous perspective that the miraculous is normalized.

39In concluding their individual treatises on Mexican art, Porter and Brenner eschew mention of aesthetics, Indigenismo, and even art altogether, though this is where they both began. Instead, both women go into detail about the very real consequences of national poverty, particularly on the poorest yet celebrated, Indigenous population. Brenner writes of the “Indians who die of overwork,” and how, outside of the cultural centers, the rest of Mexico is, for good or ill, “unmapped, unexploited, unlinked to western civilization except by occasional aeroplane” (Idols 314). Not thoroughly colonized, the vast terrain of Mexican countryside could be the canvas upon which the new, modern Mexico is written with veracity and inclusion. In her very last lines, Brenner finally acknowledges that art does have a role in this global and Indigenous revolution and renaissance when she writes:

Except to believers in miracles, pictures and verses are no shield against bullets. As shields and as symbols however they are taken by persons who hope to re-duplicate the Mexican miracle, and the Mexican heroism […] So long as the country paints and sings because it has fought, continues consistently itself, its unhappy neighbors can also sing and hope to fight. (Idols 329)

40Even though in the end Brenner implies, as does Porter, that the Revolution faltered, she urges us to learn from Mexico’s transformational process and continue to work toward the rise of the Americas, from their roots to a full expression of their pluralist identities and arts.

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Brenner, Anita. Idols behind Altars: The Story of the Mexican Spirit. 1929. Boston, Beacon Press, 1970.

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1 There is substantial proof that Porter and Brenner met in 1923, as they were in Mexico at the time and were part of the same circle of artists and revolutionaries. Thomas F. Walsh writes: “Back in the land of her birth, Anita Brenner recorded in her journal, ‘There is also here a Katherine Anne Porter of Century—that is the way they introduce them all except me” (Walsh 91). Walsh says that they met in 1923 and that when Porter reviewed Brenner’s 1929 Idols behind Altars, she reviewed notes she had made in Mexico in 1923. That said, they did not collaborate on their work nor did they reference each other in any substantial way, so their overlapping use of this specific term is quite striking. The author is indebted to Darlene Unrue for these detailed comments.

2 Mexican Renascence” was also the title for an article Brenner and Charlot published together, as well as the original title for Idols behind Altars. (Glusker 89).

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Tabitha A. MORGAN, « ‘Inherited Images’: the Decolonialist agenda of Katherine Anne Porter and Anita Benner »E-rea [En ligne], 16.2 | 2019, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2019, consulté le 29 novembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Tabitha A. MORGAN

Community College of Philadelphia
Tabitha A. Morgan work centers in transculturalism, aesthetics, environmental humanities, and gender and working-class studies. She has most recently published work on early Indigenous North American women’s literature in Critical Insights: Social Justice and American Literature as well as work on Juanita Guccione and post-human feminism in Otherwhere for the Weinstein Gallery in San Francisco.

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