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PCSNY February 5 Lecture-Allison Caplan

February 5 @ 6:00 pm - 7:00 pm

De/Materializing Self: Nahua Precious Insignia and the Experiential Body

Allison Caplan, Assistant Professor in the History of Art, Yale University, Connecticut

Quetzal feather headdress, detail. Nahua (Aztec), circa 900-1520 CE, 116 x 175 cm, feathers, gold, textile. Weltmuseum, Vienna, 10,402. Photo by Allison Caplan.

Abstract. Among the Nahuas of Late Postclassic and early colonial central Mexico, precious materials played an integral role in manifestations of the divine. When layered and worn, devices of highly valued stones, feathers, shells, and gold gave rise to multisensory experiences that reconstituted the identity of their wearers as embodiments of sacred beings and phenomena. Surviving devices and Nahuatl textual descriptions of the experience of insignia worn on the body together provide insight into the maneuvers through which precious insignia underwent a type of dematerialization, becoming sensory experiences that simultaneously reconstituted the wearer’s own body and self. In this talk, I focus on a set of Nahuatl-language texts that narrate the act of assembling precious insignia onto the body and the subsequent transformations through which precious material and dressed body alike became aesthetic experiences that were at once kinetic, visual, sonorous, and spatialized. Through this discussion, I trace the question of the material, thinking through the ways in which juxtaposition, motion, and sensoriality enabled bodies and precious materials alike to take on new forms as fully aesthetic experiences. Through this process, insignia helped produce bodies that manifested an experiential sense of self and new, expansive forms of identity and sociality.

Author Biography. Allison Caplan is an assistant professor in the History of Art at Yale. She is a scholar of the art of Late Postclassic and early colonial Mesoamerica, with a focus on the Nahuas of central Mexico. Her research centers on Nahua art theory and aesthetics, issues of materiality and value, and the relationship between visual expression and the Nahuatl language. Caplan received her Ph.D. and M.A. in Art History and Latin American Studies from Tulane University and her B.A. in Comparative Literature and Society from Columbia University. Previously, Caplan was an assistant professor in the History of Art and Architecture at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the inaugural Austen-Stokes Ancient Americas Postdoctoral Fellow at Johns Hopkins University. Caplan is currently completing her first book, Our Flickering Creations: Concepts of Nahua Precious Art, which reconstructs Nahua theorizations of color, light, surface,and assemblage for art combining precious stones, feathers, and metals. Her work has also appeared in Ethnohistory, West 86’h, MAVCOR Journal, Golden Kingdoms: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas, The Routledge Companion to the Global Renaissance, and Mexico Tenochtitlan: Dynamism at the Center of the World. Caplan’s research has been supported by grants and fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, the Getty Research Institute, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Monday February 5, 2024

6:00 pm EST


Institute of Fine Arts-NYU



February 5
6:00 pm - 7:00 pm


Pre-Columbian Society of New York


Institute of Fine Arts–NYU
1 E. 78th Street
New York, United States
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