Hybridism, Purity and Syncretism: A Commentary on Carolyn Dean and Dana Leibsohn’s "Hybridity and Its Discontents: Considering Visual Culture in Colonial Spanish America" (Colonial Latin American Review, 12, 2003: 5-35).

In their provocative essay, Carolyn Dean and Dana Leibsohn problematize the notion of ‘hybridity’, with regard to the colonial Spanish American culture: an enterprise that is as difficult as it is necessary. Their central argument is that recognizing or naming a cultural product as ‘hybrid’ implies the perception of it as a European byproduct, that ‘homogenizes things European and sets them in opposition to similarly homogenized non-European conventions. In short, hybridity is not so much the natural by-product of an “us” meeting a “them”, but rather the recognition—or creation—of an “us” and a “them”’ (Dean and Leibsohn, p. 6). A priori, their conclusion seems compelling (for one, I am discontent with the use of the term ‘hybrid’), but I am afraid that it results from a departure point that was not sufficiently demonstrated by the authors: one is left without evidence for the essay’s basic premise that ‘hybrid’ equals ‘European byproduct’—which contraries, to my knowledge, the literature.

For instance, in a recent publication ("Arte e identidad: las raíces culturales del Barroco Peruano." La Imagen Transgredida: ensayos de iconografía peruana y sus políticas de representación simbólica. Lima: Fondo Editorial del Congreso del Peru, 2016), Ramón Mujica Pinilla address the ‘semantic problem’ involving the study of art and identity in the Spanish Americas, by outlining a historical survey of the terminology used to establish the inherent difference between the art produced in the colonial Americas and in Europe, discussing terms such as ‘hispano-indio’, ‘ibero-andino’, ‘indo-peruano’, ‘mestizo’, ‘criollo’, etc. Even though Mujica does not discuss the term ‘hybrid’, it is clear that these concepts expressed a similar idea of cultural products with heterogeneous origins.

‘Cultural hybridism’ became a hot topic in the last decade, with many contents (Raab, Josef and Sebastian Thies, eds., E Pluribus Unum? National and Transnational Identities in the Americas, Münster: LIT and Tempe, AZ: Bilingual Press, 2008) and discontents (De Grandis, Rita and Zilá Bernd, eds., Unforeseeable Americas: Questioning Cultural Hybridity in the Americas. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000), and, to a certain extent, remains open to further considerations.

Returning to Dean and Leibsohn, they focus their criticism of the notion of hybridity on their understanding that ‘we’, scholars, ‘desire to distinguish’ the purity of either European or Indigenous cultural traits in hybrid visual entities. They ask: ‘why and to what end do we notice and write about mixing (whatever term we might use) if it is not to reify purity?’ and answer: ‘we contend that recognizing hybridity in colonial objects today is inherently an exercise of discrimination—the creation of what fits some cultural norm and what does not fit’ (p. 26). Unwillingly included among those scholars, I am inclined to present an alternative, multifaceted response to that question (which I would be happy to discuss with colleagues):

a) Because all cultures are ‘mixed’ as a result of conscious or unconscious cultural transmissions that become more or less evident in different cultural levels

Aware of how obvious this postulate may be understood at first glance, I would like to illustrate my point by tracing back the cultural transmissions of one single ‘hybrid’ object: Diego Quispe Tito’s, Christ Calling Apostles Peter and Andrew (Pisces), which belongs to the ‘Signs of the Zodiac’ series in the Cathedral of Cuzco (1681): it was painted by a Quechua artist, probably educated by an Italian Jesuit (Bernardo Bitti); part of the subject is Hebrew/Christian (from the New Testament); part is Chaldean (the zodiacs); the topic of the painting was probably conceived by an European priest, who chose a print as model (printing was probably invented in China); it was painted after an engraving by the Flemish artist Adriaen Collaert, designed and written in Neo-Latin by Hans Bol and printed in Antwerp by Jan Sadeler (Emblemata Evangelica, Antwerp, 1585); this engraving and its accompanying text (in Roman alphabet) constituted an emblem (a genre invented by Andrea Alciato, a Milanese, inspired by the Greek Anthology and Horapollon’s Egyptian Hieroglyphs), etc., etc.

b) Because syncretism is not solely a phenomenon of creation, but also of reception

I prefer the term syncretism (also polemic), and I avoid using the word ‘hybrid’ because of its etymological racial connotation, and because it can lead users in two false conclusions: that only two cultures are involved in the process of creating it, and that the resulting cultural trait may belong to both cultures. First, as one can attest in the example above, the traces of cultural exchange can be found in different levels of cultural levels (pattern, complex, trait, etc.); and second, a ‘hybrid’ object does not belong to both cultures necessarily: taken to another culture, they would be identified with the exotic, and belong to the Wunderkammer. For example, given the persecution of paganism in colonial societies, African deities were adored in the Portuguese America in the form of Christian gods. Saint George, for instance, was Ogun (the Orisà of War, in the Yoruba culture). However, a Candomblé (African Brazilian religion) figure of Ogun/Saint George, taken to Europe or Yoruba societies, would not be adored as such. This means that syncretism dwell in its own context. Similar examples of this phenomenon are abundant, in the Spanish Americas (in Peru, for instance, Santiago was adored as Illapa, the Virgin Mary as Pachamama, etc.) and throughout history (Alexandria is a great example, which could provide pertinent comparative analyses);

c) Because syncretism is a stage where cultural disputes take place

One of the reasons why I like the term ‘syncretism’ comes from its own etymology (συγκρητισμός): ‘the union of the Cretans’ (Plutarch, Moralia 2.490b). When threated by an external danger, the Cretans would unite to fight the enemy. Erasmus discussed the term in his Adagia (I, i, 11), associating it with Aristotles’ saying: ‘troubles brings men together’. That endows the term with an intrinsic struggle that brings a particular phenomenon to light—and this struggle can be easily associated with Serge Gruzinski’s Images at War. Therefore, a syncretic visual object is not the result of historical cultural exchanges (more or less intentional or conscious), but rather the presence of heterogeneous, disputing living cultures, within the same cultural entity—in the moment of its creation and throughout its reception. In this sense, studying this cultural ‘mixture’ (to use Dean and Leibsohn’s words) is not homogenizing one culture or another, but understanding their conflicts, disputes and negotiations.


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I would like to thank our colleague Lucía Querejazu for bringing this instigating text and topic to our discussion. Gracias!