Reflections on the notion of “hybridity” in the context of the Iberian Empires departing from the article of Carolyn Dean and Dana Leibsohn, “Hybridity and its discontents: Considering Visual culture in Colonial Spanish America”.

Upon rereading the article of Carolyn Dean and Dana Leibsohn, “Hybridity and its discontents: Considering Visual culture in Colonial Spanish America”, a certain number of reflections come to my mind. Although it might not be the more conventional way of proceeding, I will start in medias res by bringing in this quote: “The Asian contributions to colonial Latin American visual culture are rarely remarked upon, however, let alone studied.” (Dean and Leibsohn 2010, 13) Both authors then suggest that the phenomenon is due to the fact that “our understandings of hybridity depends upon a hierarchy” (Dean and Leibsohn 2010, 13), a hierarchy which is evidently based on the weight that the duality European colonizer vs. indigenous colonized has in our mind, as opposed to any other type of exchanges (Dean and Leibsohn 2010, 13).

            Perhaps, this reticence to study certain type of objects, as the Andean tapestries discussed by Dean and Leibsohn (Dean and Leibsohn 2010, 13), and therefore certain cultural appropriations, has to do, indeed, with the fact that we don’t want to be confronted to an uncomfortable degree of “mixtures” that would go far beyond what the traditional duality of the term hybrid would permit us to expect. What should we do, for instance, if we depart of a notion as hybridity, with such artistic productions as the multiple cabinets, escritorios, contadores, papeleras, and so forth, that show much more than two “pure stems” in their making, -an “indigenous” one and a “European” one-, although they are conspicuous elements of the artistic landscape of the Iberian Empires from Asia to America? Indeed, there is no possibility of discussing those objects without identifying in them a multitude of possible “roots”, whether Italian, German, Austrian, Flemish, Spanish, Portuguese, Indian, -Hindu (the nagas of the indo-portuguese contadores), or Muslim (the Moghul flower motifs and arabesques)-, as well as American indigenous (whether in the production of this type of furniture in Peru or in Villa Alta in Oaxaca, for instance).

            This type of objects are certainly more fitted to evoke the well-known Deleuzian-Guattarian metaphor of the rhizome, of which we are so fund today, than the almost Herderian idea of root and origin which is implicit in the idea of hybridity, of which, paradoxically, we seem to be as fund. This truly global furniture production also challenges completely notions as those of Mestizo or Christian-indigenous art, which are at the base of any reflection upon the so-called hybridity of Viceregal art (a notion evidently based on race and genetics, as Kubler had warned us about: it wouldn’t occur to us to speak of the “hybridity” of Fontainebleau on account of both its “Frenchness” and its “Italianness”).

            It should be stressed that when we speak of the so-called hybridity of certain colonial productions,- in the manner of Angel Guido, when discussing the “indiatides” of San Lorenzo Potosi, or of Pedro Rojas, when discussing the yeserías of Tonantzintla-, not only are we implicitly recognizing two distinct roots in those productions, pertaining to two distinct “Volksgeister”, but we are generally doing so in order to judge what in those two “stems” is valuable and what is to be rejected, as if we were separating analytically the wheat of the chaff, the wheat being irremediably “indigenous” and the chaff being irremediably “Spanish” or even more vaguely, “European”. Indeed the general value that we give to emblematic “hybrid” productions as Tonantzintla, in Puebla or San Lorenzo, in Potosi, is based on the fact that we think that they were made by indigenous hands, as much as they were inspired by an original indigenous “Volksgeist”. It is easy to acknowledge that, in doing so, we completely obliterate the fact that, in both cases, it is also possible to retrace their “origin” to both French and Flemish engravings as those of Jacques Androuet du Cerceau or Vredeman de Vries (which, on the other hand, owe a great part of their existence to Italians as Rosso, Pimaticcio, among many others), while the same engravings were used in India, in productions comparable to those of Tonantzintla and San Lorenzo.

            It should also be said that, not only do we minimize completely the artistic value and significance of those engravings, and therefore of the artists that created them (los ninguneamos, one could say), by judging, as modern Roger de Piles’, that it is not the disegno that counts, but its coloring, or its three dimensional embodiment, embodiment or coloring that would carry all the indigenous and national qualities that we are looking for (see Juana Gutierrez Haces’ “¿La pintura novohispana como koiné pictórica americana? Avances de una investigación en ciernes”), but we also forget that Flemish artisans, -as well as Asian, Austrian, Italian, and so forth-, could have something to do with the physical making of such productions that we too easily consider indigenous.

            If this last affirmation might seem groundless to some, I will say that it is precisely by studying the famous pulpits of Portuguese Goa that I was able to observe that these objects generally considered as the fruit of a “miscegenation” between Portugal and India, not only were as much indebted to Italian, Flemish and French engravings deriving of the (Italianate) school of Fontainebleau as Tonantzintla or San Lorenzo in Potosi, but that some of their sculptures resembled those of the Warship Vasa, a Swedish warship made by the Dutch, suggesting a possible scenario of direct artistic exchanges between Flemish, German and Indian sculptors (among others), that could have taken place in the famous shipyards of Portuguese India. Needles to say that to imagine small Flemish artisans, -who could have first lived in Asia-, working in Puebla or Potosi beside indigenous ones, just as much as in Portuguese India, is far from being impossible, while the “subaltern” label could be as easily apposed to them than to their indigenous counterparts, by which the normal equation, European vs. Indigenous = dominator vs. dominated, might also appear completely inadequate in this context. The same, I would say, could be imagined of Asian artists and artisans working in America and vice-versa.

            This brings forward another problem, related as much to Subaltern Studies than that of hybridity, which is the notion of subaltern agency, as Ranajit Guha understood it. Indeed in seeking an indigenous agency we always assume that it would be automatically directed against whatever European colonial power we might think of, as to please our own academic ideologies, when it is not necessarily the case. Indeed, if we are somehow uncomfortable with the idea that a woman like Doña Isabel Uypa Cuca might have chosen not to cling to the  “purity” of an original indigenous type of garment (see Dean and Leibsohn 2010, 11), or if we prefer to praise Guaman Poma’s drawings instead of dwelling on the work and life of the Inca Garcilaso (see Rolena Adorno), it is mainly because, by doing so, we feel that we are in accordance with our own  “contesting” and anticolonial sensibilities. We shouldn’t forget, nonetheless, that there were indigenous “agencies”, as those of the Malinche, the Tlaxcaltecs, or later on, the indigenous conservador Tomás Mejia, that we are simply not fitted to judge morally from our own modern academic positions and ideologies. Although this type of “collaboration” with the “enemies” of the “original” indigenous “Volksgeist”, -as we often judge this type of agency-, is particularly polemic because of its political implications, it might be said that, on a less evidently political ground, indigenous artists might have chosen to work in collaboration, and not in opposition, with other artists, whether of Asian or European descent, -independently of all the conflicts of interest that their belonging to such or such “race” or nation might have generated among them-, just as much as Doña Isabel Uypa Cuca didn’t reject the idea of wearing garments made of Asian silk, probably because, by doing so, she was only acting in accordance with the high social position she occupied within the “post-indigenous” Spanish social order in which she lived.  

            In sum, I think that to adopt the notion of hybridity in art implies necessarily that we imagine artists as the indefectible voice of their “Volksgeist” and that this position might appear eventually as divorced from reality than the multiple debates that went on in the first half of the twentieth century around the “Germanness” or “un-Germanness” of Matthias Grünewald’s paintings in the Isenheim altar (see Keith Moxey’s “Impossible Distance”).