FOLLOW THE BOUNCING BALL

Our society has never afforded organized athletics the social status granted to those things ordinarily called culture: music, dance, theater, literature or the visual arts. But that distinction was unknown in the pre-Columbian cultures of Mesoamerica, where team sports were taken as seriously as religion or science. That's Mexican artist Ana Pellicer's taking-off point for Ulama: The Ball That Bounces, a marvelous exhibition now at the Museo de las Americas.

Thoughtfully installed by guest curator Jane Stevenson Day, the exhibit incorporates three distinct yet interwoven components displayed in a virtual spiral. The arrangement leads the viewer first along the outside walls of the main gallery, then to an inner circle of showcases, and finally to the center of the Museo.

Along the walls of the main gallery, text panels describe a 3,000-year tradition of ball games played in the area that is now Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. The panels provide information about where the games were played and what equipment was used, but they only vaguely chronicle the dozens, if not hundreds, of variations that must have appeared over the millennia. These text panels are paired with travelogue-worthy color photos of archaeological sites such as the large formal Mayan stadium at Chichen Itza and one of those well-known Olmec stone heads, the size of small buildings, that many scholars believe were meant to symbolize ballplayers.

The ring of showcases holds artifacts that further illustrate the history of the contests. Numerous unglazed terra cotta figures from pre-Columbian times portray the ballplayers; it is from these figures--not a part of the game but ritual articles of a religious nature--that scholars have discerned the type of equipment players wore. Also ceremonial rather than utilitarian are the expertly carved pre-Columbian basalt yolks, which correspond to the long-lost cotton, leather and straw ones the players wore as protective pads.

Mixed in with the ancient articles is a reproduction, made by Pellicer, of a Mesoamerican rubber ball. The ball is on loan from the Denver Museum of Natural History, which, along with the Denver Art Museum, also lent some of the historical artifacts.

The reproduction, about the size of a billiard ball (the original spheres came in a wide range of sizes and weighed up to ten pounds or more), is a natural black color with a rich dull sheen. Pellicer made it using the traditional technique of catching rubber-tree sap in a wooden mold. Sadly, deforestation in Mexico has meant that few rubber trees are mature enough to provide the sap for much more than a handful of such reproductions. At one time, this resource was abundant enough for the last great emperor of the Aztecs, Moctezuma II, to have some 16,000 rubber balls produced for use in the sacred games.

The appearance in the late fifteenth century of the Spanish explorers, notably Hernan Cortes, meant curtains for Moctezuma's civilization--and for the rest of the indigenous cultures of Mesoamerica that had developed free of the influence of either Europe or Asia. Along with corn, potatoes, tomatoes, sugar and ten-foot-tall wheels of gold stamped with the Aztec calendar, Cortes returned to Spain with black rubber balls. Those balls soon supplanted the leather-covered wooden ones that had long been used in European games.

By the time the viewer finally arrives in the center of the Museo, which is occupied by several thoroughly contemporary sculptures and a stunning installation Pellicer conceived in response to all of this Mesoamerican history, one knows enough about the topic to fully appreciate her work. These pieces are made of rubber combined with hammered copper. The use of the hammered metal reflects Pellicer's interest in pre-Columbian craft traditions still alive in Mexican folk art. With her husband, the American-born sculptor James Metcalf, she has lived and worked since 1967 in the historic metalsmithing town of Santa Clara del Cobre in the state of Michoacan.

Pellicer's decision to work in the small town instead of an art center like her native Mexico City is the product of "Mexicanidad," an ideology earlier expressed by Frida Kahlo, in which Mexican folk art is championed in order to encourage economic development in the countryside. Through the efforts of Pellicer and her husband, there has been a virtual renaissance in metalwork in Santa Clara del Cobre, where the ancient Tarascan culture of Michoacan still thrives. Also in the tradition of Kahlo, Pellicer has brought social change to the town by breaking the sex barrier in the hitherto exclusively male world of Mexican metalwork. But she gets as good as she gives: The Pellicer sculptures on display here were actually executed by modern-day Tarascan smiths, and they're breathtaking.

"La Pelota Que Rebota" (The Ball That Bounces) is a stark and somber sculpture that shows off the skill of these folk artists. Consisting of a large, carved rubber ball on a hammered copper stand, the piece expresses the moment when the native artifact was taken over by European conquerors. Except for its size, the ball is not unlike Pellicer's reproduction of the ancient one (the rare Mexican rubber having been supplemented with an Asian variant). The copper stand is in the form of a neck ruffle like those worn in the Spanish court of the time.

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