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Beyond Representation: Ancient Indigenous Visual Culture

Dumbarton Oaks and via Zoom
October 7  –  8, 2022
This two-day symposium explores non-iconographic approaches to the study of images from the Ancient Americas

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For most of its history, the study of Pre-Columbian art and material culture has been dominated by iconographic approaches, with scholarly efforts geared toward interpreting what is being represented. Iconography implicitly links the meaning of art (taken here in its broad sense) to its subject matter and assumes that the idea of the represented precedes its material enactment and form. The goal of this symposium is to consider what might lie beyond iconological interpretations of things and images by exploring other ways such figures may have operated within pre-Columbian life-worlds, and different ways meaning may have been created and apprehended. In recent years, attention to indigenous ontologies has opened scholarship to non-imagistic aspects of signification and affect. By focusing on non-iconographic approaches to the study of pre-Columbian (re)presentation, this symposium aims to shine light on the ways indigenous artisans not only deployed the non-imagistic, but also how aniconism and iconism were differentially practiced. Symposium participants will reflect upon the following types of questions: What are the consequences of iconography’s dominance in the interpretation of pre-Columbian imagery and art? How has the bias toward mimetic representation potentially obscured other ways things and images signify, embody, manifest, or stabilize? What are the possibilities in forwarding a non-representational approach to visual culture wherein we think about the role of objects or art in “world-making” rather than “world-representing,” as pre-existing fact? How might approaching “representations” not as codes to be cracked but as performative “doings” resulting from ever-changing constellations of actors inform interpretation?


Symposiarchs: Tamara L. Bray (Wayne State University) and Carolyn Dean (University of California, Santa Cruz)


  • Tamara Bray (Wayne State University), Introduction
  • Carolyn Dean (University of California Santa Cruz), "Material Witnesses: The Matter of Memory in Inka Visual Culture"
  • Benjamin Alberti (Framingham State University), “'Is it a Peccary?' or 'What is a Peccary?' Species identity and Representation in First Millennium Northwest Argentina"
  • Molly Bassett (Georgia State University), "(Re)collecting the Gods"
  • Claudia Brittenham (University of Chicago), "Beyond Iconography: The Polyvalence of the La Venta Massive Offerings"
  • Yve Chavez, (University of Oklahoma), "Beyond the Limits of Visual Analysis: Re-Imagining Tongva Architecture in Los Angeles"
  • Carlos Fausto (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro), Discussant
  • Andrew Hamilton (Art Institute of Chicago), "The Tyranny of Sight in the Visual Arts: Toward an Inca Art History"
  • Els Lagrou (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro), "Abstract Chimeras and Relational Ontologies in the Amazon"
  • George Lau (University of East Anglia), "On Pins and Powders at Pashash: A Ritual Offering and the Matter of Subjects in Prehispanic Peru"
  • Federico Navarrete (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), "Images, Representation and the Construction of Complex Beings in Colonial Mesoamerican Codices"
  • Diana Rose (Independent Scholar), "The Performance of K’atuns: Stelae as Participants in Maya Renewal Ceremonies"
  • Lisa Trever (Columbia University), “Moche Iconogenesis: Where Do Images Come From?”
Collage of objects including a detail from fol. 2 of the Codex Boturini (Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]); an adapted image of a Marajoara cylindrical vessel, Marajo island, Brazil, Collection H Law 170 (Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]), and a detail from the Inka All T'oqapu Tunic, Late Horizon, PC.B.518, from Dumbarton Oaks.