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Ballplayers, Gods, and Rainmaker Kings: Masterpieces from Ancient Mexico

September 16, 2010–January 2, 2011
Regenstein East

The Nobel Prize–winning poet Octavio Paz once remarked that nations with a colonial past have the obligation to examine and acknowledge their ancient history as they advance into modernity. Attuned to Paz’s directive, the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City, the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, and the Art Institute of Chicago present an exhibition of sculptural masterpieces from Mexico’s ancient civilizations to celebrate the bicentennial of Mexico’s independence from Spain and the centennial of the 1910 Revolution, which led to the modern Mexican republic.

Seventeen major works of ancient Pre-Columbian art reveal the distinctive styles and symbolic forms of different societies that flourished between 900 B.C. and A.D. 1521. While stylistically and conceptually diverse, these compelling objects share a fundamental worldview in which human society was perceived as an integral part of the dynamic order of nature. The universe was seen as reflections of relationships between life forces, and it was a primary purpose of art, architecture, and ritual drama to illustrate and certify that sacred integration.

The poetic title, Ballplayers, Gods, and Rainmaker Kings, alludes to the variety of images stemming from this governing principle of ancient life. Ancient ballgames were played not only for sport but as a form of divination; cosmic events were held to influence the outcome, and the interpretation of results in turn affected actions taken by rulers. The deities of ancient Mexico were also closely bound to this natural order—to the land, crops, and the annual cycle of seasons—while the kings’ duties included ending the dry season with offerings and prayers upon the high mountains, calling for rain clouds to appear and initiate the annual cycle of renewal.

The exhibition is part of the citywide celebration of Mexico 2010, which opens September 15 with a performance of Mexican music and dance in Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion.


A 40-page catalogue accompanies the exhibition with commentary from Lic. Alfonso de Maria y Campos, director general of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia; Dr. Diana Magaloni Kerpel, director of the Museo Nacional de Antropología; James Cuno, director of the Art Institute; Richard Townsend, chair of African Art and Indian Art of the Americas; and Elizabeth Pope, collections manager. Published as a bilingual text, the book reiterates the museum’s commitment and outreach to the large Spanish-speaking community in Chicago and throughout the world.


This exhibition is organized by the Art Institute of Chicago in collaboration with the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City and the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa to commemorate Mexico's bicentennial of independence from Spain and the centennial of the Revolution of 1910.


Support for this exhibition is provided in part by the Gilchrist Foundation.

Generous support is provided by members of the Exhibitions Trust: Anonymous, the Earl and Brenda Shapiro Foundation, and Mr. and Mrs. Paul Sullivan.

Incensario Depicting Chicomecoatl, c. 1500. Mexica-Aztec. Tláhuac, Mexico Federal District. CONACULTA-INAH, Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City, 10-571544. Photograph © Michel Zabé.