The Search for Xochipili’ Events:

Corrections or additions?

This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the March 24, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

A Celebration of Latin American Sound, Sight, and Movement

‘There was a tremendous amount of music in Mexico before the conquest,” says pre-Columbian art expert Gillett G. Griffin, as he gestures to a small ceramic sculpture. Standing in the Princeton University Art Museum, we’re looking into a glass case at a fabulously active gathering of 11 musicians and dancers. Poised on a flat platform that suggests a self-contained, floating world, five big-breasted women are dancing in a line. Five music-making men form a line beside them. Each man blows into a flute he holds in his left hand, simultaneously shaking a rattle held high in his right hand. All the men and women have large heads, bold, straight noses, and intelligent, focused expressions. As they parade before a single seated drummer, you can almost hear their music, pick up the rhythm, and join this 2,000-year-old dance.

This masterpiece of expressive clay sculpture is a small part of a wealth of ancient Mesoamerican art and artifacts that are featured in “Music from the Land of the Jaguar,” an exhibition of musical instruments from the major cultures of the ancient Americas. An integral part of Princeton University’s month-long celebration of the arts of the Americas, “The Search for Xochipili,” the show opens Saturday, April 17, and remains on view to September 5.

Xochipili (pronounced so-she-PEE-lee) — as most Princetonians will likely know by month’s end — was the Aztec god of music and dance. “We know this because he was still the deity when the Spanish came,” Griffin explains. “There were a couple of Spaniards who tried to learn about the Indians — what they were thinking about, what their religion was like — they did exhaustive studies, the first anthropological studies of people.

“The most famous surviving statue of Xochipili, in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, has him sitting, crosslegged, apparently singing, and on his legs are morning glory blossoms,” he continues. “Everybody in ancient America knew the seeds of morning glories were hallucinogenic.” In other words, the psychedelic side of the ancients’ music and dance is present in the god’s representation.

Presented in conjunction with a wealth of musical and literary events (see accompanying schedule, page 33), the art exhibit will unite rare musical instruments with their depictions in different mediums, illustrating the connections between musical and ritual iconography in the Mesoamerican arts that flourished from 1000 B.C. to the time of the Spanish conquest in 1519.

Look closer at the museum label attached to the Jalisco group of 11 dancing figures and you will read: “Gift of Gillett G. Griffin.” The ancient piece is something Griffin bought in Mexico City in the 1960s, in the freewheeling days before international treaties and protective covenants on art. A life-long collector, Griffin plans to give all his bounty to Princeton.

The still-handsome man, his wide face and boldly delineated features topped with a head of gleeming white hair, is also known for his perennially cheerful demeanor. As artist, adventurer, collector, teacher, and self-made scholar, Griffin has been the inspiration behind Princeton’s Mesoamerican collections since he arrived on campus in 1952, a freshly minted BFA graduate from Yale, to take a job as curator of graphic arts at Princeton’s Firestone Library.

Graphic arts? Griffin, who became a legend in the study of ancient Mesoamerica, likes to say that his entire working life has been a succession of pleasurable hobbies. The curator of pre-Columbian and Native American Art retires this semester after 30 years spent teaching and building the collections.

Griffin has seen the field change for a group of just a few people who could not foresee the time when Mayan glyphs would become fully intelligible (as they are today), to the contemporary, highly structured academic world where scholars quibble over competing interpretations of ancient stone texts. To some modern enthusiasts “I’m a villain because I’m a collector,” Griffin remarks, “but everything I have will go to Princeton.” He even has mixed feelings about the modern-day archaeological dig. “Looters used to grab what they could and leave other stuff behind,” he says. “But today scientists strip everything until there’s absolutely nothing left.”

“The great tragedy is that every archaeologist has a responsibility to publish and make available their work, but very few do that,” he continues. Griffin’s everyday world is populated by his collections of dozens of clay figures formed by Mesoamerican craftspeople thousands of years ago. These animated characters tell the story of the unfolding of a continent and its culture, from the Olmec of the second millennia B.C. to the Aztec empire of the 16th century A.D.

Flute players, drummers, and singers are among the ancient figurines in action. Also represented are the instruments they played, from elaborately decorated one-note whistles, probably designed exclusively for burials, to slit drums, ceramic bells, rattles, and richly melodic clay flutes, known as ocarinas. A slender, Mayan dancing figure from pre-Columbian Guatemala (see illustration) holds a diminutive replica of the large conch shell that would have been used as a trumpet. The figure is decked out in ritual regalia, and Griffin points out how the character’s closed or blank eyes and open mouth convey to us that he’s in a trance. “These are wonderfully little vignettes into life in a different time and a different place,” he says.

Whistles abound among these brilliantly rendered figurative sculptures. Two black clay pots with whistle spouts are each adorned with the perfectly rendered form of a hairless dog. While the mother dog nurses two pups; the male raises a back leg to scratch at his ear. The pots’ hollow bowls may have held water to transform the simple high-pitched whistle into a warbling sound.

“Shamans believed there was a whistling language,” Griffin explains. “These whistles were place in the tomb for the deceased to use to summon the spirits of his ancestors through whistling.”

Contrary to curatorial custom. Griffin is only too happy to sound these ancient whistles and rattle the clay sculptures, many of which encase multiple clay pellets for that purpose. He also invites musicians to sample their riches. Composer Peter Schickele is among those who have composed works especially for them. His 1996 composition featured Griffin’s most ancient ocarina. Beautiful in tone, the tiny clay instrument was unearthed from Tlatilco, a village on the lakeshore near what is now Mexico City. The whistle, which will be back on display for the “Music from the Land of the Jaguar” show, is shaped like turtle-shell wrapped around the bearded face of an old man.

“I always had the wonder that man could do these thing,” Griffin says, with an ever-fresh sense of wonder in his voice. “The invention is incredible. Man is a very new animal, really. That man can draw and paint and sculpt and understand is a wonder. Man is the only picture-making animal, that can read pictures 30,000 years later. And because of that we can go to the moon… I think painting is even more important than language in many ways.”

Born in Brooklyn in 1928, and raised in Greenwich, Connecticut, Griffin developed an interest in art and in collecting while he was still a boy. As a student at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts he began his first collection of antique children’s books.

Griffin began collecting pre-Columbian art in the late 1940s by chance and not design. As a student at Yale, he came across two ceramic pieces in a New Haven junk store. He later learned that the tiny clay figure that he had bought for 25 cents was made in pre-Columbian Mexico.

Griffin began working at Princeton in 1952, first for Firestone Library as curator of Graphic Arts Collection, and later as a designer for Princeton University Press. He traveled to Mexico for the first time in 1961, after the death of his parents. Three years later, he took an 18-month leave to travel and research in Mexico and Guatemala. He returned to Princeton in 1967 to become a curator of pre-Columbian and Native American Art.

“These instruments are highly enigmatic; no one knows exactly how these instruments were played and what sounds were elicited from them “ explains early music specialist John Burkhalter. “What we know comes primarily from the Spanish 16th-century illustrated chronicle (known as “The Florentine Codex”) that highlights many aspects of the culture, including the importance of music in ritual and ceremony.”

The Princeton collection includes a ceramic, recorder-like flute made between 1450 and 1519, shortly before the Spanish conquest. This is the type of flute that is known to be associated with Aztec blood sacrifices. It was played by the people who were chosen to impersonate the Aztec deities for a year before being sacrificed, Griffin explains. Their year (and their lives) ended with their ascent up pyramid steps to their sacrifice. Each sacrificial victim was arrayed in elaborate garments, with beautiful feather work. As they progressed up the pyramid, they played their clay flutes, which were then broken in two.

“Like most civilizations in the world,” Griffin explains, “everything began with human sacrifice. Blood was the greatest gift you could give to the gods — and it was such a wonderful color.”

Allen Rosenbaum, former director of the Princeton University Art Museum, worked closely with Griffin over years and learned from him. Together they were instrumental in organizing the museum’s 1995 groundbreaking show, “The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership.” Fearing that the university might not replace Griffin and that his splendid collection would start to gather dust, Rosenbaum successfully fundraised for an endowed chair in pre-Columbian art. Now Griffin is delighted that his successor, John Pohl, who begins work in June, is both an artist and a teacher — “and he has a sense of humor.”

— Nicole Plett

Music from the Land of the Jaguar, Princeton University Art Museum, 609-258-3788. First day for “Music from the Land of the Jaguar,” an exhibition of musical instruments from the major cultures of the ancient Americas that flourished from 1000 B.C. to the beginning of the Spanish conquest in 1519. On view to September 5. Free. Saturday, April 17, 10 a.m.

Top Of Page
The Search for Xochipili’ Events:

Jose Gonzalez y Criollo Clasico, Princeton University Concerts, Richardson Auditorium, 609-258-5000. “An Evening of Acoustic Puerto Rican and Caribbean Folk Music” presented in conjunction with the department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Cultures. $10 adults; $5 seniors; students free. Tuesday, March 30, 8 p.m.

Latin American Music Roundtable, Princeton University Concerts, Taplin Auditorium, 609-258-5000. “What is Latin American about Latin American Music?” in conjunction with the “Search for Xochipili” music event. Speakers include Gerard Behague, University of Texas at Austin; Patrick Wood, independent scholar; and members of Cuarteto Latinoamericano. Moderator is Nathan Randall. Free. Wednesday, March 31, 8 p.m.

Cuarteto Latinoamericano, Princeton University Concerts, Richardson Auditorium, 609-258-5000. The renowned ensemble presents an all-Latin program featuring works of Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos, Mexican Manuel Ponce, Mexican Silvestre Revueltas, and Argentinean composer Alberto Ginastera. $20 to $33; all students $2. Thursday, April 1, 8 p.m.

Cuarteto Latinoamericano Children’s Concert, Princeton University Concerts, Richardson Auditorium, 609-258-5000. The renowned ensemble presents a free concert for children. No tickets are necessary. Saturday, April 3, 10:30 a.m.

Oscar Hijuelos, Princeton University Creative Writing, Stewart Theater, 185 Nassau, 609-258-4712. Reading by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Oscar Hijuelos, author of “The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love.” Part of the inter-disciplinary project in Latin American studies, “The Search for Xochipili.” Edmund White will introduce the author. Free. Wednesday, April 7, 4:30 p.m.

Music from the Land of the Jaguar, Princeton University Art Museum, 609-258-3788. First day for “Music from the Land of the Jaguar,” an exhibition of musical instruments from the major cultures of the ancient Americas that flourished from 1000 B.C. to the beginning of the Spanish conquest in 1519. Drawn primarily from the permanent collection, the exhibition will unite rare musical instruments with their depictions in different mediums, and explore the connections between musical and ritual iconography in ancient Mesoamerican art. On view to September 5. Free. Saturday, April 17, 10 a.m.

The Jaguar Speaks, Princeton University Art Museum, 609-258-3788. John Burkhalter gives a talk with music for children, presented in conjunction with the Latin American music project “The Search for Xochipili.” For kindergarten through fifth grade. Free. Saturday, April 24, 11 a.m.

A Latin American in Paris, Princeton University Friends of Music, Taplin Auditorium, 609-258-5000. The Wood-Chatham Violin and Piano Duo presents a lecture recital in conjunction with the “Search for Xochipili” music event. Violinist Patrick Wood, and pianist Holly Chatham, offer a program of related works featuring music composed in 20th century Latin America and contemporary music from Paris. Program includes works of manual Ponce, Carlos Chavez, Rodolfo Halffter, Serge Prokofiev, and Maurice Ravel. Free. Sunday, April 25, 3 p.m.

Music from the Land of the Jaguar, Princeton University Art Museum, 609-258-3788. A gallery talk by Gillett G. Griffin, faculty curator of pre-Columbian and Native American art, and John Burkhalter. Friday, April 30, at 12:30 p.m. and Sunday, May 2, at 3 p.m.

Ray Vega & His Latin Jazz Sextet, Princeton University Concerts, Richardson Auditorium, 609-258-5000. Ray Vega, trumpet and flugelhorn, plays jazz. The concert is part of the series of events focused on Latin American culture, “The Search for Xochipili.” $17 to $26; all students $2. Saturday, May 1, 8 p.m.

Making Music in Maya Art, Princeton University Art Museum, McCormick 101, 609-258-3788. Mary Ellen Miller gives a talk on “Making Music in Maya Art” in conjunction with “The Search For Xochipili.” A 1975 graduate of Princeton, Miller is the leading authority on the Maya murals at Bonampak, Mexico. She is curator of the landmark exhibition, “Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya,” which opens in April at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Free. Saturday, May 8, 4:30 p.m.

Xochipili: An Imagined Aztec Music, Princeton University Concerts, Richardson Auditorium, 609-258-5000. The Richardson Chamber Players, led by Nathan Randall and Michael Pratt, present “Xochipili: Chamber Music of Latin America,” an innovative program featuring works performed on ancient American instruments. It features the work by Carlos Chavez that was composed in 1940 for the Museum of Modern Art concerts: “Xochipili: An Imagined Aztec Music,” with works by Alberto Ginastera, and Silvestre Revueltas. $10 to $20; all students $2. Sunday, May 9, 3 p.m.

Previous StoryNext Story

Corrections or additions?

This page is published by

— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.