- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 14, 2001

Honduras made headlines in 1998 when Hurricane Mitch left more than 5,000 residents dead, thousands missing and more than 2 million homeless. The suffering is addressed in artist Xenia Mejia's "30 de Octubre, 1999 (October 30, 1999, Hurricane Mitch Strikes)," part of the exhibition "Honduras: Ancient and Modern Trails" at the Cultural Center of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).
The 50-object display shows the rich cultural heritage of the poor Central American nation, which is squeezed between Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. The works range from ancient (1000 B.C. to A.D. 1200) Mayan sculptures from the city of Copan to contemporary paintings.
"I was faced with creating an exhibition showing the complexity of a country not known internationally," says Felix Angel, exhibit and cultural center curator. He has only a 1,700-square-foot gallery to display this exhibit, and others of the series devoted to the art of IDB member countries.
Mr. Angel showcases certain traditions with what he calls "the ancient and modern" paths of the exhibit's title. He contrasts the dramatic, usually anthropomorphic sculpture from the late classic Mayan period (A.D. 600 to 900) at Copan with the contemporary decorative pottery of the Lenca people.
Mr. Angel also juxtaposes earlier and later trends of Honduran modernist painting with works by Pablo Zelaya Sierra (1896-1933) and younger artists Xenia Mejia (born 1958) and Byron Lombardo Mejia (born 1978).
The curator has succeeded superbly in using these different traditions and media to show the unusual artistry of Honduras. This show is one not to be missed, as are others at the Cultural Center — probably one of Washington's best-kept secrets.
Honduras' pre-Hispanic world at Copan was a wonder to behold, with 20,000 people living on 200 acres during the height of its wealth and power in the classic period (A.D. 250 to 900). The Maya planned to preserve Copan's magnificence through such sculpture as the 12 pieces in the exhibit. It is the first time several of the sculptures have left the country.
The "Male Head With Pendants" is among the largest and most arresting. The sculptor decorated it richly, as he would have others at Copan, with a high headdress that raises the work to 21/2 feet.
The prominent aquiline nose, hooded eyes, high-cheek-boned face and huge earrings indicate a princely personage. The lighting of the exhibit effectively contrasts black shadowing with the lighter, planar parts of the face.
The sculptor would have embellished a building with it.
Sculptures at Copan first were made from hollowed-out stone. The craftsmen cut and modeled them with other stone, since metals were unknown at Copan. The sculptors then applied layers of stucco, which allowed for the detailing of this head.
Bright colors originally decorated the surfaces, but the pigments have worn off with time.
Later, the Maya used "toba volcanica," a volcanic material found near the city. It permitted faster construction of the sculptures and more varied kinds of applications.
The "Aquatic Monster" is one of these. Aquatic birds were popular with the Maya because water symbolized life and fertility. The sculptor who carved the "monster" bird made it wonderfully alive. The bird, a fierce cormorant because of its curved beak, is about to bite through and swallow an unhappy fish. The craftsman has given them distinct personalities with his expert carving.
Other sculptures such as a threatening bat, a bench, a zoomorphic tripod for grinding corn, a grimacing scribe, a circular ballgame marker and an incense burner represent Mayan tools, religious beliefs and activities.
Mr. Angel separated the burner's head and container to show inner and outer details of its crocodile form. The mouth formerly sent out the incense.
Today's Caribbean-based Lenca people are very different from the Maya. The Lenca belong to the macro Chibcha family of Central and South America. They made up the largest native population in Honduras at the time of the Spanish conquest. They didn't build cities, but they excelled at making ceramics for domestic use. They are still at it, as the 33 pots in the show confirm. The Program of Recovery and Promotion of Indigenous and Traditional Craft Production of Honduras and the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History, also called PROPAITH-IHAH, is a cultural program run by the Honduran government to continue the Lenca traditions.
The ceramics come in all shapes and sizes. One, a burnished brown "Pot With Cover," reveals pre-Columbian and Spanish colonial influences. The artisan decorated the pot with Spanish designs.
The Lenca pottery is handcrafted, as in earlier times. Some pots take animal and vegetable forms, such as the humorous "Mythical Alligator." A potter exaggerated the bulge of another pot, shaped like a bulbous pumpkin.
Mr. Angel's trio of painters shows the curator's other contrast of old vs. new in Honduran art. Hondurans regard the older one, Sierra, as their greatest modern artist.
He always longed for his homeland and returned there in 1933 to teach what he had learned. Unfortunately, Sierra died the same year.
Mr. Angel, an artist himself and frequenter of art galleries, found the paintings of one of the other artists, Mr. Mejia, while browsing through a Tegucigalpa gallery.
Although just out of art school, Mr. Mejia has strong convictions that he expresses in forceful canvases. He concentrates on human beings, as Sierra did, but his figures have a tragic message.
Decaying, cadaverlike figures climb ladders that go nowhere or to the bed of the dead in "Cuerpos (Bodies)." The curator says "Cuerpos" expresses Mr. Mejia's feelings that our souls are in decay, values are deteriorating, and we lack humanity.
Still another younger artist is Miss Mejia. She created a 16-paneled paper grid that she worked with pen, pencil, watercolor and ink to depict the horrors of Hurricane Mitch.
Grasping hands and gaping mouths give it the flavor of Pablo Picasso's "Guernica." The reds and browns reflect the blood and mud that was everywhere.

WHAT: "Honduras: Ancient and Modern Trails"
WHERE: Cultural Center of the Inter-American Development Bank, 1300 New York Ave. NW
WHEN: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, through Aug. 24
PHONE: 202/623-3774

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