LOS ANGELES — Around 1557, more than 50 years after the fall of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán in what is now Mexico City, a Franciscan friar and group of Nahua scholars wrote the Historia general de las cosas de nueva España (“General History of the Things of New Spain”). Organized into 12 volumes, the encyclopedic work was the culmination of three decades of research into the indigenous cultures of central Mexico — their history, economic and ritual practices, and the flora and fauna endemic to the region. Known commonly as the Florentine Codex, the manuscript features text in Nahuatl and Spanish, and over 2,000 illustrations in vivid ink and watercolor. It represents both an instrument of Spanish empire (once used to understand native practices with the goal of ultimately converting them to Christianity) and an invaluable document of precolonial systems of knowledge.
Since 2016, Los Angeles-based artist Sandy Rodriguez has created paintings inspired by this and other colonial-period codices in her ongoing project, Codex Rodriguez-Mondragón. Through botanical drawings, landscapes, maps, and portraits, Rodriguez seamlessly weaves together over 500 years of history in the Americas — from the time before European contact, to the colonial period which decimated the indigenous population, to contemporary concerns around migration and contested borders. Her latest works in the series are featured in You Will Not Be Forgotten at Charlie James Gallery in Los Angeles.
The 20 works allude to the horrors of the current migrant crisis and how the past might offer a path to healing. Central to this exhibition is another colonial manuscript that Rodriguez encountered in her research, the Codex de la Cruz-Badiano. Completed in 1552 by Aztec doctor Martín de la Cruz, the codex illustrates the Aztec’s highly sophisticated classification of plants and their medicinal uses. One such remedy outlined in the codex is for healing susto, or trauma, a theme that is carried throughout each work.
Rodriguez situates America’s ongoing practice of migrant detention within a centuries-long project of violence against indigenous peoples, starting with Spanish contact in 1519. The results are breathtaking.
Seven portraits memorialize the Central American child migrants who died in federal custody between 2018 and 2019, most of whom succumbed to communicable illnesses in overcrowded Customs and Border Patrol holding areas across the Southwest. Rodriguez depicts the children as they were in life, informed by whatever news reports and photographs she could access in both English- and Spanish-language media. Each face is carefully traced in walnut ink, the brown textured shades of the amate paper gesturing both to bark and earth. The full names of each child are written underneath, as are their years of birth and death. A quetzal bird in brilliant green hues is perched on six of the portraits, its meaning manifold: a protective talisman and the national bird of Guatemala, from where those children hailed. According to the artist, the bird “dies from sadness when caged.”
At nearly eight feet tall, the largest work in the show is a map depicting the detention centers where each child took their last breath. Icons of fox blood, swallow’s nests, plumeria flowers, and other features of the natural world mark sites where ingredients for the susto remedy might be found.
At a recent walkthrough and reading at the gallery, Rodriguez invited representatives from the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights to share ways in which audiences could be of service to the tens of thousands of migrant children who remain in US custody. “If there is a function for art, it is to prompt conversation and action,” Rodriguez said. “If you can do it while seducing people with material and beauty, then I think you have a better chance of motivating people.”
You Will Not Be Forgotten continues at Charlie James Gallery (969 Chung King Road, Chinatown, Los Angeles) through March 7. A final walkthrough with the artist and readings by Project 1521 will take place on March 7, 2-5pm.