Jaguars, Ancient to Contemporary
Noble, Proud, Wise, Lordly: Art of the Jaguar, on view in the Jon and Linda Ender Gallery. Photo by Julius Schlosburg
Have you seen the Jon and Linda Ender Gallery lately? It is filled with representations of jaguars spanning hundreds of years and a wide variety of media. Humans have long been fascinated with these beautiful animals – the largest cats in the Americas, and the third largest in the world after tigers and lions.
Representations of jaguars and their symbolic associations are right up our alley. Real, live jaguars are also exciting, and Southern Arizona is jaguar territory. Here are a few of the reasons why we’re focusing on jaguars for Free First Thursday.
Photo by Julius Schlosburg
Representations of Jaguars
From ancient times until today, images of jaguars have been symbols of power and authority in the art of the Americas. In traditions like Maya and Aztec art, jaguars were associated with rulership, as well as with shamanic transformations, darkness and the movement of the stars in the night sky. Jaguar imagery created by artists working today builds upon and expands those associations, exploring the jaguar’s symbolic relationships with broader ecologies and its power in new politically informed works.
Gerardo Bonilla, Códice Matsä ‘ä, 2013, lithograph. Gift of A. V. Shirk, 2017.34.3.
This lithograph was created by Gerardo Bonilla. It shows a person wearing a jaguar suit and holding a sky full of stars in their hands. Although it is a contemporary image, the title of the work, Codice Matsä ‘ä, indicates that the artist thinks of his image as a codex—the historical ancestor of the modern book. Maya and Aztec codices were long sheets of paper or animal skin folded into pages containing the sacred wisdom of ancient Mexico.
In the Aztec world, poets reflected on this knowledge to understand life in Tlaticpac (the earth or the world). Following this tradition, the bottom of this image includes an inscription: “As a sunny day becomes a day with rain or wind or cold from one moment to the next, and as light becomes shadow and life becomes death and vice versa … these are the cycles of life in Tlalticpac.”
Alfredo Arreguín, Rio Salado, 1986, lithograph, 96/100. Collection of the Tucson Museum of Art. Gift of MARS Artspace. 2003.13.4
Another lithograph on view in the exhibition is Rio Salado by Alfredo Arreguín. TMA’s virtual Family Day in September ’21 focused on this print and printmaking processes. Read this previous blog post to learn about Arreguín and his “pattern paintings.”
Jaguars in Southern Arizona
The significance of jaguars in contemporary life has less to do with mythology than with the ways animals and humans coexist on the land. Thanks to contributions from the Northern Jaguar Project, visitors to TMA’s exhibition can also learn about jaguars in the ecology of Southern Arizona and the Sonoran desert region.
The big cats once ranged throughout Arizona and beyond, but human actions begun in the 1800s have shrunk both their population and habitat. Ranchers killed jaguars to protect their cattle, and over time the cats also became increasingly coveted for their fur coats. Today they are threatened by habitat degradation due to development, deforestation and climate change. Roads and development are fragmenting the remaining habitat. Since 1997 the jaguar has been listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Since being listed as endangered, jaguars have been spotted in nine different mountain ranges in Southern Arizona. Cameras with motion sensor technology capture videos and photos of the elusive cats. Like the artists’ representations created in ancient times, these images are considered precious. A jaguar sighting is big news, and images of the cat are widely distributed and shared. They evoke a wonder that is equal parts fascination with majestic creatures who exist so close to us without being seen, and relief that they are still here, a reminder of the undivided communities of wildlife that survive in the borderlands.