The materiality of color: pigments, painted skins, and feathers

In the framework of the symposium Amerindian Art Histories and Archaeologies: A KHI – UCL Symposium on Material Transformations in the Indigenous Americas

The Tupi feathered cape newly cleaned (Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan).



Claudia Brittenham | The materiality of color at La Venta


The ancient city of La Venta was a colorful place. This Olmec centre, which thrived along the Gulf Coast of Mexico between 900–400 BCE, was made of colored clays, bricks, and stones. Archaeologists repeatedly remarked on the vividness of the colors that they encountered during excavations, and lamented that contemporary photographic technology was insufficient to capture the richness of color that they were seeing. In this presentation, I will consider three key aspects of the materiality of color at La Venta: the selection of intrinsically colored materials, the ways that color changed with changes in the environment, and the juxtapositions of color that yielded optical effects. The result, I will argue, is that color was understood to be both material and mutable, often in symbolically productive ways.


Claudia Brittenham is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Chicago.  Her research focuses on the art of Mesoamerica, with interests in the materiality of art and the politics of style. She is the author of Unseen Art: Making, Vision, and Power in Ancient Mesoamerica, as well as The Murals of Cacaxtla: The Power of Painting in Ancient Central MexicoThe Spectacle of the Late Maya Court: Reflections on the Murals of Bonampak (with Mary Miller); and Veiled Brightness: A History of Ancient Maya Color (with Stephen Houston and colleagues).



Massive Offering 1 mosaic pavement in situ, La Venta, Olmec, Phase II, c. 700 BCE (National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Heizer_099).

Élodie Dupey García | Exploring polychromy in Nahua art: codices, murals, and mosaics


Through the analysis of several examples of Nahua artistic expression, including the mural paintings of Tlaxcala, the Borgia Group codices, and a wood sculpture encrusted with mosaic, my presentation aims to demonstrate that the societies of Late Postclassic Central Mexico cultivated a strong interest in polychromy, perceptible in these artworks' sophisticated manipulation of coloring materials and chromatic ranges. I will pinpoint different strategies selected by the artists to create polychrome pieces, depending on the media and materials they handled, from the use of complex palettes in the codices to the harmonious accumulation of small areas of color to create chromatically saturated images in murals and mosaics. I will also attempt to outline the meanings conveyed by polychromy in Nahua aesthetics, based on what the artworks show as well as an exploration of indigenous discourses on artistic practices and a comparison with the use of colors in ritual and poetic chants.


Élodie Dupey García serves as a researcher and professor at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. She received her Ph.D. in the history of religions at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris. Dupey García’s scholarly interests focus on the cultural history of Pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, especially on the topics of colours and smells in Nahuatl culture. She is the author of the book Nombrar y pensar el colour en la cultura náhuatl prehispánica (in press) and co-editor of the volumes Painting the Skin. Pigments on Bodies and Codices in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica (2019), De olfato. Aproximaciones a los olores en la historia de México (2020), and Mesoamerican Rituals and the Solar Cycle. New Perspectives on the Veintena Festivals (2021). She is also the in-chief-editor of the journal Estudios de Cultura Náhuatl.

Amy Buono  | Chromatic variations: color and meaning in indigenous Brazilian featherwork


Featherwork is one of the most ancient and enduring artforms across the Indigenous Americas. It is also one of the most deeply complex forms of artistic media, requiring a transdisciplinary approach among Indigenous practitioners, scientists, humanist scholars, and museum professionals. Feathers, growing from the bird’s epidermis, “clothe” birds in a dazzling array of colors, textures, and shapes. Feather form, size, texture, scale, and especially color could be altered to permit vestments and adornments to have transformative effects. Thus, featherwork serves as a supernatural skin, endowing a vital force from one living organism upon another. This paper examines questions of color and color transformation particular to Indigenous Brazilian cultures from the early colonial period to the present. What’s at stake in understanding Indigenous Brazilian feather color, and for understanding the natural and cultural manipulation of color? How might recent scientific studies, conservation efforts, and Indigenous Brazilian art activism work to shed light on the possibilities (and problems) of the chromatic variations of feathers and featherwork?


Amy Buono is a specialist in the visual and material cultures of colonial Latin America and the Atlantic world, with particular focus on Brazil. Among her research and teaching interests are: Amerindian artistic practices; early modern art in a global context; museum history and theory; tangible and intangible heritage studies; and colonialism and ethnopolitics. Deeply interdisciplinary, her research intersects with science studies, anthropology, and historiography and methodology. Amy has published articles and book chapters on such topics as Indigenous featherworking and ritual culture in Brazil; Tupi crafts of colour; the representation of the brazilwood trade in sixteenth-century Rouen; temporality in colonial Brazilian material culture; early modern natural history and pharmacology texts as (art)historical sources; and the visual and material politics of race in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Brazil. Amy’s books include the co-edited volume (with Sven Dupré), A Cultural History of Color in the Renaissance (Bloomsbury Press, 2021) and Tupinambá Feathercraft in the Brazilian Atlantic (University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming). Amy is an Assistant Professor of Art History at Chapman University.


Gabriela Siracusano | Discussant  


Gabriela Siracusano holds a PhD in Art History (Universidad de Buenos Aires – UBA), specializing in the material dimension of artistic production, from the 16th century to modern days. She is Principal Scientific Researcher at CONICET (National Research Council, Argentina) and director of the Centro MATERIA at the Universidad Nacional de Tres de Febrero (UNTREF), as well as Chair Professor at UBA and UNTREF. She has been responsible for several research projects concerning historical and chemical approaches to Spanish American colonial art, such as “Materiality Between Art, Science and Culture in the Viceroyalties (16th to 18th centuries)” funded by The Getty Foundation, and “Metales piadosos” funded by the Agencia Nacional de Promocion Científica of Argentina (2020–24). She was a Guggenheim Fellow (2006–07) and Getty Scholar (2016). Recently, she was awarded with the Gratia Artis Prize (2022) given by the National Academy of Fine Arts in Argentina. Siracusano is the author of many books and articles regarding a cultural approach to materiality in South American colonial art history (16th to 18th century) such as El Poder de los Colores (Buenos Aires, FCE, 2005; ALAA award 2006), Pigments and Power in the Andes (London, Archetype, 2011), La Paleta del Espanto (Buenos Aires, Unsamedita, 2011), and in co-edition with Agustina R. Romero, Materia Americana (Buenos Aires, Eduntref, 2020).

The KHI – UCL symposium convenes art historians, archaeologists, anthropologists and curators who share interests in the transformative potential of matter and materials stemming from different social and aesthetic practices. These practices are manifest in creative works produced by indigenous peoples across the Americas from ancient times to the present. In each of the four sessions, three researchers will bring into conversation case studies from a diverse set of indigenous cultural traditions and address a specific type of materiality. Namely, they will address the materiality of stones, metals, colour, as well as multi-materiality and multisensory creations and experiences, their functions, uses and reception from ancient, colonial and contemporary indigenous societies from Brazil, the Central Andes, Panama, Mesoamerica and North America. It is organized by Sanja Savkić Šebek (KHI in Florenz – Max-Planck-Institut & Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) and Bat-ami Artzi (CSoC, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev; former 4A_Lab Fellow), in collaboration with Elizabeth Baquedano (UCL Institute of Archaeology).

Recreation of the original appearance of the sculpture known as the Bird Head, held at the Stiftung Schloss Friedenstein, Gotha, Germany (drawings by Nicolas Latsanopoulos).

22. Februar 2023, 17:00 Uhr

The event will take place online.

To participate please register in advance via Zoom: https://zoom.us/meeting/register/tJcocO2trj0pG9WhJ6OUWG00MP0m_uV3mr9k

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting. 


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