Photo of some of the artworks of El Dorado: Myths of Gold exhibition

Photo: Arturo Sanchez


An Exhibit About El Dorado Dares To Ask: What If Gold Had Never Become A Commodity?

By Jonathon Keats

The Americas Society exhibition "examines the mythic roots and tragic consequences of European colonization," writes Forbes.

Christopher Columbus’s fortunes have changed over the past several decades. Monuments that once celebrated his memory have been toppled or spattered with paint. Disdain for his colonialist ways is unmistakable. But few interventions are as thoughtful as the art of Hew Locke. 

In 2018, Locke embellished a photograph of the Columbus statue in New York’s Central Park, bedecking the explorer in pearls and gold filagree. With this reimagining, Locke simultaneously evoked the loot Columbus sought from the New World, the people he ransacked, and their spiritual attachment to the treasures he claimed on behalf of Spain. 

It’s a Mesoamerican version of King Midas: The folly of Columbus is revealed by the fulfilment of his wishes. And like the Midas story, it never happened.

Hew Locke’s Columbus, Central Park provides a fitting introduction to El Dorado: Myths of Gold, an exhibition at the Americas Society that examines the mythic roots and tragic consequences of European colonization of Indigenous lands. Part of Project El Dorado, which also includes a scholarly publication, the exhibition mixes ancient and contemporary art to show the layers of misapprehension – both disingenuous and genuine – underlying first contact. Even if the process of demystification cannot revive the victims of genocide, it might improve present-day conditions.

Before it was a place, El Dorado was the name of a king. Even richer than Locke’s Columbus or the legendary Midas, the Golden One was said to be powdered in gold dust by his attendants, giving offerings to the gods by plunging into a lake. Originating with the Muisca people of the Colombian Andes, the story was overheard by European adventurers keen to believe that great riches were to be found in the Americas. They imagined an entire kingdom of gold. And they searched for it relentlessly from the Caribbean to the Amazon Basin. 

The Europeans were primed by Marco Polo’s reports of golden lands in the Orient. (Columbus was a keen reader of Marco Polo’s Travels.) European explorers were further convinced by the willingness of American natives to trade their gold for novelties such as mirrors. By European standards, the Indigenous peoples appeared to treat gold as a limitless resource, a commodity of such little local value that great fortunes could be spent on trinkets. (The colonists also took this as a sign that the Indigenous peoples were savage – unable to recognize the value of what they had – and therefore deserving of subjugation.) [...]

By surfacing the history of El Dorado, Project El Dorado has the potential to interrogate European assumptions about commodification and extraction in an American context, and to change behaviors for the better. Alongside historical research, art can be an especially effective medium for reexamining past assumptions. Unfettered by the requirements of scholarship, artists are free to speculate about what could have been and could be realized today.

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