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An Exhibit About El Dorado Dares To Ask: What If Columbus Had Never ‘Discovered’ America?

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.)

As the scholars involved in Project El Dorado explain, the Europeans made false assumptions because they had the wrong premises. Importing the idea that gold was a form of money (along with other Old World diseases), they failed to appreciate the metal as a spiritual good. “Across the ancient Americas, gold was considered a substance that was emitted, inhabited, and consumed by gods,” writes Joanne Pillsbury in El Dorado: A Reader. Anything but filthy lucre, gold was an “embodiment of divine power”.

This understanding of gold guided how gold was used. Worn on the body, often as jewelry, gold provided protection. Gold was also an appropriate material for sacred spaces and objects. (These objects were sometimes silvered, further demonstrating that the value of gold was anything but superficial.) Different American cultures had different traditions and beliefs, but nobody minted or banked it.

The commodification of gold by colonial powers had negative implications not only for Indigenous peoples but also for their lands. Since El Dorado could not be found, gold would need to be forcibly extracted from the ground, exploiting native labor and blighting the environment. Extraction of other commodities such as rubber and oil followed this economic model, which remains a driving force today.

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.

Unfortunately most of the contemporary artwork included in the Americas Society exhibition merely represents the obvious, gilding dull clichés. Rolando Piña’s golden oil barrels are aesthetically dazzling, but express little more than the commonplace notion that oil drilling recapitulates the damage done by past (and present) mining practices. Dario Escobar’s golden McDonald’s soda cup makes a different point – calling attention to the relationship between fast food and extractivism – but is similarly blatant.

It’s vitally important for the sake of environmental and social justice that Western paradigms of wealth and growth be questioned, but it’s not enough to visualize what could be said in a few words (and has been said over and over again). By recloaking the legend of Christopher Columbus, Hew Locke exemplifies the potential of art to make new meaning of historic importance. However the most far-reaching work in the Americas Society exhibition is a video by Juan Covelli that has the additional distinction of making interesting use of AI.

Speculative Treasures returns to the world before first contact, as instantiated in thousands of ancient artifacts in the Museo del Oro in Bogotá. Covelli uses AI to transform 3D scans of these golden object, generating countless versions that might once have existed and been melted down or might have been fabricated if the Americas had not been colonized. At first glance, Speculative Treasures may appear to be a work of nostalgia or wishful thinking, but Covelli has created something far more profound. Speculative Treasures presents a challenge to think beyond the mythos of colonialism and commodification.

If AI can do it, surely we can too.