BABY FACE TURNING INTO A JAGUAR

OLMEC – Mexico

1200 - 800 BC

Height: 23,5 cm - Length: 25 cm – With: 15,6 cm

Beige brown hollow terracotta with a light slip of kaolin and traces of manganese oxide

Provenance

Former collection Yvon Collet since 1968                     

This “Baby Face” is a splendor of Olmec art, a model of dexterity and expressiveness. Unquestionably one of the best examples of its kind. Well preserved, it is part of the oldest artworks of Mesoamerica and reminds us that the first great ceramic tradition of this immense cultural area was Olmec.

The “Baby Faces” artistic corpus, to which this figure belongs to, groups together juvenile-looking hollow clay figures withzoomorphic features borrowed from the great jaguar, suggesting that they are undergoing a transformation.

Within this group, this piece stands out by its semi-reclining position, a rare representation which accentuates the impression of metamorphosis. Most “Baby Faces” are indeed modeled seated, in a frontal position and very few of them deviate from this convention.

This could be arepresentation of a shaman during the first stage of his transformation and an evocation of the mental osmosis which takes place between the soul of the man and the soul of the jaguar during ritual trances.

The dynamics and tension emanating from this composition are striking. Leaning on his outstretched, plump arms, with his hands on the ground, our figure raises his torso and erects his head with great vigour, like a baby trying to get on all fours to move and leave his original condition to rise both physically and spiritually. 

Hisoval skull presents an elongated profile and strongly flattened at the nape of the neck which indicates a ritual deformation, a characteristic that can be seen on most anthropomorphic Olmec works. It is assumed that this ancestral practice was reserved for members of the elite who manifested their noble status in this way. Only the left side of the head appears to be covered with hair, which can be seen from the concentric engravings on the top and back.

The face is also characteristic of theBaby Faces.It can be seen that these features are not childlike, let alone doll-like, but an amalgam of adult features and zoomorphic features evoking the jaguar, a leading mythical figure in the Olmec religion and a central figure in its iconography. The strongly arched superciliary arches join the bridgeof the nose, forming an energetic and expressive V. The eyes are two long slits slightly ajar, pierced in their center, in place of pupils. His slanted eyes are, beyond thereference to the feline, one of the consequences of the intentional modification of the skull as well as one of the manifestations of the trance state the character is in.

The nose, slightly arched, is drilled at the nostrils. It overlooks a beautiful fleshy mouth whose particularpout evokes the mouthof the wild animal when it rolls up its lips. The upper lip is strongly raised, unveiling/revealingthe upper gum and two central teeth, while the lower lip is hemmed and projected forward. Also note the full cheeks, the roundchin the broad neck, and the long ears with pierced lobes.

A look atthe back of the work highlights the elongation of the head, strongly flattened at the rearand the bulging shape of the occiput,which some consider to be the evocation of the sacred corn kernel, making the human’s body a kind of symbolic and cosmological metaphor.

The short, chubby torso extends into a large plump buttock. The fleshy pear-shaped legs are resting in balance on the knees, and the shins and feet are held aloftin a position that contributes to the overall tension of this beautiful artwork. The feet, like those of a newborn, are small slightly concave soles.

It should be noted that the artist took care to mark the fold on the buttocks with a superficial groove, which might seem like a detail but actually reveals the attention paidto this work. The rear part faithfullyreproduces the round and chubby shapes of a baby and the front part represents an adult transforming into ajaguar, in an extremely studied composition.

The character's hands received an interesting treatment. On closer inspection, it appears that the artist sought to make them look likejaguar paws, with theircharacteristic pads designed to protect the claws. We are therefore facing the eloquent representationof a shamanic metamorphosis, in which the figure of the child refers to birth and renewal.

Note the presence of a kiln-burn mark on the outside of the right forearm, as well as on the rear left foot.