Mouse and Maya


IDB Cultural Center Takes High-Tech Look at Guatemala’s Past, Future

The one thing that’s certain about the regular focus exhibitions at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) Cultural Center is that they’re always surprising and unusual, offering a visual and three-dimensional exploration of the diverse nations and ethnic regions that the IDB serves.

That’s true for “Guatemala: Past and Future,” the current exhibition honoring Guatemala and its capital city, site of the IDB Board of Governors’ 48th annual meeting.

This display, however, has a few more surprises than usual—the kind that embrace certain possibilities and engines of change. The exhibition of course references Guatemala’s ancient and almost overpowering past featuring the Mayan civilization, in addition to focusing on one of the country’s great modernist artists—but the star of the show may actually be a mouse.

Not Mickey Mouse, but the one seemingly every 2-year-old as well as adolescent in the world knows how to manipulate and navigate across a computer screen.

“We wanted to do something different for this exhibition, instead of the approaches in the past which, rightly, tend to immediately zero in on the Mayan culture and its achievement,” said Félix Angel, IDB Cultural Center director and curator of the exhibit. “There tends to be an over-emphasis on this aspect of Guatemalan history and culture, to the exclusion of other things.

“First of all, we wanted to find a way to look at the past through contemporary technology and culture. And this way, we can also see what the future—culturally and technologically—might look at,” he explained. “If you truly look at this exhibition, you will see that it is about change, about the uses of technology like the Internet, educational and creative software, and how they can change both how we look at the past and how we move toward the future.”

The Mayans loom so large in Guatemalan history because their ancient cities, tribes, history of Spanish conquest, and larger-than-life icons and imagery tend to be a kind of cultural sun that blots out attempts at home-grown modernism.

Nevertheless, the exhibition has several focuses, including a wonderful mini-exhibition sampling the work of Carlos Mérida (1891-1984), a modernist pioneer trained in music and art who worked in Paris at the time when some of the most prominent young artists of abstraction, expressionism, post-impressionism where there influencing one another. Mérida is represented here by a set of lithographs, first seen in 1943 and inspired by the “Popol Vuh,” the sacred book of the Mayas. “He does exactly what you see elsewhere in the exhibition, visiting the past and providing artistic vision of it in contemporary ways,” Angel said.

Indeed, the lithographs have a chicken-egg quality in the sense that there are styles reminiscent not so much of the Mayans but of Amedeo Modigliani, Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall and other modern masters, as well as musical lines that reflect Mérida’s training and tastes.

The “elsewhere” Angel mentioned refers to a series of panels—all resembling interactive flat-screen monitors—created and mounted by Carlos Argüello, who heads Studio©, S.A., and the Art and Technology Center in Guatemala (ARTEC), an ambitious institution in Guatemala City that trains a future generation of artists adept in the use of technology.

Likewise, Argüello, who lives in Guatemala, and his studio are adept at special effects and graphics, working routinely in major Hollywood films and providing computerized graphics for such epics as “The Chronicles of Riddick” and “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.” But the ambitions of Studio© go beyond moviemaking. Argüello’s ideas, and how he goes about executing them, are potential agents of change, as well as education for the studio’s young students and the kind of projects encouraged and helped by the IDB.

One result is a series of panels on an ancient Mayan city featuring specific locations, which can be accessed by the click of a computer mouse, as well as other interactive panels on the art of textiles in Guatemala.

Another very specific—and impressive—use of modern technology to re-examine and sometimes reconstruct the past is the historic “Canvas of Quauhquechollan,” which was digitally restored at Studio © to include missing portions of this important painting. The canvas is an epic historic tale that shows how the Spanish conquistadors managed to conquer Central America by forging alliances with traditional native rivals.

So come down to the IDB, get on that mouse, and get a firsthand look at Guatemala’s future through its past.

Guatemala: Past and Future through May 4 Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) Cultural Center 1300 New York Ave., NW For more information, please call (202) 623-3774 or visit

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.