Author Dr. Roberto Cintli Rodriguez and visual artist Jorge Rojas hope the community will gain a kernel of cultural, historical and spiritual knowledge when they attend a discussion regarding the significance of corn.
The presentation, titled “Stories of Maize/Historias de Maìz,” will start at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 15, at the Kimball Art Center, 1251 Kearns Blvd. The event, which is part of the Utah Humanities Book Festival, is free, but attendees must RSVP by visiting kimballartcenter.org.
The Utah Humanities Book Festival, now in its 24th year, strives to improve Utah communities through reading, literature and conversations with authors and each other, according to its mission statement.
The discussion between Rodriguez, author of “Our Sacred Maiz Is Our Mother: Indigeneity and Belonging in the Americas” and emeritus associate professor at University of Arizona, and Rojas, a Kimball Art Center artist-in-residence, will focus on the connection corn has with the history of humankind, especially involving the indigenous population.
“Maize is the story of our continents,” Rodriguez said. “Almost all Native peoples from Canada to South America all relate to corn. It comes in at all levels, including (origin legends), how we relate to each other and, of course, the actual growing of the corn that reaches back to more than 7,000 years.”
The art talk also ties into Rojas’ “People of the Corn/Gente de Maiz,” a community-based art exhibit now showing at the Kimball Art Center.
Over the past few months Rojas has installed figures that Kimball Art Center visitors have created out of corn masa dough onto a multi-colored corn mandala.
“We invited the community to put their hands and energy in this dough to make figures that will be sunbaked and tanned and placed around the mandala,” Rojas said. “There are hundreds of figures that were all created by children and adults, people of all abilities.”
The mandala, which was installed with the help of Kimball Art Center staff, is meant to represent the source of life, and it is made out of different corn kernels, he said.
“It’s the most intricate and ambitious mandala I have ever made, because I integrated symbols of the different cultures — Native American, Incan, Mayan and Aztec — that have embraced corn,” he said.
Rojas’ artistic journey with “People of the Corn” sprouted from a performance-art piece he did 11 years ago called “The Tortilla Oracle” in New York City.
“I used tortillas, instead of tarot cards or tea leaves, to divine, and it was through this performance that I was invited to do a community art project at Project Row Houses in Houston, Texas,” he said.
Curators were interested in how Rojas’ “Tortilla Oracle” performance related to food, spirituality and one’s roots.
“They wanted me to come up with a project that would engage the community with food, corn and spirituality,” he said. “So I started doing all of this research, and was completely fascinated by what I was finding, which is this incredible history of the Americas through maize.”
When Rojas, who was born in Mexico, began his research, he was mainly interested in the Aztec and Mayan connections to corn.
“There are creation stories about Quetzalcoatl connecting with ants and finding the first corn which he brought to the Aztec and helped them to subsist, and the Mayan creation story is about how the deities created the first Mayan people with corn,” he said. “As an artist I knew this is rich, spiritual and philosophical. And I started digging into it and developed the exhibition, ‘People of Corn.’”
Rodriguez, on the other hand, stumbled onto the historic significance of corn and sense of belonging while writing a book about the origins and migrations of indigenous peoples in the Four Corners area of the United States. And the motivation of the book actually places Utah in a very central place, he said.
“Years ago, I came across a small portion of a map, and what I could gather, the map indicated that the Aztecs came from Utah,” Rodriguez said. “The map showed the Great Salt Lake as the point of origin of ancient Mexican Indians.”
That discovery was the start of a 12-year research journey for Rodriguez and his wife, author and professor Patrisia Gonzales.
“We visited historical archives all over the country, and visited the places that were indicated on the map,” he said.
The original map was drawn up for the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War, and extended the United States territory to the Pacific Ocean and the Rio Grande river, Rodriguez said.
Further research led Rogriguez and Gonzales to more than 200 additional maps that reached back into the 1500s that showed pre-treaty boundaries that also alluded to the idea that Salt Lake was a central point of Aztec origins, he said.
“After that, we began seeking out Native elders who lived between Salt Lake and Mexico City,” Rodriguez said.
The focus of the research shifted when an elder asked if the couple was looking for where the Aztecs came from, or where Rodriguez and his wife had come from.
“I told him we were looking for where we came from, and he said, ‘You’re not going to find it on a map,’” Rodriguez said. “He said, ‘If you want to find out who you are, follow the maize — follow the corn — that’s where you come from,’ and that put things into a much bigger context.”
Getting Rodriguez and Rojas together for Wednesday’s art talk stemmed from discussions between the artists and Willy Palomo, program manager for the Utah Humanities Utah Center for the Book.
“Once I heard Jorge, a longtime friend, was artist-in-residence at the Kimball Art Center, I contacted him and we brainstormed about a couple of events that we could do in Park City,” Palomo said.
The two came up with a series of events that tied in with the “People of Corn” exhibit, and sifted through an array of books and authors, Rojas said.
“Some were children’s stories and cookbooks, but the one we landed on that had the best research and was most connected to the work I was doing was by Dr. Rodriguez,” he said. “So we were thrilled he accepted our invitation.”
Kimball Art Center curator Nancy Stoaks said Rojas’ time as the nonprofit’s inaugural artist-in-residence surpassed expectations.
“Our artist-in-residence program is an opportunity for an artist to expand their creative practice and dive deeper into an aspect of their work,” she said. “It’s been fantastic to see how Jorge has been able to add to the body of work he’s been working on for such a long time, and it has helped us create such dynamic programming that allows us to have these types of conversations with the community.”