Doctoral student Sheila Scoville has been awarded two short-term research fellowships – one at the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, and another at the John Carter Brown Library (JCB) in Providence, Rhode Island. During the 2023–2024 academic year, Sheila will spend a month in residence at the Huntington and two months at the JCB undertaking funded research for her dissertation “Visualizing Kin in their Time-place: The Ecocultural Landscapes of Maguey.”
Under the direction of her co-advisors Michael Carrasco and Paul Niell, Sheila focuses her dissertation research on botanical imagery in Mesoamerican art, colonial painted manuscripts, and early modern natural histories. She approaches these materials from the perspective of the human–agave symbiosis that has long formed landscapes in which people have negotiated their positions by telling stories and making images. As a fellow at the Huntington and JCB, Sheila will have access to thousands of items related to her dissertation topics, including Latin American, Iberian, Latiné, and Indigenous histories and the history of science and knowledge. She will review primary and secondary sources that attest to the historical relationship between people and Agave L., a genus of plants described by an early colonial observer as el árbol de las maravillas (“the tree of wonders”).
Like maize, species of agave interweaved themselves into the ideological complex of societies in the Americas, where multispecies communities coevolved: people benefitted from plants and in turn helped plants flourish. Mesoamericans codified their knowledge of agave, a central element throughout their agroecological environments and a sacralized entity in their beliefs, rituals, and artistic expressions. Nahuatl-speaking artist-scribes sowed dense imagery of agave in their pictorial documents. This visual lushness persisted in the painted geographies and genealogies of Nahua communities during the sixteenth century, as colonization gained ground and the memory of the pre-Hispanic past blurred. While the documentary surge of early New Spain has been a dynamic site of scholarly enquiry, plant “blindness” or insensitivity has ignored significant compositional elements of Ibero-American documents. Sheila believes that situating Nahua visuality of agave in the contexts of ecocultural inheritance and ethnobotany opens a promising new entry into the obscure painted worlds of Mesoamerica. Through her project, she aims to broaden conceptions of plant-human relationships and contribute a humanities perspective to an emerging paradigm that has reconceived life as so relational as to provoke a radical reimagining of being.