Filed under: Aesthetics, Anthropology, art, Chicano, Ideas, Items, Mexico | Tags: codices, Imagery, Maya, mestizaje, more than just artifacts, naipes, pictograms, playing cards, Soviet
Above is one of many images of Soviet playing cards bearing Maya-inspired illustrations from a post on EnglishRussia.com, as referred to tirado/thrown through a special informant.
Aside from being visual delights, you are initially left trying to ask questions about their provenance, much less making the attempt to decipher them. They merely rest taciturn, sphinx-like, callado, to whatever you attempt to ask yourself, because they are quite fascinating. Whatever inspired the workers at the Soviet state enterprise responsible for producing these magnificent artifacts, they generated a pretty exquisite group of cards; they’re imaginative and downright noteworthy. Who knows? Perhaps a bored KGB officer doing slop-work in 1950s Mexico City came across a deck of Aztec playing cards from Baraja Cuauhtemoc and passed over the naipes to an acquaintance at the state playing card factory in an act of camaraderie.
The magic of cards like these is that they are portable pictograms giving the the gamepiece something more interesting to look at and wonder about than a regular stack of casino cards. Seriously, they beat the Grateful Dead Aztec-Inspired playing cards. Want to get a sense for Mayan language and culture during a few hours off? Take your card to the library and check it against a codex and lexicon! To think that gambling implements could have the potential to be edifying!
Modernist flourishes on the Soviet cards such as the cats the queens hold in her hands speak of a mixture of ancient imagery and contemporary adaptation. The distinct configurations of each of the two jokers in the deck speaks to the confluence of Mesoamerican and European at work in the deck. The blue card seems to be rendered with a more appearance, while the red one seems almost Medieval European in a Mayan style, but I leave that up to experts to decide.
However, the images on the face cards are quite faithful to the drawings in codices: with respect to gestures, facial expressions, postures, decoration, and detail, which makes them all the more interesting to discover.
Still, the cards leave me with more questions than answers. Is the existence of these cards a trace of a mestizaje in the USSR in the form of a curiously made instruments for everyday entertainment, or is it just a fluke of historical detritus washed ashore? What do these items say about the way Soviets conceived the work of producing items for everyday life? Why the odd reaction of being surprised at the discovery that Soviets (of all people-gasp!) produced these cards for everyday use when in the US typically has largely uniform face cards from a number of different companies, and when decorated cards would be only for serious gamers and sold as speciality items? When will we see Mexican and Central-American takes on the matryoshka doll? Or perhaps more symmetrically, could we find a Latin-American toy, like a balero, trompo, or loteria game festooned with Russian-style decorations?
At some point, it would be great to give those Cuauhtemoc cards the kind of critical treatment they, as well as these Soviet ones, rightfully deserve. For now, I am of mixed emotions. At once I am unexplainably melancholy at seeing items produced by a now-lost regime bearing images from a destroyed civilization. At the same time, I’m quietly joyful for their existence.