The United Nations has designated 2022 the International Year of Glass. Cooper Hewitt is celebrating the occasion with a yearlong series of posts focused on the medium of glass and museum conservation.
Mexican designer Gloria Cortina’s Black Hawk console combines two symbolic materials, cochineal lacquer and obsidian, in a sophisticated and modern design. A recent acquisition to the museum’s collection, the console was featured in the exhibition Nature by Design: Cochineal to highlight Cortina’s use of the deep red pigment derived from insects indigenous to the Americas that create the console’s pink tint. The table’s central panel of stylized feather-like forms held in a brass framework is composed of 64 pieces of black obsidian. Obsidian is a natural glass formed when highly viscous lava erupts from a volcano and cools into an amorphous glassy solid. The material fractures into shards like glass and is chemically very similar to manufactured glasses, being composed mostly of silicon dioxide with elemental inclusions (often iron) that give it its dark color, though it is not always uniformly black. Trace element analysis (even with non-destructive X-ray fluorescence Spectroscopy or XRF) can be used to locate the geographic provenance of obsidian objects and any manufacturing residues because combinations of rare earth elements specific to certain geological sources have been identified. For example, one of the most important sources of obsidian in central Mexico, the Pachuca quarry (Sierra Las Navajas), produced especially fine quality green obsidian that was traded across great distances—examples have been found thousands of miles away in Oklahoma.
In many historic cultures worldwide, obsidian was worked into tools and decorative objects using stone chipping techniques—thousands of years before the development of manmade glass. Obsidian is very durable and consequently well preserved in burial environments. Archaeological evidence in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica suggests a wide network of trade for obsidian as a raw material and as a luxury trade item. Its ability to form very sharp edges when worked enables its use for blades and weapons as well. Obsidian mirrors made by the Aztecs were associated with the god Tezcatlipoca (meaning “Smoking Mirror”) who had powers of prediction and revelation. The material was also associated with death and the underworld.
While the bold form of Cortina’s console suggests a contemporary reinterpretation of Style Moderne (a sleek design style popular in the 1920–40s), Black Hawk also pays homage to the material culture of the Aztec Empire and to Mexican history. The stylized brass and obsidian feather panel evokes Aztec feather works made for ceremonial paraphernalia and royal attire. Feathers held significant symbolic power for many Indigenous cultures throughout the Americas as birds were often thought to be connected to the spirit world. The designer’s combination of motifs and materials speaks to the important history of craftsmanship in Mexico, as well as to the highly accomplished design processes indigenous to the region. Cortina has used stylized feathers in other works, sometimes made in other materials like brass or porcelain. Here, these obsidian feathers layer symbolic significance into the Black Hawk console, making it a beautiful example of a contemporary designer reflecting on the deep history of the use of indigenous materials.
Jessica Walthew is a conservator at Cooper Hewitt working with the product design and decorative arts and digital collections.
Campbell, S., Healey, E., Kuzmin, Y., and Glascock, M. “The Mirror, the Magus and More: Reflections on John Dee’s Obsidian Mirror.” Antiquity 95, no. 384 (December 2021): 1547–64. doi:10.15184/aqy.2021.132.
Glascock, Michael D., Geoffrey E. Braswell, and Robert H. Cobean. “A Systematic Approach to Obsidian Source Characterization.” In M. Steven Shackley, ed. Archaeological Obsidian Studies: Method and Theory, 15–65. Vol. 3 of Advances in Archaeological and Museum Science, edited by Martin Aitken, Edward V. Sayre, R. E. Taylor, and Robert Tykot. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishing: 1998.
Larson, Katherine. “Forgotten Pasts: Researching Native American Obsidian Objects in the Collection of The Corning Museum of Glass.” Corning Museum of Glass. April 27, 2021. https://blog.cmog.org/2021/04/27/forgotten-pasts-researching-native-american-obsidian-objects-in-the-collection-of-the-corning-museum-of-glass/.
Levine, Marc N. and David M. Carballo, eds. Obsidian Reflections: Symbolic Dimensions of Obsidian in Mesoamerica. Louisville, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2014.
Miller, Jim. “Obsidian Is Hot Stuff.” Volcano World. https://volcano.oregonstate.edu/volcanic-minerals/obsidian.
On the later reception of obsidian artifacts from Mesoamerica, John Dee (Elizabethan mathematician, astronomer, alchemist) collected an obsidian mirror for use in alchemical experiments, now in the British Museum. See: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/H_1966-1001-1.
For more on Cortina’s use of cochineal, see: https://collection.cooperhewitt.org/objects/2318793610/.