The Denver Art Museum’s “Traitor, Survivor, Icon” is an exhibition built around a question: Was La Malinche a hero or a traitor?

Was the 16th-century, indigenous enigma — who was famously bartered into slavery in her youth before rising up to be a mother figure for modern Mexico — a victim and, therefore, a righteous role model for generations of women?

Or was she a conspirator who benefited by selling out her own people to an enemy of Spanish conquistadors, helping to bring about the tragic, violent downfall of a proud civilization?

The exhibition does pre-suppose an answer to this direct if overly large question: that Malinche, who worked as an interpreter for Hernán Cortés and gave birth to his child, was a noble sufferer who did what she had to in order to survive. Or perhaps it is inevitable that museum-goers, five centuries later in an era of overdue empathy to the exploitation of women, would see her that way.

But the exhibition, a rock-solid show in both its arguments and its artful evidence, leaves room for the doubters. It fairly airs the perspective of popular opinions, both past and recent, that Malinche was the devil in braids and a huipil, the traditional tunic that was a fashion stable of her day.

Alfredo Arreguín’s 1993 portrait of Malinche adorns her with symbols form both Indigenous and European faiths. (Provided by the Denver Art Museum)

Astonishingly, and thanks to the diligent efforts of its organizers, the show presses both cases through works of art, paintings, sculpture, prints, drawings, textiles and video that show how artists have expressed their judgments of Malinche over the past 500 years.

Collecting pieces from across time, Curators Victoria I. Lyall and Terezita Romo have put together a narrative that combines both the biographical tale of Malinche herself with a dramatic story of how popular opinion has turned for and against her over time.

In that sense, it is a show within a show that offers dual pleasures, that of learning a condensed bit about North American history, along with that of appreciating works of art, everything from Aztec stone carvings of female figures from the 1400s that set the scene to performance videos created in the present, multimedia moment that underscore the conflict in various interpretations of Malinche.

There is, in the mix, a number of inspired offerings, including Antonio Ruíz’s 1934 “Malinche’s Dream,” a surreal oil painting that depicts Malinche slumbering deeply, her body intertwined with scenes of the town of Cholula, which was brutally destroyed by Cortés in 1519.

There are also contemporary works, like Annie Lopez’s series of black-and-white family photos overlayed with text that connect the story of Malinche with the plight of present-day women who are often stigmatized for their personal appearance.

There are pieces that glorify Malinche into something close to sainthood. Jorge González Camarena’s 1964 “The Couple” is a monumental painting that depicts Cortés and Malinche standing tall and brave as the mother and father of Mexico, sharing both power and companionship. The mixed-race fruits of their union forged the diversity that defines Mexico today.

Conversely, there are works that question Malinche’s character with an equal lack of subtlety, such as Chicano artist David Avalos’ 1989 assemblage “Combination Platter #3,” which fashions a hubcap, saw-blade and other materials into a “toothed vagina” with all of the implications such an invention might infer.

The exhibition’s label for Avalos’ work includes a quote from the artist: “The circumstances of our birth are still a source of both terror and fascination” — and that gets directly to the heart of the “Traitor, Survivor, Icon” overall.

If you go

“Traitor, Survivor, Icon: The Legacy of La Malinche” continues through May 8 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 W. 14th Ave. Parkway. Info at 720-865-5000 or denverartmuseum.org.

The majority of people in Mexico today are mestizo, or mixed race, with DNA from both Indigenous and European people. They are neither purely the descendants of oppressed native people nor fully the oppressors themselves. They are something of both, and those conflicting aspects of self-identity play out in the alternating ways that history has identified Malinche.

You could extrapolate that notion, in a critical way, to see it as an exploration of the light and dark that exists within us all.

There is anger and shame in treatments of Malinche as a traitor that dominated the time after her death in 1529.  As well, there are great moments of pride in power in more recent depictions of her, often by Chicana artists, that have resurrected her reputation as a hero and source of strength. The show is full of later examples, including Cecila Concepción’s 1995 subversively-titled portrait “Malinche Had Her Reasons.”

But the curators are wise to let the art do the talking and to let the record fall where it may, and they do so in dramatic ways. The exhibit’s show-stopper is a dual presentation of two large and very similar oil paintings, never before exhibited together and borrowed from Mexican churches with great curatorial skill by the DAM team.

The first is “Baptism of the Lords of Tlaxcala,” and it was painted in 1630 by an unknown artist. The second is “The Baptism of the Lords of Tlaxcala,” a nearly direct copy of that first painting, made in 1690 by Joseph Sánchez.

Both celebrate (for better or worse, depending on the beholder’s beliefs) the conversion of Indigenous leaders to Christianity as they are anointed with holy water, and both have Malinche in the crowd of observers at the baptism, an agent and collaborator of the conquerers, a supporter of their cause that viewers of the painting might emulate.

But in the first scene, which was intended for a mostly Spanish audience, Malinche is fair-skinned, like the European invaders of what is now Mexico. In the second, intended for the increasingly mixed population that developed in the decades that followed, Malinche is dark-skinned like many of the locals.

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Same woman, two faces. The difference in how Malinche is portrayed comes from the way people needed to use her legacy for their own purposes over time. That has not changed.

Malinche may have been good or evil. In a sense, it does not really matter. Because within that duality — within the unanswerable questions over her character — is a truth that we are all exploiters, that we all use history to our own advantage.

That extends to art. We use paint, clay and bronze to steer our stories into the versions we want others to believe. This is a powerful exhibition that understands art’s role as a narrative device, but also its power as propaganda. The objects on display were not chosen because they are the finest examples of art or craft; some are, some art not. They were chosen because they assist in telling Malinche’s story.

In that way, “Traitor, Survivor, Icon” is a different kind of exhibition than what museums tend to present today: It is not a show built around masterpieces. Still, it is a masterpiece of a show.

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