Next month, the Covid-19 pandemic enters its third year. Many of us thought that by now we’d be looking at the virus in retrospect, instead of living in a kind of perpetually deferred future tense.
Humans are always propelled by the possibility of what might happen next; we even have a word for it: hope. Yet in this moment, it might be more hopeful to look instead to the past. Over the last few years, I’ve found myself taking comfort in the fact that this is not the world’s first, or even worst, pandemic: The sixth-century Justinian plague, for example, killed at least a quarter of Europe’s recorded population; 800 years later, the same bacterium destroyed significant swaths of both the European and Islamic populations in what we later came to call the Black Death.
On the Covers
Yet even through these decimations, life continued. Babies were born. Trade continued. Art was made. Our long-ago fellow pandemic sufferers knew far less than we did, and had far fewer resources. It must have felt, often, like the world was coming to an end, like civilization could endure no more. And yet the world didn’t end, and civilization trudged onward.
I thought about this often as we assembled this issue, moved by the various kinds of ingenuity and inventiveness we’re privileged to document in T. I thought about it in particular while reading contributing editor Michael Snyder’s story on the glorious painted churches of the Mexican state of Michoacán. The area was once the kingdom of the Purépecha kings, who built a Mesoamerican empire second in size to only the Aztecs’. These wood-and-stone structures were erected in the decades after the 1522 arrival of the Spanish invaders; the paintings that arc across their vaulted ceilings were meant to help convert the local population. The recent citizen-led movement to restore and conserve these churches — which, given their construction, are highly vulnerable to fire — is a form of architectural preservation, of course, but as Snyder notes, it’s also “a restoration of another kind”: a way for the people of Michoacán to celebrate and honor the area’s pre-Catholic past, symbols and iconography of which some local historians believe are visible in the buildings’ decorations. You could argue that the churches are evidence of a cultural erasure, but they’re not only that — rather, they are proof of how every society is a palimpsest, and every artifact an amalgam. Worlds are built and destroyed each century. But in choosing how to remember them, we are also choosing how to move ahead.
Covers: Hair by Benjamin Muller at MA+. Makeup by Hiromi Ueda at Art + Commerce. Model: Devyn Garcia at DNA Model Management