The fearsome forehead ornament with the feline head and octopus-shaped tentacles ending in catfish heads, now of view in the massive survey of Peruvian art at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, is silent in some ways and speaks volumes in others.
Crafted in gold, chrysocolla and shells, this sea god was made for a Mochica ruler some time between 100 and 800 A.D. Scholars believe it was buried at a site called La Mina in the Jequetepeque Valley, on Peru’s northern coast.
But they don’t know for sure. In 1988 La Mina was looted, and by the time archeologists learned the ornament existed, it had been smuggled to Spain. After being recovered by Scotland Yard in London, it was repatriated to Peru in 2006.
But it’s also there to make a larger statement about a national cultural identity.
Pre-Columbian Peruvian art has been a staple of North American museum shows, like recent efforts at the Yale Peabody on Machu Picchu, at the Fowler on the Moche, and at the Met on feather art. “The Wari: Lords of the Ancient Andes,” organized by the Cleveland Museum, is now at Fort Lauderdale’s Museum of Art and is headed this summer to the Kimbell.
The show includes some new acquisitions by Cleveland, including a stunning bag illustrating a human face and adorned with human hair that it bought at Sotheby’s last year for $146,500. (Some experts have questioned its vague provenance, but the museum says evidence of its pre-1970 history complies with UNESCO guidelines.)
Lately–reversing centuries of discrimination–the art made after the Spanish conquest has been edging out pre-Columbian on exhibition schedules. The Philadelphia Museum just opened “Journeys to New Worlds: Spanish and Portuguese Colonial Art from the Roberta and Richard Huber Collection.” The Brooklyn Museum is planning a show exploring ways that New World colonial society used art objects to help create a notion of home. And this May, the Denver Museum will include a selection of Spanish Colonial paintings depicting Native textiles in its museum-wide “Spun” extravaganza. “Fashion Fusion” features some bizarre combinations of cross-cultural pollination, like this Inca princess painted as an alter ego of the Old Testament heroine Judith.
“Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and the Moon” unites all these and more.
The Montreal exhibition defines Peruvian identity by tracking symbols and myths that emerged hundreds of years before the Spaniards arrived—how they were manifested in pre-Columbian civilizations; how they persisted, submerged, in the post-Conquest era; and how they were reclaimed and reasserted in modern times.
Organized by Victor Pimentel, curator of pre-Columbian art at the Montreal Museum, along with a high-wattage team of advisers, “Kingdoms” includes more than 350 objects that traverse some 3,000 years of history. The pre-Columbian works range from a Cupinisnique ceramic stirrup-spout bottle depicting human and feline heads dating from 1200-200 B.C. to spectacular creations, in precious metals, camelid wool, clay, feathers, and other materials, by artists representing the Chimú, Huari, Lambayeque, Mochica, Tiahuanaco, Nazca, Paracas, and Inca cultures, among others.
None of these cultures used a written language. Instead, as the catalogue explains, visual languages, of symbol, color, and form—from the fantastical beings and geometric motifs on textiles to the “spatial syntax” of a vessel’s handle and spout—were the conduits for information about power, ritual, religion, and identity.
In the Colonial era, the unprecedented mixture of people, materials, and styles from America, Europe, Asia, and Africa, led to the emergence of new art forms and iconography. The catalogue explores the endurance of native cosmology in the new context. For example, the image of the Young Virgin Spinning, a reference to Mary’s activities in the temple, was brought by Spanish painters to Peru. To Andean eyes, it also alluded to the “virgins of the Sun,” the Inca women confined to the temple who were charged with weaving fine garments for use in ceremonies.
The Pelican feeding its young with its own blood, a symbol for the Eucharist since the Middle Ages, was a favorite of masters of the Andean Baroque. In this urn (a highlight of the Met’s “Colonial Andes”) the birds have movable tongues and glass eyes. A key opens the hinged door on the back to allow the placement of the host for use on Holy Thursday.
Fernando Laso’s Inhabitant of the Peruvian Highlands, painted for the 1855 World’s Fair in Paris three decades after Peru proclaimed its independence, represents in a sense the return of the repressed.
The painting shows a man holding a Mochica pot depicting a prisoner with his hands tied behind his back, and a rope knotted around his neck. Displayed alongside a portrait of the conquistador Pizarro, it was a clear reference to the oppression of Indians, past and present.
As image of the new nation that began to be disseminated in books, photos, and postcards, the image of the Indian was slow to emerge. When it did, it was to satisfy interest overseas.
Gradually, as the exhibition chronicles, the idea of the “Indian” as untouched by time or modernity became central to the idea of Peruvian culture. Photography played a large role in disseminating this new/old Indian (the odd non-Peruvian here is Irving Penn, represented by the elegant portraits he shot in a Cuzco studio, some of which ran in Vogue). Most influential was Martín Chambi, the Puno-born photographer who alternated his Cuzco studio practice with travels to photograph indigenous communities in the surrounding region.
The newest works in “Kingdoms” are popular-art objects like carved gourds from the Junín region, a mask from the Dance of the Huaconada, and elaborate carved retablos. Like the majestic bowler-hatted women of the altiplano depicted in so many paintings here, their genealogy is mixed–some deeply obvious, some deeply encoded. The conclusion is that the “authentic” Peruvian is of course a hybrid creation.
The most recent paintings, though, are indigenista works of José Sabogal, Leonor Vinatea Cantuarias, and others, dating from the mid-20th century. It might have been interesting to see how visual artists from more recent times took from their native traditions, mixed them with international art currents, and ran with them.
But that will have to be the subject of another show.
“Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and the Moon,” on view in Montreal through June 16 and a part of the museum’s Summer Educational Program through September 15, will travel to the Seattle Art Museum from October 17 through January 5.