I don’t know about all of you, but 2014 thus far feels like it has been dragging on for a week or more…no doubt, this is because I have been awake for most of it at this point. There have been several good things during that time, certainly, but I hope I actually get a decent amount of sleep after writing this tonight.
I suspect I might get several days of posts out of what I did today: I went to the “Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and the Moon” exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum. I’ve been wanting to go for months, and haven’t had the time or the money to do so until today–it was “first Thursday,” which meant the regular/permanent exhibits were free, and the special exhibit was more than 50% off, so I rode the bus down this morning, toured the whole museum (though I didn’t spend a lot of time in some parts of it), and then had a short break, went to Pike Place Market, and got on the bus to come back.
I will likely talk about the stuff in the “other,” permanent exhibits at SAM in a subsequent post–let’s stick with Peru here for the moment. It is, after all, one of the six “cradles of civilization,” and when the Inca Empire was destroyed by the Spaniards, it was the largest empire in the world at the time–things that the average American on the street doesn’t know and, likely, wouldn’t believe, unfortunately.
As far as some general impressions, I’m rather conflicted about the whole thing, to be honest. I loved the pre-Columbian part of the exhibit, but one audio tour stop into the post-Columbian period, and I was angrily considering vandalism–and those who know my relationship to material objects and museum pieces will know how severe that is. I’m definitely glad I went, but at the same time, several things about the whole experience aren’t sitting very well with me.
My syncretistic lenses were certainly in full force, however, because within the first two rooms of the exhibit proper, I saw Peruvian counterparts to Abraxas (a humanoid with snake limbs and some bird features–this mixing of animal features is rather common, as you’ll see below) and to Chnoubis (a feline-headed series of snakes on a pot). And, I felt that the general treatment of ancestor worship given in the exhibit was a) obvious to me as a polytheist and animist, and also b) pretty accurate and respectful. Likewise, the discussion of human sacrifice–in the various Peruvian cultures’ contexts, it was done on captured warriors, and only in extreme circumstances–was superlatively respectful and not remotely condemnatory, and was explained via the following thought: in giving offerings to deities and ancestors, one should give the very best of what one has, so what is better than humans as far as living animals are concerned, and what better blood to offer than that of the warrior elite amongst humans? This was an intriguing thought to consider in the context of more recent modern polytheistic questions about such matters…
Ancestor worship, however, was much more the focus of several parts of the pre-Columbian portion of the exhibit. I suppose for the general museum-going public, this makes a great deal of sense, because any variety of theism is easier to understand for most mainstream Western people than ancestor worship. The important distinction between Ancestors and just “the dead” was made, and it was emphasized that not everyone got to become an Ancestor–in fact, some people (including slaves and the lower classes) didn’t get to, because those who were Ancestors needed them to take care of them and do their work in the afterlife…fascinating! Ancestors, in essence, had to be elevated to that position through certain ceremonies, which made them more like gods. Imagine that! There were also distinctions between individual ancestors, family ancestors, and group ancestors, which is also quite intriguing (and familiar to those who are involved with ancestor work today). The Ancestors helped from the afterlife, and continued in many ways the pleasures of this life in the afterlife, including in sex and reproduction–which is something that (if it does occur in ancient European contexts) doesn’t get talked about much, outside of a few obscure sources (e.g. Helen and Achilleus having the child Euphorion while on the Isle of the Blessed).
The practices of the Sicán and Lambayeque peoples of the Central Andes were similar in this regard. The mask here, and many other stylized ones like it, is from the Lambayeque people and (like many of them) depicts Naymlap, “Bird of the Water,” the primary and founding ancestor of the traditions of both the Sicán and Lambayeque–the eyes in particular and their shape are said to mimic the wings of a bird, thus evoking Naymlap, who was said to have become a bird after death.
There was blatantly erotic imagery in a great deal of what was seen, thus demonstrating that the Peruvian cultures were not remotely prudish or hung-up on these matters, and which probably utterly outraged the Spaniards when they came in conquest (on which, more later).
A huge aspect of the exhibit and the commentaries on it–and which I likewise noticed in many of the permanent collection pieces as well at SAM–is what I can only call gender binarism. Certainly, some cultures have strongly binary or even potentially dualistic structures and beliefs, and the Peruvian cultures may be one such…but, being that I am who I am, I don’t think that’s often a fair assumption. The “Sun” and “Moon” of the exhibit’s title echoes the two most frequently mentioned other binaries: “male” and “female,” and “gold” and “silver,” each respectively corresponding (thus sun/male/gold and moon/female/silver). There was a large emphasis through much of the exhibit of the high-status burials of male chieftains with the golden masks depicted above…
And yet, something tucked away at the end of the exhibit, almost not noticeable and out of sequence with the general chronology given otherwise in the different rooms, was the following (and which is on the flyers and promotional materials for the exhibit, as well as the exhibit catalogue’s cover).
This treasure, which some call the “Mona Lisa of Mochica Culture,” was only recovered from the illegal Peruvian antiquities trade in 2008 after having been lost for over 20 years, thus a video on this and a discussion of the problem of European pillaging of Peruvian artifacts was given at the end of the entire exhibit. This rich golden mask has a feline-featured head in the center, with eight octopus tentacles, and at the end of each tentacle is a catfish head on top of owl’s claws. The whole aspect of the piece has a quasi-solar allusion to it, I think. This gold “forehead ornament” (as determined by bottles depicting similar ornaments on the foreheads of humans) was found in the grave of a Mochica…woman! So, is it so cut-and-dried, this set of categorizations that the whole exhibit was given in terms of gender divisions, associations, and (in essence) normativity? I wonder if the eliding of these details in the discussion of this piece, chronologically decontextualized, was given the way it was in the exhibit specifically because of that inconsistency.
The post-Columbian rooms, while not as extensive as the pre-Columbian, and which were included in this exhibit in order to show a fuller cultural arc of Peruvian civilizations and their more modern resurgences and re-interpretations (which is a good motive, I think), were simply not as interesting to me for a variety of reasons. I was listening to the audio tour as I went through the exhibit, but after the first recording in the post-Columbian room, I didn’t listen to it any longer and was very upset and angry. The narrator (reading a script I’m sure that individual didn’t write) referred to the ways in which the Spaniards “discouraged” the continuation of the indigenous religions and practices. Discouraged?!? That’s so understated as to be actively deceptive, I think. Outlawing its practices, destroying the cultural foundations of the Peruvian peoples, enslaving them, forcefully converting them, despoiling their land and cities of their (religiously-employed) gold and silver objects, and adding further injury to insult by infecting them with smallpox and other epidemics…yeah, that’s a little bit discouraging, isn’t it? Yeesh…
And, based on the account given of the Spaniards’ first interaction with the Incas, it’s not surprising. The Incas (and other Peruvian peoples) enjoyed drinking, and they didn’t like to do it alone, so there were often paired drinking vessels, which were filled up and drunk, and then the dregs of the cup were always poured onto the earth to share the festivities of drinking with the earth itself and the gods and ancestors. (Sound familiar?) When the Spaniards arrived, the Incas showed them hospitality by offering them drinks and expecting they’d join them in doing so, but the Spaniards refused by tipping the cups out before their hosts–not in reverent libation, but because they thought their hosts were trying to poison them. No matter what the motives were, it was an offense, and set the stage for all that followed, unfortunately.
But, some of what followed artistically and theologically is kind of intriguing, in particular the following piece:
While the trinitarian theological concepts that are being illustrated here are not entirely “orthodox” in certain ways, this image in itself is delightful. Almost as delightful was watching and listening to the reactions of other people viewing it. “I don’t know who that weird-looking guy is” was said by one parent to her child, and it absolutely floored me that even though this is a depiction of the trinitarian godhead, it’s pretty obviously based on the only incarnate/material image involved in that godhead, i.e. Jesus himself (as traditionally portrayed in Spanish culture at the time). I also enjoyed playing with the Latin there: yes, Jesus isn’t the Father, nor is he the Holy Spirit, but he is god (as is the Holy Spirit and the Father)…but, where most Americans and Christians understand “god” there to be “The God,” Latin has no definite or indefinite articles, so one could just as easily translate it in this (or any other) case as “Jesus is a god,” “The Father is a god,” and “The Holy Spirit is a god.” Fun with indefinite articles, eh?
To be honest, at a certain point, both during my tour of this part of the exhibit as well as the permanent exhibits, I kind of felt overwhelmed and uneasy because of all of these decontextualized pieces of material religious technology. I suspect that the actual ancestors, and Naymlap chief amongst them, might not have been entirely happy with the lot of his people, nor of their sacred objects as the curios of museum exhibits for people who have little understanding nor respect for such traditions. And, Naymlap and all of the Peruvian peoples’ deities and ancestors would be entirely right in such feelings, as those familiar with history should know and freely admit.
I am going to continue on with the rest of the permanent exhibits in another post tomorrow or the following day. In the meantime, I’d love to hear any thoughts you might have on this matter.
May Naymlap and all the Peruvian peoples’ ancestors and gods never be forgotten!