“Peru” at the British Museum

In the Andes, past, present and future are interconnected, seen as occurring simultaneously rather than separately. Following this cue, the curators of ‘Peru: A Journey Through Time’ at the British Museum challenge visitors to go beyond a linear, Western understanding of time. Although the exhibit is organized roughly chronologically, beginning with early cultures such as pre-Inca Chavín and ending with contemporary, past and present are intertwined throughout. Alongside ceramic vessels or pre-contact woven textiles are videos of indigenous Quechua farmers and artisans wearing traditional clothing and describing their modern practices of growing corn, building boats, weaving or weaving. road maintenance.

During this time, we are invited to imagine the unique geographies and environments of the central Andes. A vast coastline with wide stretches of desert is home to the famous Nazca Lines, said to have been created between 500 BC and 500 AD; its dry sands also provided the perfect environment for the preservation of the exquisite textiles on display. The high peaks of the Andes mountains topped by glaciers (threatened today by rising global temperatures) shape the backbone of South America and formed the traditional heartland of the Incas. Mountains, conceptualized as deities, are evoked in a number of works included in the exhibition. The vast Amazon offers dense forest and tremendous biodiversity. This very varied and sometimes demanding landscape serves as a backdrop to the exhibition. Large photographs on the walls depict sites such as the coastal Moche Huaca de la Luna desert and the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, perched on a mountain pass where the Andes plunge into the Amazon. It reminds us of the ingenious methods Indigenous peoples used to transform and manipulate the landscape – vast road networks, elaborate earthworks, grand feats of structural engineering.

Pottery ceremonial drum depicting a mythical scene (100 BC-650 AD), Nasca, Peru. Private collection, on loan to the Museo de Arte de Lima. Photo: Daniel Giannoni

The objects included in the exhibition themselves represent a triumph. The British-Peruvian curatorial team, led by Cecilia Pardo Grau and Jago Cooper, worked closely with the Museo de Arte de Lima (MALI) to bring works and objects from collections across Peru to London as well as institutions and private collections in Europe. For aficionados of pre-contact art from the Andes region, the British Museum collections on display will be a particular eye-opener as many have never been seen by the public. For example, juxtaposed with a photograph of a hummingbird geoglyph – one of the Nasca lines – is a sumptuous Nasca cotton weave, the border of what was probably once a larger burial blanket, with pink hummingbirds, embroidered yellows and greens that contrast starkly with the rich, almost black indigo of the fabric. Scholars have often emphasized the centrality of textiles in Andean cultures; the exhibition includes a number of objects from the collections of the British Museum which underline this importance, including woven garments, bags and blankets, but also ceramic representations of weaving and examples of quip, the knot-and-string writing system used by the Incas and their predecessors.

Painted pottery in the shape of a warrior (100–600), Moche, Peru.

Painted pottery in the shape of a warrior (100–600), Moche, Peru. Photo: © 2021 The Trustees of the British Museum

Another revelation from the exhibition are the Moche carved wooden sculptures found by a British company on the Macabi Islands during guano mining in the 1800s. The Moche are best known for their ceramics with highly polished and painted surfaces with care or three-dimensional representations of animals and figures, and many of them, taken from the stores of the British Museum, are also included here. But these wooden figures, preserved by the guano itself, invite us to think about ugly artistic production in a less studied medium.

The popular imagination tends to focus on aspects of indigenous cultures in the Americas perceived as “exotic” – ritual executions, for example, or the use of hallucinatory substances. Both have their place here. We are told, for example, of the Inca ritual known as the capacocha, in which selected children were offered to high mountain deities alongside textiles and small gold and silver statues of llamas and humans (fine examples of which are on display). It features woven bags used for the storage of coca leaves, a mild stimulant, as well as figurines holding utensils associated with chewing coca. The exhibition also includes depictions of severed heads, beheadings and ritual battles; but conservatives have been careful not to sensationalize, portraying these practices as part of complex and nuanced belief systems.

Pottery vessel in the shape of a contorted body (1200–500 BC), Cupinisque, Peru.

Pottery vessel in the shape of a contorted body (1200–500 BC), Cupinisque, Peru. Lima Art Museum. Photo: Daniel Giannoni

While these potentially tense areas are handled well, there’s one element of the show’s framing that doesn’t pose a problem: the very idea of ​​”Peru.” This exhibition was sponsored by the Peruvian government, in particular PromPerú, the country’s official tourist board. It is intended both as a commemoration of 200 years since Peru’s independence from Spain and as a form of publicity, encouraging visitors to consider Peru as a tourist destination for future travels. The origin of a region known as “Peru”, however, begins with Spanish colonialism, a historical period briefly evoked in the last room of the exhibition. The Incas called their empire Tawantinsuyu, the land of the four quarters, and it stretched across parts of what is now Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, and Colombia. The exhibition draws on the Incas and their predecessors (the Moche, Nazca, Chavín, etc.) in a promotional project that, while rightly celebrating contemporary indigenous peoples, nevertheless suggests a largely fictional continuity. between the modern nation-state and pre-contact societies. Visitors should bear in mind that the geographies and temporalities highlighted within the framework of the exhibition are broader than modern nationalist frameworks suggest.

‘Peru: A Journey Through Time’ is at the British Museum, London, until February 20, 2022.

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