The new exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), “Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and Moon,” exhibits art reflecting a strong Peruvian identity and, in doing so, brings Peruvian artistic achievement to the forefront.
I was lucky enough to take a tour of the exhibit with curator Barbara Brotherton. As we proceeded through the individual galleries that make up the exhibit, she offered me insight into the origin and meaning of the works displayed.
The exhibition opens with a gallery dedicated to the great archaeological discoveries made in and around Peru. The first gallery features the findings of notable archaeologists, Hiram Bingham and Julio Tello, with an emphasis on the 15th century Incan site of Machu Picchu. A huge photograph of the iconic site is stationed in the center of the room, undoubtedly the focus.
Following the first room, the exhibit then follows the artistic achievements of Peruvian culture in chronological order. The stunning gold and silver works of early kingdoms offer a peek into ancient Peruvian culture. According to Brotherton, the reason there is such a concentration of gold and silver is because the cultures of the country’s past gave the elements special importance. Gold is said to represent the power of the male gods, while silver is designated for the female gods. The art often features a union of the two, symbolically combining the powers of sun and moon, male and female.
The work is stunning in its attention to detail. Brotherton’s favorite installation in the exhibition is located in the gallery second from the front. They are a pair of golden spiders with human faces, crafted by the Moche people of Peru from around 700 A.D. The spiders clutch a golden cage, inside of which rest a pair of golden spheres. According to Brotherton, ten of these such objects would be worn on the necklace of a ruler, and would rattle as he paraded around.
Brotherton told me about the emphasis the earlier works place on sacrifice.
Indeed, in the first several galleries there is an abundance of objects dedicated to ritual sacrifice and bloodletting. Great rounded knives and deep cups, some of which contain ancient blood residue, are displayed throughout the opening rooms.
Additionally, there are a number of golden masks depicting stylized interpretations of the human face. The most famous of these masks is a Mochica Gold Octopus from the fourth or fifth century A.D., which is fondly referred to as “Peru’s Mona Lisa.” It is a human face surrounded by eight octopus tentacles. The entire work is made of gold, with the exception of the eyes, which are inlaid with turquoise stone.
From these first rooms filled with ancient artifacts, Brotherton and I made our way to rooms that featured many more European influenced works, including canvases featuring the Madonna and Jesus, as well as an abundance of other saints and Catholic iconography. The change is explained in South America’s history by the arrival of the Spanish. According to AdventureLife.com, the coming of Spanish missionaries and conquistadors around 1526 changed the style of Peruvian art—transforming it into quasi-Christian practice–as the conquistadors attempted to convert the Incans to Christianity. However, according to Brotherton, the art still maintains a distinctly Peruvian flavor, and thus represents “a hybridization of Catholicism and local culture.”
The most impressive work in this gallery is a Eucharistic urn in the shape of a pelican, from 1750-1760. It is a three-foot tall pelican made entirely of silver, with the exception of a golden heart and crown upon its head, crested with rich colorful gems. According to the SAM website, “this bird-shaped urn blends imagery and metaphor from Catholic and ancient Andean traditions into one devotional object.”
The exhibition ends in the next gallery, which features art from the post-colonial period. The style of art is referred to as Indigenism, based on its focus is indigenous and rural life. While the style is “academic,” it references the history of Peru by borrowing from folk art, as well as alluding to Peru’s past.
In all, the exhibition provides an interesting and informative window into a style of art that we in the Western and modernized world often are unable to see. The exhibition is expected to draw a sizeable crowd in its runtime at the SAM. “Peru: Kingdoms of Sun and Moon” will be on display until Jan. 5.