March 15, 2011

Pre-Columbian Symbolism at the Johnson

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At times we can’t help but think of art as something that exists just for the sake of beauty or entertainment. It’s common that, when considering an artistic artifact, one ignores the possibility that it might be useful for something other than staying put and looking pretty. All the same, every piece of art — be it a poem, painting, or even a golden idol acquired by Indiana Jones in the depths of a South American jungle — has a meaning behind it or was made with a purpose. Any given piece of art can’t escape being a reflection or a snapshot of the time and place where it was created.

This concept is exemplified in “The Stories Objects Tell: Living in Latin America Before Columbus,” an exhibition currently at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art. The exhibition explores the concept of art through an anthropological perspective. This exhibit showcases a broad variety of relics from pre-Columbian Central and South America from the Johnson Museum and Cornell Anthropology collections. The exposition, which will be on display at the Johnson Museum until March 20, poses the question of how the various artistic elements displayed were significant within the array of Latin American cultures of the pre-Columbian period and what they symbolized.

With well over twenty pre-Columbian cultures existing only in Meso and South America, one cannot expect the period’s art to be anything but opulent and varied. Although these cultures had diverse styles, some elements that persisted through the epochs — emblematic of the period as a whole – were angular and often linear patterns; the presence of animals as a sign of power; and the concept of three-dimensional pottery. Although the concept of art as a method of self-expression has always existed (and is, at times, the only way people see art), the splendor of this period is most evident in the instances where ancient peoples used their skills to make ordinary household objects that rival the finest sculpture in their craftsmanship and beauty. Thanks to the effort and care that was put into making each one of these pieces, anthropologists today get clues to the past of these lost civilizations.

The idea of ancient South American luxury can be appreciated through what I found to be the most interesting piece of the exhibition. The piece, a Peruvian bag from the south coast of the region, it is sure to catch everyone’s eye due to its colorful plumage. It is considered to be a pre-Columbian luxury item since it was imported from an Amazonian rain forest (it seems the notion of imported handbags as a lavish possession has existed for quite a while). It iss interesting to think about, once again, how, even though we often think about past civilizations as very practical, they still went out of their way to get or make nice things. The simplicity of this bag makes its beauty timeless. From a fashion point of view, it would look killer with the right dress and a pair of stilettos today, despite being somewhat out place culturally.

The “Jaguar Effigy Jar,” also shown in “The Stories Objects Tell,” exemplifies the jaguar’s position as a symbol of power and of political authority within pre-Columbian Latin American cultures. What makes the jar unique is its three-dimensionality; the jar is not in a simple geometric shape, but is molded to the form of a jaguar head and limbs. The intricate decorations adorning the jar and the carefulness with which it was produced reinforces the high regard with which the jaguar was considered among these societies.

Peering into a more quintessential aspect of the early Latin American cultures, the “Maize Deity Effigy Jar” represents how important maize was to early inhabitants of the region, deifying the major component of the Latin American diet. Various aspects of the ancient Latin American cultures remain to be a mystery; however, by examining the intricate styles exhibited upon everyday items, we can learn more about their value systems and day-to-day ordeals.

Original Author: M. Celeste Gonzalez