Ancient Imagery

The UA Museum of Art shows off a fascinating collection of American art spanning three millennia

In Mayan Guatemala, somewhere between the sixth and the 10th century A.D., an artist sat down to paint a clay vase.

He took a brush, dipped it into his slip colors and deftly painted what appears to be a cheerful picture of one man offering another a beverage in a cup. Painted in brown, terra cotta, white and black, the exquisite painting on the cylindrical vase seems to provide a view into an ancient society. But it's a mistake to impose our own cultural viewpoint on this scene. As much as we might like to think this is a case of one ancient American convivially sharing a cup of seasonal chocolate with another, curator Joanne Stuhr divines another meaning in the painted scene.

At the same time the man is giving the drink, she says, he's also getting an enema laced with a hallucinogenic drug, delivered courtesy of the woman standing behind him. Soon, he'll be in a ceremonial trance, essential to certain religious rituals.

The lovely, puzzling vase is in the big show at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, Ritual Beauty: Art of the Americas. The exhibition comes entirely from the pre-Columbian art collection of Tucsonan I. Michael Kasser, and guest curator Stuhr winnowed down his 300 artifacts to 170.

The objects range nimbly over multiple cultures and eras, from Mesoamerica to the Andes, and from about 1500 B.C. to 1500 A.D., just before the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Kasser's cache is strong in the Moche and Chimú cultures of Peru, but he also has good examples from ancient Mexico, from the Aztecs, the Olmec and Veracruz cultures, and Jalisco and Nayarit in the west; from the Maya of what's now southern Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras; and a few things from Panama and Bolivia.

One of the oldest pieces is a gorgeous pale-green Olmec mask that could date from as early as 1500 B.C. The newest are carved-stone Aztec figures likely made right before the Spanish turned up in the Americas. A flying Olmec shaman, carved from volcanic stone, is one of the most charming; he's in an airborne trance, suggesting at least one of the upsides of those hallucinogenic enemas.

To whittle the collection down to exhibition-hall size, Stuhr looked particularly for "images of humans and animals, which are dominant anyway in Pre-Columbian art," and those that were the "strongest pieces from the point of view of art and aesthetics, rather than anthropology. I was focusing on the beauty of the object."

From the hammered golden earrings (complete with a leader standing inside a tiny hammered house) that once dangled from the ears of a priest in Peru, to the stucco portrait heads of Maya (elegantly rendered with sloping noses and full lips), the show has beauty aplenty. But it also has a copper trumpet from Peru and a stone ballgame yoke from Veracruz, objects that drop tantalizing clues about the lives of the people who lived with these works.

For one thing, they didn't think of them as art. In a catalog essay, noted anthropologist Peter T. Furst points out that "what we call 'pre-Columbian art' was to its creators--master sculptors, painters, weavers and architects--not 'art' in the Western sense." Instead, it was a link to sacred powers, to other realities. A mask could transform its wearer into an eagle, or a jaguar. The objects were crucial in religious ceremonies and in the specialized rituals of shamans. By using them correctly, people could help ward off disasters to the individuals and the group, and preserve the bond between the living and the dead.

A bold Peruvian textile tunic in the show--a checkerboard of squares woven in rust and gold--might have been given in tribute to a leader, Stuhr says, or worn in a ceremony, or wrapped around the dead body of a high-ranking person. But it was crafted to the highest possible standard by Chuquibamba/Inka weavers, somewhere between 1100 and 1500 A.D.

The art-makers were highly trained specialists, elites in their own right. "Each society had its aesthetics and its sense of what was beautiful and perfect," Furst wrote. Among the Inka, young girls chosen for their high status, or their exceptional beauty, were brought to the House of the Chosen Women--Aclla Huasi--and taught to weave textiles like this dazzling tunic.

Peruvians also did "phenomenal gold work," Stuhr says. Gold was easier to come by than silver in South America, and artisans used multiple techniques to craft earrings, necklaces and bracelets for men and women alike. Then, as today, jewelry conveyed wealth and power.

A golden "Waterfowl Effigy" from Bolivia circa 200 to 1000 A.D., molded seamlessly from a single nugget, touches on the ancient American admiration for transformation. Such a bird was admired for its magical abilities to walk on land, fly through air and swim underwater.

Kasser's collection is heavy on animal imagery, particularly in the category of "Stirrup Spout Frog/Toad Vessels," from the Peruvian Moche culture, 300 to 700 A.D. These clay frogs are just plain cute to our eyes. They're slip-painted in terra cotta-and-beige polka dots and stripes, and their backs sprout handles with spouts. Some of them even whistle, Stuhr says. But, again, a contemporary take on them is off the mark. Frogs were venerated for a number of reasons, used as gifts and in ceremonies, and buried with the dead. One species of spotted frog could help trigger the all-important religious trances: It secreted hallucinogenic substances.

Other stirrup-spout vessels are realistic portraits of actual men, undoubtedly leaders in their communities. One man has a headdress adorned with a bird's head, and a skirt painted in red-brown designs. Some 1,500 years old, he stares out at us, his stolid, lined face both eerie and familiar.

Closer to home, some of the Mexican works give some surprising insights into the lives of women. "Seated Female Dignitary," from early Jalisco, circa 200 B.C. to 300 A.D., is at least 2 1/2 feet high, an astonishing size for a hand-slapped clay work fired in a pit. She's bare-breasted but regally attired, with any number of hoop earrings, and a necklace and deep-red skirt. Her monumentality suggests a high rank.

"Kneeling Pregnant Female," a clay piece from nearby Nayarit in the same period, embodies the mysterious fertility that is the usual source of female power in traditional cultures. The woman is in labor, posed in the typical childbirth position still used in much of the world. She's squatting, with her buttocks on her heels, her knees on the ground and both hands on her swelling belly. Her eyes are half-closed in concentration as she prepares to deliver her child.

Stuhr says the black markings over the figure's red-brown clay are manganese deposits, evidence of long internment in a tomb. Buried with the dead, this life-giving figure was meant, perhaps, to effect one last transformation, to transfer to the deceased her own life force.