Indigenous Works

A prime collection of Pre-Columbian art is featured in a new UA tome

According to scholars, the original denizens of the Americas migrated from Asia, possibly as far back as 40,000 years ago.

Over the millennia, they fanned out across the New World, forming a panoply of cultures and, in parts of what are now Mexico, Central America and Peru, sophisticated urban civilizations. These societies built monumental palaces, temples and public buildings; developed complex writing systems; acquired broad mathematical and astronomical knowledge; and created an impressive array of aesthetically dynamic art.

When 16th-century Europeans stumbled upon the magnificent cities of the Aztecs and Incas, they were amazed. However, the twin influences of ethnocentrism and Catholicism quickly turned amazement into contempt, and the Europeans came to view the newly discovered realms as culturally and spiritually inferior. Since the 19th century, though, Pre-Columbian art has become increasingly prized by museums and collectors alike.

A new book, Ritual Beauty: Art of the Ancient Americas, explores the diverse collection of Pre-Columbian art belonging to I. Michael Kasser, a businessman and longtime art collector. This assemblage, part of which is currently on display at the UA Museum of Art, reflects the creative output of numerous Meso (Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras) and South American cultures over a period of more than three millennia. The book, edited by independent curator Joanne Stuhr and augmented by several scholarly articles, gives readers a window into the cultural heart of some remarkable societies.

While the wheel was not introduced to the Americas until the European influx, the native peoples of the New World possessed a full repertoire of artistic skills. Stuhr writes that in metalworking alone, indigenous Americans were expert in numerous techniques, including lost-wax casting, annealing, repoussé, embossing, gilding and the inlay of shells and stones. Ceramics and pottery were embellished by a number of decorative techniques, and textiles were enhanced with a broad spectrum of vibrant dyes.

For ancient Americans, the creation of art was about more than simply making beautiful objects; it was essentially a form of religious expression. According to Peter T. Furst, a professor emeritus of anthropology and Latin American studies at the State University of New York at Albany, the spiritual functions of indigenous art were deeply layered.

"(Art's) uses," Furst writes, "were many: in shamanic practice; in veneration and commemoration of ancestors—real or mythological; to give those ancestors a physical presence in stone, clay or wood; to assuage, petition or thank the superior powers of nature and the cosmos and guarantee their friendly disposition in the form of health, a good harvest, protection in this and the afterlife, and preservation from all manner of misfortune."

Three of the most interesting pieces in the exhibit are the enigmatic "Shaman in Prone Position," a volcanic stone figure that appears to be floating in a meditative or drug-induced trance; a whimsical, somersaulting shaman vessel (somersaulting was often seen as a trick that could induce spiritual transformation); and a very rare shaman's puppet, a fully articulated jadite piece, covered with hieroglyphic inscriptions. Furst concludes that this figurine, with its moveable limbs, head, hands and feet, may have functioned in shamanic dance ceremonies, or, if ritually taken apart and reassembled, as a symbol of death and rebirth. Roland C. Miller, presently writing a book on Olmec iconography, suggests, however, that the piece may have been an Olmec "action figure," representing a participant in a widely played Meso-American ballgame, which was itself rich in religious symbolism.

One of the primary strengths of the collection is its breadth. We find Olmec masks, scepters and votive axes; elaborate Zapotec funerary urns; a wide range of stirrup spout containers—including a number of portrait vessels with remarkably detailed faces—produced by the Moche of Peru; an assortment of elaborately painted Mayan vessels; numerous animal effigies; and an abundant array of figures reflecting the clothing, jewelry and ornate headgear of their respective cultures.

Artists such as Matisse and Picasso saw primitive art, with its raw energy and mystical qualities, as a force with the potential to reshape some of the time-hardened paradigms of Western art. Indeed, this fascinating collection gives readers fresh ways of looking at the world, as well as a tangible connection to distant but dazzling cultures.

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