Does culture only grow from place, or can culture be imposed on it? When dealing with the more-than-3,000-year historical survey that is Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and the Moon, that country’s long, complicated history forces such questions. Is there only one Peru, or many? Would the Spanish conquistadors of the mid-16th century have deemed their newfound land a nation? Or put on a show of its holdings?
Of course not. Pizarro and company were only there to plunder and conquer. They named and invented Peru. A few objects were deemed valuable enough to preserve (as tributes and spoils, not out of respect), and we see some of those dazzling examples at SAM. But most gold and silver finds were simply melted down and shipped back to Spain, minted into new coins. History became currency, fuel for an expanding empire. When the foreign concept of “art” came to Peru, it was an entirely Christian and European notion. Whatever the locals had been creating before then—for ceremonial, funerary, and ritual purposes—wouldn’t be considered museum-worthy for another three centuries.
In a way, Kingdoms both rectifies and reinforces that divide. Originated at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, this state-sponsored traveling show of more than 300 items is essentially chronological, proceeding from rich pre-Columbian artifacts to the colonial era, then briefly visiting the 20th century. A timeline, mounted on the wall next to the entryway video of Machu Picchu, is essential, but there’s scant mention of Peru’s recent past.
What of the Shining Path, Lori Berenson, or Alberto Fujimori? Those fraught subjects are surely addressed in Peru’s more recent protest and political art, yet they’re entirely absent here. Disappointingly, apart from William Cordova’s big speaker installation located just outside the exhibit, there is no contemporary art. The country’s been on a somewhat rocky but democratic path since 2001 (post-Fujimori, who’s now in jail), and Kingdoms is in part a celebratory PR campaign, intended to put the best face on an emerging nation. The economy is growing, the guerrillas have mostly been pacified—so come drill for oil or walk the Inca Trail!
Though we tend to think of pre-colonial Peru as Inca, that larger empire only came late, lasting a century before Pizarro and smallpox. The tombs that archaeologists subsequently explored—right up to the present day, with some amazing recent finds on view at SAM—represent at least a dozen distinct cultures extending back over millennia. Thus we have masks, knives, vessels, totems, and jewelry from the Mochica, Chimú, Nazca, Lambayeque, etc. All had distinct design motifs and animist religious beliefs that the Inca absorbed into their cosmology. (The Catholics, looking for local converts, would later do a little of the same borrowing on the sly—“syncretism,” the curators call it.) Still, per the sun and moon in the show’s title, natural cycles of fertility and death are expressed throughout. Gods, animals, and men—or amalgams of all three—exist in the same world and show up on the same pottery, all vying for place and station. Some clay vessels are for water; others are for sacrificial blood (both human and animal).
Here it’s worth stating that tombs are for the one percent, the Mitt Romney ruler-priests of antiquity. Only the elite could amass and preserve any treasure; how the forgotten peasants lived or what they created is for scholars to speculate. What we’re now seeing under glass are mostly tokens of power and self-validation, the symbols of a hierarchy—which is no less true in the museums of Europe. When one looks at the spectacular gold Mochica octopus ornament (looted in 1988, recovered by Scotland Yard in 2004), its purpose is obscure to us now. Circa A.D. 100–800, it would’ve been worn on the forehead during ritual ceremonies. With a snarling cat face at its center, it would’ve conferred status on its wearer—and possibly fear among those who beheld him. Then it was entombed with its owner to perpetuate that status in the afterlife.
The fantastical, chimerical object, here seen for the first time outside Peru since its recovery, even gets its own ocean-blue gallery with a companion video. Entombed, it slept through modern Peruvian history: Pizarro’s murder of the last Inca chief Atahualpa in 1532, 300 years of colonial rule, the decline of Spain, the 1821 declaration of Peruvian independence, several regional wars, recent political tumult, and the early-20th-century Indigenismo folk-art movement.
Kingdoms is arranged as a four-gallery circuit. The first two are pre-Hispanic, where you’ll want to linger longest over the tiny, intricate objects—made from seashells, ceramics, colorful feathers, copper, gold, silver, turquoise, and emeralds. For me, the following colonial gallery is just a bunch of dull Christian saints and martyrs, crucifixion scenes, and obscenely ornate gold and silver work from materials either melted from Inca tombs or mined by their enslaved children. You could see this stuff in any European museum. (Though, obviously, the blood- and sacrifice-infused Catholic imagery has something in common with pre-Columbian art: It likewise supports an unfair ruling hierarchy.)
Things get more interesting again in the final 20th-century and Indigenismo gallery. In Peru and other Latin American countries came a new artistic and scholarly focus on native life before colonization. Early photography helped, as did the 1911 rediscovery of Machu Picchu. Inca and Quechua-speaking culture came into vogue again, like the Maya in Mexico. We see examples of local painters who, like Diego Rivera, began to incorporate native faces and ancient motifs into their work. It’s a return of the repressed, if you like—the waking from a long colonial night.
Here also are a few unexpected surprises, like a series of black-and-white fashion and ethnography shots taken by Irving Penn during a 1948 visit. And the Seattle-based Peruvian photographer Eduardo Calderón is represented by some recent pictorial scenes. There are also superb early photos by the indigenous photographer Martín Chambi. All these images do romanticize the past—like Edward S. Curtis documenting the American Indian. But what matters, however belatedly, is that they were recorded; and the weight of history is felt in these respectful, cracked-glass contact prints.
“What does it mean to be Peruvian?” asks the novelist and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, who ran for the presidency in 1990 (Fujimori won). “To be white, Indian, Chinese, black, mestizo, Japanese? It’s all of those things, and many others.” Interviewed for the show’s catalog, he insists there’s no collective Peruvian identity, that the nation’s narrative doesn’t simply concern colonizer and oppressed. Kingdoms takes a contrary view, ending on the positive note of Peru’s indigenous revival. (Its first native president, Alejandro Toledo, was elected in 2001.) Vargas Llosa calls the Inca “an expansionist empire that incorporated cultures, tribes, and nations, and followed an extraordinarily civilized policy of respecting the beliefs, languages, and customs of the societies it absorbed.” You certainly see some of that diversity in Kingdoms, though more from its pre-Inca past than its multicultural present.
SEATTLE ART MUSEUM 1300 First Ave., 654-3121, seattleartmuseum.org. 10 a.m.–9 p.m. Thurs.; 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Wed., Fri., Sat., & Sun. $12–$20. Ends Jan. 5.