“Luminescence” and “Kingdoms of the Sun and the Moon”

May 31, 2013

* Elka Weinstein, Toronto, regular contributor to Masters in Museums, University of Zaragoza.


It has been rare for two such similar exhibits, both about Peru, and both including objects from Peru’s pre-Columbian and Colonial pasts, to be on tour in Canada and the United States.  This year, we had the good fortune to be able to see such treasures on display in Toronto and Montreal, and to be able to view them at leisure.

“Luminescence: the silver of Peru” was curated by Anthony Shelton of the UBC Museum of Anthropology (MOA) and was the result of a collaboration between the MOA and the Patronato Plata del Peru – a non-profit cultural association whose purpose is to highlight the cultural, historical and artistic values of Peruvian silver. It was exhibited at only two venues, the Museum of Anthropology at UBC and the University of Toronto Art Centre. “Luminescence” featured 140 works in silver, including precolumbian, colonial and contemporary works.

“Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and Moon: Identities and Conquest in the Early, Colonial and Modern Periods,” was “conceptualized, organized, and produced by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts…With more than 350 works of art (paintings, sculptures, gold and silver ornaments, pottery, photograph, works on paper, textiles and videos) from almost fifty public and private collections, most of them from Peru but also from Canada, United States, France and Germany, this exhibition covered 3,000 years of history, including archaeological discoveries in recent decades. This exhibition was organized with the support of the Peruvian government and the city of Lima.” (MMFA, website home 2013). The exhibit will also be shown at two venues: at the MMFA until June 16, 2013, and then at the Seattle Art Museum, where it will be presented from October 17, 2013 to January 5, 2014.

According to Shelton, Luminescence, “focuses on the metal’s reflective qualities and the significance and importance of light in pre-Columbian and successive Andean civilizations and societies.”[1] I saw Luminescence at the University of Toronto Arts Centre.  From the early Nazca and Chimu (Precolumbian) artifacts such as funerary breastplates and masks, and including a spectacular gourd-shaped bowl, to the startling modern mask of Supay, the Bolivian god of the underworld, the objects illustrated the exhibit theme well. The purpose was clear – silver (and gold) were valued during pre-Columbian times for their ability to reflect light, their brilliance was a reflection of their essential nature.  During colonial times, the importance of that role was obscured, but not forgotten, silver’s reflective qualities were featured in dance costumes and in religious paintings created for display in churches. Silver continued to be used for religious objects during the 19th century, but it was not until the indigenous artists of 20th century Peru began to bring their own sensibilities back to new silversmithing techniques, that silver was again valued for its brilliance. Shelton obviously chose these objects carefully, and because the exhibit is small, each object may be seen as uniquely suited to the exhibit.

Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and the Moon, at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, displays many similar objects to Luminescence, but the quantity is almost overwhelming.  Exhibit curator Victor Pimental, an archaeologist and the MMFA’s curator of pre-Columbian art, describes the heart of the MMFA exhibition as “the search for a unifying national identity. It is a theme that runs through Peruvian history, from the Incan empire to the Spanish colony to the modern republic.”[2]

The MMFA’s exhibit displayed some wonderful pre-Columbian objects in the first hall. I had only seen many of these gold and silver artifacts in pictures in books, so it was a delight to see these ancient objects displayed as the national treasures that they really are. The ceramics from the Museo Larco were also a nice complement to the precious metal objects, despite the lack of a clear thematic connection. The Huari funerary litter was a revelation, particularly as it was exhibited with a ceramic maquette beside it, illustrating its use in a funerary procession.

The open concept display room was not very successful as an interpretive device. A friend had thought it was a mockup of an underground tomb, in the same style as Egyptian tombs displayed in natural history museums. I had been to the Museo Larco, and had seen the open-concept displays of erotic pottery, but the effect was rather spoiled by the addition of Mexican and Mayan pottery used to fill out the displays of Peruvian pottery. The inclusion of these artifacts assumes that the viewer does not know the difference. Although the average tourist may not know or care that the objects come from vastly different cultures and eras, a more sophisticated and knowledgeable audience should have been included in the equation.

The rest of the exhibit is an attempt to explain “indigenismo” and the creation of Peruvian identity through colonial Inca times, religious ideology, and finally through the art and photography of the early 20th century. The final gallery displays some more modern paintings and some examples of “folkloric” modern artisanal production.

It is perhaps, unfortunate that a colonial-era painting that is actually displayed in the exhibit was not used as the focus for the show. The painting is not even one of the WORKS displayed on the museum’s website. An illustration of the Inca dynasty depicts a series of portraits of the Inca King and Queen and their male descendants – real and/or mythical.  The painting glows with meaning. The King and Queen are shown holding their symbols of office – the sun and moon. The Inca kings are identified in writing under each portrait, and text about their right to rule is added at the bottom on both sides of the painting. The coat of arms at the top of the painting is also very interesting.  It shows a lion, with laurel trees, surrounded by two serpents, tails entwined, holding up a rainbow.  At the top of the escutcheon is the same Inca-style crown as that of Manco Capac, the first Inca. The inscription reads, “Armas de Emper”.  Clearly, the artist understood both Inca and Spanish iconography. As a commentary on the pride that the indigenous population took in their royal heritage, and on the Spanish need to make hierarchical sense of a non-European past, the painting is a masterpiece of propaganda.

The last major artifact in the MMFA’s exhibit is, of course, the spectacular gold feline-octopus headdress which was recovered for Peru through international cooperation in London. The mask was stolen with a collection of pieces from the site of La Mina in the mid-1990s.  Antiquities dealer and smuggler Leonardo Patterson was arrested in Spain for his involvement in this action and a number of other crimes, and Peru has asked that he be extradited to face charges. The story of the recovery of the mask, and the other forty-four objects with it, and their return to Peru as national treasures, is discussed in the text on the wall across from the headdress, but the artifact itself is separated from the other pre-Columbian objects in the exhibit and is therefore de-contextualized. Yes, part of the context is the repatriation and revalorization of the indigenous culture of Peru, and the value of the piece on the international market makes it significant.  But it should not have been separated from its comrades, and its story should have been part of the story of all such Peruvian artifacts in museums.

Finally, if I had to quarrel with either exhibit’s stated themes it is that the iconographic meanings of silver, which was associated with the sea, femininity, and the celestial powers of the moon, as well as death; and gold, which is associated with masculinity, the sun, and kingship, were never thoroughly explored. The role of the spondylus clam shell, although displayed as a sub-theme in pre-Columbian times at the MMFA, and mentioned by Dr. Shelton in his explanation of the MOA exhibit, is also never expanded upon, even though symbolically the brilliant red-rimmed shell was equally as important as the precious metals in both pre-Inca and Inca cultures.

Museums strive to tell stories about objects and their meanings, past and present.  We need to be clear about those stories, so that visitors will leave exhibits with more understanding about the possibilities of being human, and the fact that our greatest potential is in our ability to create meaning.