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Looking for the Maya: Museums, Sites and Recent Notes on Guatemala

I first went to Guatemala in 1973 and experienced my initial significant exposure to Maya art and archaeology.  I recently returned – much has remained the same, much has changed.  I have long been chagrined by the fact that the Guatemalan government has never sufficiently recognized the rich, sustainable resource that archaeology is.  There are few countries with the astonishingly concentrated archaeological resources that tiny Guatemala holds.  Mexico, and to an increasing degree, Peru, do recognize the touristic potential of archaeological sites and have constructed sophisticated regional museums and infrastructure that encourages visitation.

On paper the Guatemalan government has set aside vast protected areas of the northern Peten, the heartland of Lowland Maya culture and location of the most spectacular archaeological remains. Environmentally this is the rich biosphere of ancient jungle and its myriad bird and animal residents.  A quick tour via Google Earth shows how ineffectual the management of this protected area has been. Uncontrolled deforestation continues as poor Highland farmers continue to migrate to Peten and surreptitiously carve out chunks of the forest for tiny, unsustainable farms.  That said, Tikal and its surrounding national park are spectacular and a joy to visit.  Much restoration has been carried out by Guatemalan archaeologists in the past several decades.  In particular the Mundo Perdido complex has been investigated and much restoration carried out.  Just recently, and funded by the Spanish Government, the façade of Temple V has been spectacularly restored.  Currently work is being done on Temple III and the massive Temple IV – a structure of incomprehensible size.  Even though one can no longer scramble up and down the temples as in times past, well-designed and unobtrusive wooden stairs have been constructed to still provide the visitors with the panoramic vistas only available from the pyramid summits.

Lidded Vessel with Day Names Guatemala, Tikal, Mundo Perdido, AD 300-450 Ceramic with slip 8 x 4 in. Museo Nacional de Arqueologia y Etnologia, Guatemala

Lidded Vessel with Day Names
Guatemala, Tikal, Mundo Perdido, AD 300-450
Ceramic with slip 8 x 4 in.
Museo Nacional de Arqueologia y Etnologia, Guatemala

Sadly, the museums at Tikal (there are two museums and one new research facility – more on that later) are rather pathetic and should be an embarrassment to the Guatemalan government.  The main museum in the crumbling visitor’s center contains important lithic monuments- altars and stelae- from the site.  Additionally there are well-done programs documenting the history of archaeological investigations at the site with wonderful photos of before-and-after restoration.  The only problem is that there are no lights in the museum and it is nearly impossible to see anything.  In fact local guides arrive with flash lights.  It was incredibly frustrating to be standing in front of astonishing stela (the large carved stone slabs erected over centuries marking historical events in the city) unable to make out anything.  It is very difficult to understand how such a basic thing as lighting could not be easily addressed.

The other site museum, the Museo Sylvanus Morley, contains masterworks of ceramics, jade, and stone.  The building itself barely suffices as a dilapidated garage let alone the repository of incredibly important and beautiful works of art.  Apparently there is little attention towards maintenance of the building which is semi open to the air.  An abandoned courtyard with a dry fountain and a clearstory opening wrapped in wire fencing afford little protection from the elements – and thieves.  That said, it contains a number astonishing things representing the nearly-one thousand year life of Tikal.  Rarely seen pre-Classic ceramics (circa 250 BC – AD 250) – sophisticated, fully resolved, and very appealing to a 21st century eye fill several cases.  The highlights are two miniature Late Classic (8th – 9th century) polychrome cylindrical cups with amazingly delicate and intricate scenes including men in hummingbird masks, a superb cluster of large, unrestored, cylindrical vessels for chocolate with complex scenes of palace intrigues, and a magnificent large platter, probably for serving tamales. A reproduction of the tomb of the builder of beautiful Temple I and Temple II is well-done.  One hopes that this small but important museum can achieve its potential in the future.

The third museum-research facility is a recent addition to Tikal.  It is an impressive, beautifully designed structure funded by the Japanese government – which seemed a bit odd to me.  It contains state-of-the-art facilities to research and restore artifacts discovered at the site although when we were there no one was working and the labs seemed unused.  There is a small display of ceramics on view.  I was told, and this was later unofficially confirmed, that the reason Japan gave this advanced facility to Guatemala was in exchange for whaling rights in the Pacific Ocean off the south coast of Guatemala.  A bad deal for everyone.

While the museums at Tikal fall far short of their potential I still recommend visiting them for they hold amazing treasures – if you can see them!

I visited the site of Yaxha about ten years ago which is located west of Tikal in the direction of the border with Belize.  Then it was a mysterious site of jungle-covered mounds and one partially cleared pyramid one could climb.  A decade later it is a sensational site to visit where the archaeologists have managed to preserve the mystery and magic of the site and at the same time reveal dozens of amazing structures.  The site is incomparably beautiful – situated beside two jungle-cloaked lakes.  A climb to its highest pyramid – again by a well-constructed, safe wooden stairway – offers the most beautiful view in Peten.  The archaeologists must be congratulated for the restraint they show in restoring the palaces, gigantic causeways, ball courts, temples and pyramids.  Unlike over-restored sites like Chichen-Itza (the Disneyland of Maya-land) Yaxha, and Tikal as well, celebrate the jungle as much as the ancient architecture.  The good thing and the bad thing about Yaxha is the road to get there.  It is a fair-weather road of sticky clay –thus few visitors which means that one has the site essentially to oneself.  The few other visitors we saw there included two Highland Maya women from Quetzaltenango in traditional dress.   I overheard them asking a guard why the city had been abandoned. After his explanation of various theories (I was impressed) they offered their own theory. No jobs – probably just like all the young men in their community, they said – all have to leave for El Norte (USA) to find work – leaving their communities increasingly empty.  Interesting point.

Stela II Guatemala, Kaminaljuyu, 200-50 BC Granite 78 x 26 x 7 in. Museo Nacional de Arqueologia y Etnologia, Guatemala

Stela II
Guatemala, Kaminaljuyu, 200-50 BC
Granite 78 x 26 x 7 in.
Museo Nacional de Arqueologia y Etnologia, Guatemala

A short one hour flight from Flores, the capital of the Peten region, finds one in the impressive new (for me) airport of Guatemala City.  Nearby is the Museo Nacional de Arqueologia y Etnologia.  This is an absolute must for any enthusiast of Maya art and culture.  While the museum is little changed over the past forty years it is none-the-less well maintained with excellent labels in English and Spanish (in some galleries) that reflect current interpretations, particularly of the carved stelae, based on the decipherment of Maya glyphs over the past several decades.  I was slightly disappointed, however, to not see several of my favorite ceramics pieces.  The remarkable pre-classic ‘floreros’ from Peten and the sensational pieces discovered at Mundo Perdido in Tikal were missing, presumably on tour in one of the many recent exhibitions of Maya art traveling the globe.  However there is certainly enough other remarkable material on display to overwhelm even the most absorbent Mayanist!  The beautiful open air courtyard of the museum contains some of the masterpiece stone stelae from the northern lowlands (Peten), the great highland site of Kaminaljuyu and the enigmatic and little-understood sites on the tropical south coast (Pacific side) of Guatemala.  While I often lament the removal of art from the original archaeological context in this case it is probably good that the very fragile limestone stelae from Peten, which suffer rapid deterioration in the hot, wet jungle environment, have been relocated to the dry, sunny highlands. They are also thus protected from the chainsaws of looters who have cut some into more transportable sizes. (The next time you are in a US museum look carefully at the Maya stelae on display. Often one can see the restored saw cuts and also note the thinness of the slab where looters chopped of the back of the monument to reduce the mass.) One should take particular note of the very early carved stone monuments from Kaminaljuyu and sites on the south coast.  They are carved of hard basalt rather than the friable limestone and thus retain high detail in remarkable condition. Also the reproduction, and some real, wooden lintels from pyramid temples in Tikal and elsewhere are remarkable.   I have longed to get into the storerooms of this institution where undoubtedly mountains of incredible pieces are stored.  While surely underfunded (a matter of priorities like everywhere else) the museum should mount small, temporary, thematic exhibitions that are not expensive to produce and feature pieces rarely, if at all, seen. (As should the Field Museum in Chicago.)

The other significant museum of Maya archaeology is the Museo Popul Vuh on the beautiful campus of Marroquin University.  Named after the famed Popul Vuh, the 16th century K’iche Maya account of the creation of the world that miraculously survived centuries of Spanish Christian violence against the Highland Maya and is now safely in the vaults of the Newberry  Library in Chicago, the museum has an impressive collection of Maya artifacts.  The group of post-classic ( 9th – 14th century) funerary urns from the Highlands are remarkable and rarely seen.  (the Boston Museum of Fine Arts has an even more impressive group.)  Interestingly the exhibits open with ceramics from the periphery of the Maya area – El Salvador and Honduras -that are also rarely shown and worth a studied look.  Outside the museum, scattered along hallways and public areas, are impressive stone pieces mostly from Kaminaljuyu.  The cluster of huge abstracted parrot heads that once probably adored a ball court are tucked amid foliage at the entrance. They are quite marvelous.

Immediately adjacent to the Museo Popol Vuh is the Museo Ixchel, dedicated to the weaving arts of the Highland Maya.  For as long as anthropologists and textile enthusiasts have been studying and collecting Guatemalan textiles they have been predicting the imminent demise of the same – now for over a century.  Somehow traditional weaving still survives despite the devastating civil war (the genocide suffered by the Maya was funded and supported by the US and Israel) and the current attempts by the repressive and right wing Opus Dei and Accion Catolica to dismantle Highland Maya culture. This well organized and pro-active museum is well-worth a visit – and financial support.

The last, and newest museum visited was the Museo Miraflores in the western part of the capital. It is a new and modern museum tucked beside a massive and grotesque collection of shopping malls – three in fact with a forth under construction.  All of this sits atop one of the most important archaeological sites in the Americas – or better said – the former archaeological site – for almost all of ancient Kaminaljuyu has been needlessly destroyed by neglect, unregulated development, corruption and apathy.  The importance of this massive site cannot be overstated.  As modern archaeologists attempt to reconstruct the Mesoamerican past including the evolution of writing in ancient America, Kaminaljuyu is an essential key to unraveling this mystery.  Today all that remains of the hundreds of temple mounds, ball courts, palace complexes and sensational stone monuments are a few grass covered mounds poking out of residential areas, one behind a McDonald’s, one smashed up against a shopping mall, and a dusty, neglected couple of acres of mounds belatedly protected by the city.  The destruction is only exceeded by the destruction of thousands of mounds and earthworks in the American (USA) Midwest as at Cahokia (Illinois) and elsewhere.  The museum is modest as are its holdings. Nevertheless I recommend visiting it as it does have some marvelous things and an innovative reconstruction of the site as it once existed showing the overlay of the modern city.  Perhaps the most evocative part of this museum experience is standing atop the manicured ancient mound squished in between the enormous Miraflores Shopping Mall and the rear entrance to the museum.  If one can sufficiently suspend disbelief one can stand where once Maya priests and rulers stood and imagine a gigantic, sprawling city full of traders from the Valley of Mexico with loads of red obsidian from Teotihuacan, merchants from the Pacific coast with cargos of cacao and all the rare marine luxury goods bound for the northern Lowland Maya, bundles of Quetzal feather from the same Lowlands heading north to adorn Teotihuacan nobility – for it seems that ancient Kaminaljuyu was a entrepot of interchange between far-flung centers of civilization.  At times it was under the aegis of Teotihuacan whose powerful influence is easily seen in the superb lithic monuments and architecture.

Vessel Guatemala, Tikal, Structure 5D-Sub-I-1st, Burial 85 50 BC-AD 50  Ceramic with Slip 16.5 x 12 in. Museo Nacional de Arqueologia y Entologia, Guatemala

Guatemala, Tikal, Structure 5D-Sub-I-1st, Burial 85
50 BC-AD 50
Ceramic with Slip 16.5 x 12 in.
Museo Nacional de Arqueologia y Entologia, Guatemala

Guatemala has changed significantly over the forty years that I have been traveling there – as has everywhere else in the world.   It should be a paradise as it has everything- fantastic landscape, ancient ruins, a relatively intact aboriginal culture, rich colonial history and art – and a most genial population.  If it can overcome the scourge of drug trafficking which exists to feed the insatiable appetite of North Americans (us!), the racist attitude towards the Maya people who remain uneducated and disenfranchised, the insidious effect of right-wing Catholicism and Protestant Evangelicals and the Papal injunctions against birth control then it might one day reach its potential.


“Modernist Roots” Reviewed in ARTnews

This elegant exhibition, subtitled “Ethnographic  Influences on the Modernist Aesthetic,” demonstrated the connections between tribal art and the modernist movement. The “Roots” reflected an evolution in the way Western cultures have approached ethnographic art. A large 19th-century earthenware commemorative head from Ghana in that display brought to mind the facial expressions on the wooden dolls made by midcentury designer and folk-art collector Alexander Girard.

Nayarit Figure

With its fine examples of ethnographic art, ranging from a Nigerian fetish figure to a 19th-century pilgrim’s jacket from Japan, this show provided a fresh context for understanding the enduring influence of non-Western art on the Western imagination.

-Ruth Lopez

ARTnews December 2013

ARTnews December 2013

A very good reason to go to Indianapolis…

Majestic African Textiles

Indianapolis Museum of Art

For those of who remain on constant awe of the creative genius of the African artist there is an excellent opportunity just a few hours away from Chicago to see extraordinary and rare examples of African textiles. Niloo Paydar, curator of textiles and fashion arts at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, has assembled and mounted a superlative exhibition of African textiles representing the entire continent and a myriad of techniques. This as an exhibition that requires no knowledge of African textile traditions to appreciate. One can just relax and look at these incredible textiles as one looks at any work of art. One need not know who the Dida are or what shibori means. Just allow yourself to be dazzled. One thing that constantly impresses me about African art is the amazing breadth of aesthetic possibilities that African artist explore. This exhibition is a perfect example of that breadth.

In the first room one is immediately impressed with several enormous prestige robes worn by high-ranking men during ceremonies and public display. For many West Africans the size of the robe- or pants- is commensurate with the status of the wearer. The more important the man the bigger the robe and the more elaborate its embellishment. A highlight of this installation is a sensational Mende blanket, strip-woven by men and probably dating to the early decades of the past century. (A number of the pieces in the exhibition have impressive provenance, rare for ethnographic textiles – indicative of prescient collectors who recognized the beauty of these pieces when most scholars and collectors ignored them). A pair of elaborate head pieces from Nigeria are fantastic hybrids – European brick-a-brac combined with archiac abstract motifs of lizards and other animalistic creatures. While not quite Papal they project wealth, status and special privilege.

In the same hall are superb examples of large strip woven cloths often referred to as kente cloth. The most remarkable of this group are two by the Ewe people of Togo. Knowing a bit about how they are conceived and executed makes them even more beautiful. They are woven by men in very long narrow strips on a simple back-tension loom. After weaving the strips are cut and assembled into large, wide blanket-like cloths. But it’s not quite that easy. The elaborate layered, interwoven geometric patterns are pre-conceived in the weaver’s mind eye as he weaves, requiring the processing of an astonishing amount of information and memory capacity to envy. The result is a textile of astonishing beauty that becomes even more so once wrapped toga-style about the body.

The next room is full of contractions and contrasts. On the right wall as one enters are rare and luscious textiles from North Africa – rarely seen anywhere. Here the Islamic-Mediterranean influence is profound. So many pieces look alarmingly haute couture. A metallic cape-like garment of shimmering silver from Egypt, a man’s short jacket, elaborately encrusted, looking very French but actually based upon a lion’s pelt. And a woman’s sash from Tunisia with an ikat ground nearly subsumed by subtle and arresting surface designs. On an island in the middle of the room is the other Africa- a march of dance costumes that would be envy of many a contemporary Western performance artist. Several are sexy skin tight nets – the most spectacular being one from Cameroon with a cumber bun of multicolored raffia – like some great mane. Others are patterned to suggest animal skins. A magnificent Engungun costume from Nigeria is wonderfully displayed as if it were being danced. While impressive as displayed on inanimate mannequins one can only imagine how amplified their impact would be on an entranced dancer.

In stark contrast to the sumptuousness of North African textiles are the textiles of the Dida of the Ivory Coast and the Kuba of the Congo Rive Basin. Here one sees the most ancient of African textile traditions. Both are made of bast fiber – in this case the fiber drawn from the leaves of the raffia palm. Dying is done with earth pigments. In the case of the Dida cloths, no loom is used. Rather the pieces are finger woven – in a process related to basketry. The magnificent Kuba pieces – particularly the great long skirts – are immediately accessible to a 21st century Western eye. No surprise that Matisse collected them as did other early 20th century French artists.

There are many other superb pieces in this excellently installed show – beaded pieces from South Africa, mud resist dyed cottons from Mali, the archaic stitched resist robes from Cameroon, rare Ethiopian pieces and may more that make a short trip to Indianapolis well worth the drive.

The exhibition runs until March 2014. Visit the web site of the museum for photos of the exhibition.

ARTnews Review- Animal Instinct

The Douglas Dawson Gallery has been reviewed in the Summer 2012 issue of ARTnews (p. 128) for our Spring show earlier this year, Animal Instinct: Animals in Ethnocraphica. Below is the full review, which illustrates the scope and vibrancy of the collection. While this exhibition is no longer installed in the Gallery, pieces are still available. Please feel free to contact the gallery for more information about the artwork included in this exhibition.

Ranging from a huge wooden water buffalo-shaped coffin to a tiny seal shaped toggle carved from a walrus tusk, the objects in this show reflected human beings’ eternal fascination with animals. “Animal Instinct” featured more than 100 pieces from cultures in South America, Africa, Asia, and beyond and spanned more than 3,500 years, ending in the 20th century. The panoply of storage vessels, masks, accessories, textiles, and funerary objects threatened to overwhelm viewers, yet the organizational scheme, where artifacts were grouped according to the creatures they represented (felines, amphibians and reptiles, birds, etc.), made for a manageable and fascinating presentation.

All of the works displayed remarkable craftsmanship: Most are functional objects elevated by beautiful formal qualities or decorative elements. The 16th-century water buffalo-shaped ossuary, which Indonesia’s Toraja people installed in a limestone cave, was adorned with real horns. Shell ornaments and exquisite carved abstract patterns on this erong’s head and flanks rendered it particularly impressive.

Some animals were considered valuable tools needed in everyday life. A veritable herd of llama vessels and sculptures demonstrated just how important these creatures were to the Inca and other Andean civilizations. Other animals had symbolic power, such as the pangolin (scaly anteater), which Nigeria’s Ekpeye people considered to be both reptile and mammal. Here the beast was depicted on a 1920s dance mask/headdress that sported individually attached triangular scales.

Boli – Bamana, Mali – 20th Century – earth, animal parts, and wood – 20″ x 30″ x 7″

The two most intriguing works on view here were somewhat crude. Earth covers the bodies of these Boli: lumpy, blank faced, four-legged creatures made as ritual objects for a Bamana secret society in Mali. The boli were deliberately ambiguous, according to one to the show’s informative wall text – another curatorial detail that made “Animal Instinct” rival a museum exhibition.

-Lauren Weinberg

Putting Pots in Their Place

Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley

The National Museum of African Art Smithsonian Institution

Spirit Vessel, Bəna People

This season has been particularly rich for anyone interested in African art.  Four remarkable exhibitions;  Heroic Africa: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Weaving Abstraction: Kuba Textiles and the Woven Art of Central Africa, The Textile Museum, Washington, D.C., Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria, Indianapolis Museum of Art, and lastly, Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

All four exhibitions were noteworthy in several respects.  Each, in its own way, presented material in a superbly aesthetic manner. This may seem to some an odd critique. One presumes that art exhibitions will naturally attempt to present work in the most aesthetically pleasing manner possible. However, this is often not the case when showing ethnographic art.  Sadly, ethnographic art bears a heavy political burden that often results in intense pressure to display the material with varying degrees of reference to original cultural context. This political agenda has resulted in some abominable museum installations with walls painted to look like kente cloths, thatch huts constructed over artworks, or even, in the case of the Musee Quai Branly in Paris, faux mud huts into which the viewer must bend and crawl in order to see certain ritual objects.

Not so with any of these exhibitions.  All were beautifully installed with sensitive lighting, well-designed and substantive labels, and excellent, respectful display of sacred and ritual artworks.  And, happily, an absence of distractive interactive gadgets.

For the past two decades this gallery has been promoting African ceramics as a fundamental aspect of African art.  The exhibition, Central Africa Unmasked: Arts of the Benue Valley, masterfully organized by the Fowler Museum at UCLA and curated by Marla Berns, Richard Fardon and Sidney Kasfir, places ceramics firmly in the constellation of African ritual arts and ratifies their role as a fundamental, potent and indispensable aspect of the same.

The Benue River is a major tributary of the famous Niger River that loops from its tropical headwaters northwards to touch Timboctou and finally terminate in the oil-sodden delta of southern Nigeria. The Benue River stretches eastward from its confluence with the Niger towards the border with Cameroon. The exhibition, next on view at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, explores the vast Benue River valley, a little-known region of bewildering ethnic composition, diverse ecology and a history of extraordinarily rich traditional ritual life.

Spirit Vessel, Bəna People

Much of the exhibition deals with material and themes familiar to aficionados of African art; masks, wooden figures, masquerade and placation of the spirit world.  What distinguishes this exhibition is the prominent focus on the ceramics of several cultural groups living in the Upper Benue valley.  Part 3 of the lavishly illustrated catalog is a series of essays by Marla Berns, director of the Fowler, on the function of ceramics in the ritual arts.  Her excellent field photos taken during her research in the Benue valley in the 1980s’ illustrate traditions and rituals now largely abandoned.  Many of the vessels she saw in situ are today in various museum and private collections in the West – including Chicago.

The ceramics, while never abandoning the potent metaphor of the vessel, become, through often wild manipulation of the surface, surrogates for actual individuals or spirits. Some are grotesque, fantastic creatures, others finely potted vessels reflecting a sophisticated understanding of form and surface.  The vessels were placed in sacred enclosures – often miniature thatch and basketry ‘huts’ where they were tended and consulted. Some were ceremonially broken, others maintained for generations.  The sculpted vessels become requisite vehicles for addressing the spiritual and metaphysical needs of the community.

Ceramics in the West suffer a certain prejudice peculiar to the West unlike Asia, ancient America and Africa where ceramics existed within the highest realm of art and complimented, on equal terms, all other art mediums.  This exhibition should clearly put to rest the notion that ceramics are the step child of the ritual arts.  They are the ritual arts.

This exhibition continues at the National Museum of African Art Smithsonian Institution until March 4, 2012.

Farm To Factory: Textiles and Change in 20th Century Japan

Japan underwent profound social change at the beginning of the 20th century.  Western-style industrialization transformed the ancient country from an agrarian village society to an increasingly urban one.  Thousands of rural inhabitants flocked to the city and embraced the modern era.  Textiles reflect this remarkable change.

This exhibition of approximately 70 textiles consists of two principle types; the traditional indigo-dyed cotton textiles of feudal Japan and the flamboyant, modern kimono of the newly urban young female factory workers freshly arrived from the farm.

During the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1867) commoners were subject to various sumptuary laws that regulated what they could wear. Indigo-dyed cotton and bast fiber textiles were the common option.  The laws did not, however, restrict the astonishing creativity of the Japanese peasant.  Various tie dying, stenciling, and resist dying techniques reached their technical apogee in this period.  Frugality and innate good taste directed the hand of weavers and dyers.

As Japan began its rush towards industrialization in the early 20th century rural girls were recruited to work the new factories. Suddenly they found themselves unfettered from the social and material restrictions of their ancestral villages.  Bright, often gaudy, low quality silk kimono were designed to appeal to this new, unsophisticated audience. Young Japanese designers living in Europe imported new fashionable motifs, often derivative of Arte Deco and Arte Modern popular in Europe.  It was a good mix.  The traditional kimono was an excellent format for extravagant and highly imaginative design.

The majority of the pieces in this exhibition were assembled over many years by Fifi White and Elizabeth Wilson, co-founders of Asiatica, located in Kansas City.  Renowned for their impeccable taste and deep knowledge of Japan this collection reflects myriad collecting trip to Japan and consummate connoisseurship.

The exhibition opens Wednesday, July 20, 5:30-8:00PM and will remain on display until August 19.

Earth of the Amazon: Shipibo-Conibo Ceramics

The upper Amazonian basin is a place of myth and mystery.  For most it is a vast terra incognita, perceived as disconnected from the better-known ancient cultures of the Peruvian Andes and coastal deserts.  For the Shipibo-Conibo Indians, this riverine world, the headwaters of the Amazon, has been home for at least 1000 years and perhaps much longer.  Here, amid the constantly shifting rivers and streams, the rich alluvial soils and abundant natural resources they developed a complex culture and an artistic style unique in the Americas.  This exhibition explores the remarkable ceramics they produced which mirrored their cosmology and sense of themselves.

The Shipibo-Conibo concept of surface designs corresponds to the Western concept of  horror vacui. Every surface was a format for the presentation of encoded motifs that linked the Shipibo and Conibo Indians to their ancient culture. The enormous beer fermentation vessels, the focus of this exhibition, are covered with labyrinthine designs; complex, unpredictable, interwoven, geometric patterns that suggest, to the 21st century eye, computer chip circuitry. The designs on the robust shoulders of the pots are a maze of interplay between line, negative space, light and dark – dazzling in their complexity and craft.

As with many pre-industrial societies, pottery making was the domain of woman.  During the seasonal dry season they made gigantic, thin-walled earthenware vessels – the mining and preparation of clay itself a prodigious achievement – for the brewing of beer to be consumed at communal festivals. Before firing, the massive jars were painstakingly painted with the characteristic complex designs unique to the Shipibo-Conibo. They are, arguably, the most impressive historic aboriginal ceramics of the Western Hemisphere.

This exhibition of approximately twenty traditional vessels, dating from the 1940’s through the 1970’s, represents the twilight of this aspect of Shipibo-Conibo culture. Increased exposure to mainstream Peruvian culture, emigration of men to salary-based work outside the Shipibo-Conibo area, and the activities of Christian missionaries have eroded the traditions and ceremonies that once ratified the production and use of the great vessels. Pottery production continues among the Shipibo-Coniba Indians but increasingly is directed to the production of urban and tourist wares.

The exhibition will be on view at the Douglas Dawson Gallery from March 25 to April 23, 2001, with an opening reception on Friday, March 25 at 6:00 PM.