Review: LACMA strikes gold with Indigenous Colombia exhibit


That’s a likely draw for The Portable Universe: Thought and Splendor of Indigenous Colombia, a highly compelling new exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. When the word “splendid” appears in an art museum title, the precious gilded metal is usually somewhere nearby.

And that’s the case here – albeit with a twist. The numerous metal objects in the exhibition are made from tumbaga, an alloy of gold and copper (and sometimes other metals, including silver) that was widespread in Central and South America before the Spanish conquest. Tumbaga is both malleable and hard, ideal for intricate metalwork, while a mild acid wash removes copper from a top layer and lets the gold shine like the sun.

The Portable Universe features an abundance of exquisitely crafted tumbaga pendants featuring magnificent birds; intricate breastplates and breastplates fusing bilateral geometry with organic animal and other motifs; small but fine votive offerings; and amazing nose ornaments that pinch between the nostrils, hang over the mouth, and are sometimes almost as wide as a face. (My favorite has an upright hand at each end, as if the wearer is using a glittering gold pendant to constantly exclaim, “Oh my God!”.) There’s even a lavish set of gold ornaments placed over an outline wall drawing of a human body , showing an indigenous burial tradition.

The deceased’s head is covered with a flattened crown topped by a piercing pair of thick, insect-like antennae. Underneath is one of the show’s most dazzling nose jewels – a curved disk segment studded with protruding buttons and dangling a bold rim of gold cylinders. It is flanked by a matching pair of huge, bowl-shaped earrings. In the center of the chest is a heart-shaped breastplate with geometric shapes, at the center of which is a chunky mask that wears its own extravagant nose and ear jewelry. Finally, simple gold cuffs encircle the wrists and ankles, while a ring encircles one finger.

A model of a round house made of gold alloy.

“Circular House Model”, Colombia, Calima, 200-800 AD, Gold alloy

(The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

Unsurprisingly, the famous Bank of the Republic Gold Museum in Bogotá is a loaner and co-organizer of the exhibition, along with Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, where it is traveling in the fall, and LACMA. (Principal curators are LACMA’s Diana Magaloni and Julia Burtenshaw.) Delayed since last fall by the COVID-19 pandemic, it remains essentially intact.

What is interesting about these gilded wonders, however, is the way indigenous cultures made them think about gold. That’s not how the European colonizers did it. Nor is it the way American museum-goers usually do it.

The value of tumbaga to the indigenous people of Colombia does not lie in any economic system or method of money exchange. What counts instead is its usefulness in crafting durable objects with eye-catching visuals. The use and usefulness of these objects, often but not exclusively in a ritual context, represents the acquisition of experiential knowledge. A wall text quoting the Gold Museum’s curator, Héctor García Botero, is succinct: “By idolizing gold, Europeans could not understand the worldview of the native peoples – and thus could never eradicate it completely.”

Today there are more than 90 different indigenous societies in Colombia, many of which are said to be descended from the Tairona people (active 900-1600 AD). The curators worked with one – the Arhuaco, a group of about 27,000 people living in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and represented by community elders Mamo Camilo Izquierdo and Jaison Pérez Villafaña. Given that the European colonizers are long gone while the native peoples are still around, take this as a strike in favor of enduring money literacy.

In order to change the perspective of a museum visitor, the show tries a few unusual things. Some work, others are more dodgy.

Scattered here and there are clusters of small, roughly hewn wooden stools— Banquitos – in the form of a wide, inverted U-stand 7 or 8 inches off the ground. Near the entrance, ancient ceramic vessels depict crouching figures, a configuration featured in other clay pieces in the exhibition. In the Arhuaco creation myths, concentrated thought forms and sustains the material world. (Think of creation as one giant concept art project.) A banquito Here you sit alone or in a group to contemplate and contemplate.

Low wooden stools in the exhibition.

Low wooden stools installed in “Portable Universe” also appear in ceramic seated figures.

(©Museum Associates/LACMA)

Museum visitors are invited to try it out. I would have, but I wouldn’t have been able to get up without crawling on the floor—and few probably wear the helpfully loose clothing favored by the Arhuaco. But the point is made.

A more controversial decision was to leave virtually all of the 400 or so objects in the exhibition undated in their captions. Linear history is not a Colombian indigenous value, where meaning and meaning arrive only in the interconnectedness of things in the here and now. (This makes each object a “portable universe.”) Omitting the putative date of manufacture on the labels is a bit conceited, however, since every work of art resides in every art museum, be it a Chinese Qing Dynasty scroll painting or a German Baroque bronze also lives two lives simultaneously – one in the historical connection that produced it, the other in the current experience that a viewer has with it.

An abrupt moment arrives in the small, tattered painting by an unknown Spanish artist of “Our Lady of Chiquinquirá,” the patron saint of Colombia, held together by embroidered embellishments. The image is installed next to a display case containing seven European manuscripts showing the colonial historicization of indigenous cultures – for example, engraved roundels with fabricated portraits of indigenous Muisca leaders designed like Habsburg kings. ‘Our Lady’ bears the date 1786 painted on the frame and the date is also given on the wall label.

Ceramic figure of a basket bearer.

“basket bearer (canister) with fangs and serpents”, Colombia, Calima, 1500 BC. 100 BC-100 AD, pottery

(©Museum Associates/LACMA)

Elsewhere, a luxurious feathered headdress, several large paintings on bark, and some carved wooden “healer’s wands” bear labels saying they are “modern,” apparently to distinguish them from the rest of the pre- and post-conquest objects in the exhibit . The catalog also contains data for almost everything. (The nose ornament with the hands, for example, was made between the 7th and 17th centuries.) Why such distinctions are made is hard to say, but I might have figured it out if I’d pulled up a banquito.

At one point, The Portable Universe lashes out at advocating the adoption of an Indigenous worldview. A questionable wall text points out: “The Western dichotomy between nature and culture that sets us apart from all else denies our common origins, space and needs.” No it doesn’t, and a simplistic construction of a few thousand years of western thinking is not helpful.

The often wonderful ceramics in the show were the inspiration for the exhibition. LACMA acquired a 700-piece Colombian collection 14 years ago about which not much was known and organizing an exhibition is helping to support the research. A useful if sad discovery: Curators at Bogotá’s Gold Museum, which also houses a large ceramics collection, have identified a number of forgeries.

A clay figure of a face.

“Head fragment”, Colombia and Ecuador, Tumaco-La Tolita tradition, 500 BC. – 500 AD; Volume.

(Christopher Knight/Los Angeles Times)

Those that don’t include some of the exhibit’s most compelling objects, like a small, sinister fellow with a conical skullcap that might remind you of Beldar Conehead. The purposes and functions may be unclear to an untrained observer. (Is the frequency of pottery forms showing a figure carrying a basket on his back just an observation, one container honoring another from everyday life; or does it represent more?) But the inventiveness is often invigorating.

Human and animal meld in a fanged basket bearer surrounded by a serpent, elevating the depiction of animal anatomy to something larger than itself. A clay bowl painted in a woven textile pattern fuses a natural structure with a cultural, created through work. Urns decorated with birds speak of spiritual escape.

The Arhuaco and other indigenous Colombians believe that knowledge is a product of creative discovery. These endlessly inventive ceramics are utterly persuaded of this truth.

“The Wearable Universe: Thoughts and Gloss of Indigenous Colombia”

Where: LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 11am-6pm Thursday-Tuesday. closed on Wednesdays. Until October 2nd.
The information: (323) 857-6000, Review: LACMA strikes gold with Indigenous Colombia exhibit

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