At 2,430 metres above sea level, the “lost” city of the Incas, Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes, is often literally a city in the clouds. My first thought when I visited the otherworldly site many years ago was that gods must have walked those very streets 600 years ago.
Photographs and artifacts from Machu Picchu are among the first objects to greet visitors at a new, spectacular exhibition of Peruvian art that spans the ancient to the contemporary. The exhibit currently on view at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
But don’t linger in that room dedicated to Machu Picchu. Speed ahead because there are far more dazzling artifacts to be seen from other Peruvian peoples, notably the Mochica and Chimu, that predated the Incas, and left us treasures only rivalled by the golden loot from Egyptian pyramids.
The exhibition is titled Peru: Kingdom of the Sun and the Moon. There are scores of artifacts from Peru’s pre-Hispanic ancient peoples, the Viceroyal period during the Spanish colonial days, and more contemporary works from the style Peruvians call “Indigenismo”; a nationalistic type of art celebrating indigenous peasant life.
While the Spanish missionaries tried to stamp out ancient religions and customs, they were not always very successful. Many of the artists painting Christian religious scenes after the conquest of indigenous peoples were, in fact, indigenous, cleverly incorporating some of their own iconography into the scenes of saints and sinners so beloved by the Spanish.
These native artists had a fondness for floral decoration and gilded images. And that’s what they produced in their Christian paintings. The very Catholic Spanish loved portraits of the Virgin Mary. Well, the indigenous tribes had virgin goddesses of their own. Who could tell if that smiling woman in a portrait was the Christian Mary or some Andean goddess?
Many of the 2,000-year-old treasures on display are ceramics or made of gold. Both types of objects age extremely well. Some look like they could have been created yesterday. The solid gold crowns and other bodily decorations will knock your socks off.
There are even examples of Mochica porn: Two stirrup spout bottles showing a woman masturbating a man and two other ceramic bottles made in the shape of female and male genitalia. Those latter ones look like something you could buy today at a joke shop. All that is missing is a whoopee cushion and some plastic dog vomit.
The star of the show is called “Peru’s Mona Lisa.” The name does not really fit, except like the real Mona Lisa, this golden object is awash in mystery and beauty.
The Peruvian Mona Lisa is a gold Mochican head ornament from 100 to 800 AD. In the centre of this ostentatious decoration is a feline head. Eight octopus tentacles sprout from that head. The ends of the tentacles curl into the shape of catfish heads.
That feline head represents the decapitating diety called Ai-Apaec. Decapitation was considered a good way to die back then, well, at least for those doing the decapitating.
Regulars at Gatineau’s Canadian Museum of Civilization will remember the 2007 exhibition, Sican, Ancient Peru Unearthed. That was a fine show focusing on artifacts from one Peruvian cultural group. Think of it as something of a teaser for the much larger and more comprehensive show in Montreal.
Peru: Kingdom of the Sun and the Moon remains at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts until June 16.