It’s a likely draw for “The Wearable Universe: Thought and Splendor of Indigenous Colombia,” a deeply engaging new exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. When the word “splendor” appears in the title of an art museum, the precious golden metal is usually somewhere nearby.
And that’s the case here – albeit with a twist. The dozens of metal objects in the exhibit are made from tumbaga, an alloy of gold and copper (and sometimes other metals, including silver) that was widely used 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 allows gold to shine like the sun.
“The Portable Universe” features an abundance of exquisitely crafted tumbaga pendants of magnificent birds; elaborate breastplates and pectoral adornments that merge bilateral geometry with organic animals and other motifs; small but refined votive offerings; and stunning nose ornaments that clip between the nostrils, hang over the mouth, and are sometimes almost as wide as a face. (My favorite features a right hand on either end, as if the wearer were using a shimmering golden charm to continually exclaim, “Oh, my!”) There’s even a generous set of golden ornaments arranged on a wall design of outline of a human body, which shows an aboriginal burial tradition.
The head of the deceased is capped with a flattened crown surmounted by a pair of fatty insect-like antennae. Below is one of the show’s most dazzling nose ornaments – a curved disc segment studded with protruding buttons and suspended from a heavy fringe of gold cylinders. It is flanked by a matching pair of huge dish-shaped ear ornaments. In the center of the chest is a heart-shaped cuirass adorned with geometric shapes, in the middle of which is a large mask sporting its own extravagant nose and ear ornaments. Finally, simple gold cuffs wrap the wrists and ankles, while a ring encloses a finger.
Unsurprisingly, the famed Bank of the Republic Gold Museum in Bogotá is a lender and co-host of the show, along with the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, where it travels in the fall, and LACMA. (The main curators are Diana Magaloni and Julia Burtenshaw of LACMA.) Delayed since last fall by the COVID-19 pandemic, it remains essentially intact.
What’s interesting about these golden wonders, however, is how native cultures made them think of gold. This is not the way the European colonizers did it. And that’s not the way American museum-goers usually do, either.
The value of Tumbaga for the indigenous peoples of Colombia does not lie in an economic system or a method of monetary exchange. Instead, its usefulness in making long-lasting objects with eye-catching visual appeal is what counts. 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 curator of the Gold Museum, Héctor García Botero, is succinct: “By idolizing gold, Europeans could not understand – and therefore could never completely eradicate – the indigenous worldview.
There are over 90 different indigenous societies in Colombia today, many of which are believed to be descended from the Tairona people (active between 900 and 1600 AD). The curators worked with one of the Arhuaco, a group of approximately 27,000 people living in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains and represented by community elders Mamo Camilo Izquierdo and Jaison Pérez Villafaña. Since the European colonizers are long gone, while the indigenous peoples are still around, consider this a strike for the enduring power of understanding over money.
In order to change a museum visitor’s perspective, the show tries a few unusual things. Some work, others are more uncertain.
Scattered here and there clusters of small, roughly hewn wooden stools— banquets — in the form of a broad inverted U 7 or 8 inches from the ground. Near the entrance, ancient ceramic vessels show squatting figures seated on them, a configuration that is found in other clay pieces in the exhibition. In the Arhuaco creation myths, the material world is formed and sustained by concentrated thought. (Think of creation as one giant concept art project.) banquet is the place where we sit, alone or in a group, to ponder and reflect.
Museum visitors are welcome to try it. I would have, but I couldn’t have gotten up without crawling on the ground – and few are likely to be dressed in the loose, useful clothing favored by the Arhuaco, anyway. But the point is made.
A more controversial decision was to leave almost all of the approximately 400 exhibits undated in their labeling. Linear history is not an indigenous Colombian value, where meaning and significance only arrive in the interdependence of things here and now. (That’s what makes every object a “portable universe.”) Leaving the alleged date of manufacture on the labels is a bit conceited, however, because any work of art in any art museum, whether it is a Chinese scroll painting from the Qing dynasty or a Baroque bronze also lives two lives simultaneously – one in the historical bond that produced it, the other in the current experience that has the viewer.
A sharp moment comes in an unidentified Spanish artist’s small, tattered painting of “Our Lady of Chiquinquirá,” Colombia’s patron saint, held together by embroidered embellishments. The image is installed alongside a display case displaying seven European manuscripts that show the colonial historicization of indigenous cultures – for example, engraved roundels featuring fabricated portraits of indigenous Muisca leaders dressed as members of the royal family of the Habsburg. “Notre-Dame” has the date 1786 painted on the frame, and the date is also carried on the wall label.
Elsewhere, a luxurious feathered headdress, several large bark paintings and a few carved wooden “healing sticks” bear labels indicating that they are “modern”, apparently to distinguish them from the rest of the before and after items. – conquest of the exhibition. . The catalog also contains dates for just about everything. (The ornament of the nose with the hands, for example, was made between the seventh and seventeenth centuries.) It is difficult to say why such distinctions are made, but I might have been able to understand it if I took out a banquet.
At one point, “The Portable Universe” points to advocating for the adoption of an Indigenous worldview. A dubious wall text reads: “The Western dichotomy between nature and culture, which sets us apart from everything else, denies our common ancestry, our shared space and our shared needs. No, it is not, and a simplistic construction of a few thousand years of Western thought is unnecessary.
The show’s often wonderful ceramics inspired the exhibition. The LACMA acquired 14 years ago a Colombian collection of 700 pieces, of which we did not know much, and the organization of an exhibition makes it possible to support research. A useful if unfortunate discovery: the curators of the Gold Museum of Bogotá, which also houses a large collection of ceramics, have identified a number of counterfeits.
Those that aren’t include some of the most intriguing objects in the exhibit, like a scowling little fellow with a conical skull cap that might remind you of Beldar Conehead. Purposes and functions may be obscure to an untrained observer. (Is the frequency of ceramic forms showing a figure carrying a basket on its back merely observational, one vessel recognizing another from daily life; or does it represent something more?) But the inventiveness is often invigorating.
Human and animal merge in a fanged basket rack surrounded by a snake, transforming the depiction of animal anatomy into something larger than itself. A clay shell painted in a woven textile pattern merges a natural structure with a cultural structure born of labor. Funeral urns decorated with birds speak of spiritual flight.
The Arhuaco and other indigenous Colombians believe that knowledge is the product of creative discovery. These endlessly inventive ceramics are quite convincing of this truth.
“The portable universe: thought and splendor of indigenous Colombia”
Where: LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday to Tuesday. Closed on Wednesday. Until October 2.
Information: (323) 857-6000, lacma.org