The vast Amazonian rainforest is famous as an environment, but the cultures and arts that have thrived there for millennia are not as well known. Thought to be occupied only recently and sparsely populated, the reverse is now understood: people inhabited this arduous area for at least 10,000 years and have created enduring artforms all the while. Mounds built along the great river and its hundreds of tributaries housed impressive chiefdoms and artists created lasting ceramics as well as fugitive plant fiber and feather objects for ritual wear and use. These beautiful and striking works bear consideration as one of the planet's most unique cultural and aesthetic traditions.
In contrast to many world cultures over time, indigenous American peoples have often elevated individuals with unusual physicality, such as visual impairment, intersexuality, or evidence of having survived disfiguring diseases such as leishmaniasis (caused by a flesh-destroying parasite). A wide range of atypical bodily conditions appear in ancient American art. The subjects are usually depicted with clothing and jewelry indicating high social status and they often take on the shamanic role (likely due to the "wounded healer" logic that someone with the experience of conquering their challenges can help others to do so as well). This lecture explores various styles, depicted conditions, and reconsiders our term 'dis'abled as inappropriate to the overall indigenous American belief system.
Both the largest and most ferocious felines in the Americas, the puma (Puma concolor) and the jaguar (Panthera onca) have figured prominently in indigenous American art and culture since time began. The puma (also known as the cougar and the mountain lion) is a highland apex predator, while the jaguar is the lowland one. It is important to identify them correctly in the art record and interesting to explore how their impressive behaviors – such as leaping over twenty feet at a bound – have been embodied. They act as the models for the top human roles of chief/ruler and shaman as well.
Over 100 species of plants that catalyze visionary consciousness naturally grow in the Americas. Many of them were deeply significant to indigenous peoples from time immemorial since religious practice based on trance, loosely known as shamanism, underlay nearly every known culture. This is attested to by many artistic images that celebrate the plants themselves, especially Lophophora williamsi (peyote), Trichocereus sp. (the "San Pedro" cactus), Banisteriopsis sp. (the major component of ayahuasca), and Anadenanthera sp.. Art also immortalizes visionaries experiencing trance and groups of ritual practitioners interacting with sacred plants and their vivifying spirits. This fascinating interaction of art, religion, and nature characterizes the dynamic indigenous American worldview and aesthetic system.
The two greatest and most extensive of the ancient American empires were the Mexica (who dominated the Aztec coalition ruling much of Mesoamerica) and the Inka (who controlled most of western South America). Though exactly contemporaneous (ca. 1420s-1521/34), their imperial art and culture differ in many profound and fascinating ways. Political organization strategies, preferred artistic media, the role of stories versus abstract symbolism, and many other topics are covered. Brief consideration of the indigenous cultural assumptions and historical circumstances which made them susceptible to European takeover is included at the end.
The Inka language of Quechua, still spoken by millions today, contains several philosophical concepts that may have sprung from the art of weaving and/or reflect its key technical features and inherent values. The idea of ayni -- meaning anything that is reciprocal, interlocked, or complementary - applies on many levels in weavings, from spinning and plying the thread to the over-and-under basis of almost all textile creation. Ukhu - that which is hidden and slightly revealed - governs the role of the warp threads under the wefts and many other aspects of textiles. Likewise, tinku - two things that merge to become a third - underlies the many ways in which feathers from the rainforest are added to cloth from the coast to make a novel combination, among other examples. The Andean thought-ways or worldview (how they think and see the world and their place therein) are steeped in such concepts and their very practical yet lyrial applications in the fiber arts.
It is frankly astonishing that humans have not only survived but thrived in the Andean region of South America for tens of thousands of years. Not only are the Andes the world's longest and second-highest mountain range, but the Amazonian rainforest is the wettest zone, and the desert coast the driest. These three demanding environments abut one another up the western edge of the continent, necessitating dramatic human adaptations such as long-distance trade, institutionalized reciprocity, and impressive creativity and persistence. Further, Andean artistic expressions have always been deeply embedded in Nature, as explored in this lecture on materials, design, and subject matter of ancient Andean art in relation to the natural world.
The calendar or calendars that cultures invent and follow are distinctive. The Aztecs (technically the Mexica, who dominated the Aztec Empire) followed two: the solar year and a 260-day ritual year. A specific day in both calendars only recurred every fifty-two years. Rituals were timed to these complex calendars, and images of the fifty-two year “century” were created and buried in a ceremony known as the “New Fire” in which all fires in the empire were extinguished and re-ignited to mark this important rift in time. The implications of time and its mostly arbitrary segmentation are investigated as evidence of larger ways of conceiving the universe and the human part in its machinations.
The Guna (aka the Cuna or Kuna) are a thriving indigenous people occupying the northeast coast of what is now Panamá and hundreds of its offshore islands. The women painstakingly cut and stitch cloth into "dulemolas," originally front and back blouse panels but now incorporated into many other objects. These cutwork textiles are among the most creative, intricate, and fascinating works of art. They may depict local sea life or a pack of Winston cigarettes, a shamanic spirit or the Panama Canal. This lecture traces the complex artistic and historic context of Guna women's textile art as multicultural expressions.
One of the world's largest sources of precious metals is in the Americas and for centuries Native peoples have worked it into stunning works of art, adornment, even architectural plating. In what is now Panamá and Costa Rica especially goldwork reached unparalleled heights technologically and aesthetically. This lecture explores how gold and power went hand in hand with artistry in ancient Central America. In contrast to the Spanish view of metal as wealth in terms of money, indigenous values have long held that it was only valuable when skillfully worked into intricate, spiritually and politically meaningful objects.
Having studied museology in graduate school at Yale University under Dr. Alan Shestack, she went on to select the pieces for display in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston's 1992 Columbus Quincentennial exhibition "To Weave for the Sun: Ancient Andean Textiles in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston." She wrote two of the five essays and the eighty catalogue entries in the book by the same name, which stayed in print for fourteen years. The major theme explored was the weaver as the agent of design and innovation across the millennia of textile arts’ creation in ancient Peru.
For thirty years as Faculty Curator of the Art of the Americas at Emory's Michael C. Carlos Museum she reinstalled the permanent collection three times (1993, 2002, 2013), redesigning and reinterpreting sixty-six cases containing well over four hundred pieces each time. The award-winning catalogue Seeing with New Eyes: Highlights of the Michael C. Carlos Museum's Collection of Art of the Ancient Americas was released in conjunction with the 2002 reinstallation. During her time there she curated two major exhibitions and many smaller installations, as well as served as site curator for five major travelling package shows.
Her first major exhibition was "'For I am the Black Jaguar': Shamanic Visionary Experience in Ancient American Art." It contained 115 pieces and explored how art from a wide range of ancient American cultures embodied trance experience, particularly human transformation into animal selves, as well as sacred plants, music, and meditation as catalysts for visions. Her single-author book The Jaguar Within: Shamanic Trance in Ancient Central and South American Art served as the catalogue for the show and contained a more in-depth treatment of the subject.
Her second major exhibition was "Threads of Time: Tradition and Change in Indigenous American Textiles." It included 146?? pieces representing the ancient and modern Andes, modern Panama (the Guna) and Guatemala (the Maya). The project included a web-based catalogue of the same name, hosted in perpetuity here. She wrote three of the six essays and all the other didactics included (with some research assistant help).
Her small curated shows included three Native North American art: "From the Center of the Sacred Hoop: Native North American Art" (46 objects), "Walking in the Footsteps of the Ancestors: the Melion-Clum Collection of Modern Southwestern Pottery" (32 objects), and "Grandfather Sun, Grandmother Moon" (28 objects). Three others featured Andean art: "Tears of the Moon: Andean Precious Metals" (51 objects), "The Body Beautiful: Ancient Ecuadorian Ceramic Figures from the Collection of the Banco Central del Ecuador" (18 objects), and "The Female Image in Ancient Colombian Art: Selections from the Stephen and Claudia Kramer Collection" (18 objects).
In addition, she served as site curator for two Native North American shows: "Indigenous Beauty: Masterworks of American Indian Art from the Diker Collection" (128 objects) and "Beauty from the Earth: Pueblo Indian Pottery from the University Museum of Art and Archaeology" (113 objects). Two Andean and one Central American site-curated exhibitions were "Shamans, Gods, and Mythic Beasts: Colombian Gold and Ceramics in Antiquity" (96 objects), "Planet Peru: An Aerial Journey through a Timeless Land [Photographs by Marilyn Bridges]" (40 objects), and "River of Gold: Pre-Columbian Treasures of Sitio Conte [Panama]" (189 objects).
Docents are the life-blood of any museum, its public face. It goes without saying that in order to present a museum's holdings effectively, docents need to know them very well. Docent training by specialists can be more beneficial than self-teaching, as it provides more current and reliable information and gives participants the ability to ask questions.
I offer thirty years of experience working with docents on ancient indigenous American art, primarily with Emory University's Carlos Museum collection (numbering over 3,000 pieces) but also with municipal collections in Boston, Dallas, Houston, university museums at Wake Forest, University of Rochester, and elsewhere. With a breadth of knowledge from curating and teaching Mexico southward before 1600, I can tailor trainings to culture areas, particular media, larger themes (humans and Nature, shamanic transformation, cyclical thinking), iconography (animals, divinities, calendars, techniques). I have a passion for grappling with real objects rather than esoteric theories and enjoy imparting my enthusiasm and knowledge in an accessible manner.