Art of the Americas Links Ancient Cultures

The Art Institute of Chicago hosts a comprehensive exhibit that yields clues to patterns in pre-Columbian societies

A GIANT wall map greets visitors to "The Ancient Americas: Art From Sacred Landscapes" exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. The map begins in the southwestern United States, curves down along Mexico and Central America, and ends at South America's southern tip.

It's a region unfamiliar to many North Americans. Although numerous exhibitions, movies, and TV shows this year have commemorated Columbus's arrival to the Americas 500 years ago, few have concentrated as thoroughly on the indigenous peoples who inhabited this vast land for thousands of years.

"The Ancient Americas" is a unique exhibition of pre-Columbian art and culture that spans more than 2,500 years. It took nearly six years of planning and countless meetings and delicate negotiations with the governments of Latin American countries to complete.

Sixty-four museums, mostly from Latin America and the US, lent 300 objects representing 23 cultures. Many objects - which include massive stone sculptures, intricately carved goldwork, and ornately woven, well-preserved textiles - have never been seen outside the Southern hemisphere.

The exhibition "gets people started on a journey north to south," says Richard Townsend, curator of the museum's department of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. "I'd like for people to begin to realize that although their ancestors came from Europe or Asia or Africa, they now live in the Americas, and the cultural traditions expressed in the exhibition are part of their heritage too."

One unifying theme links the Amerindian cultures represented here. For ancient Americans, the landscape was sacred, and human society was an intimate part of nature. Artists maintained a dynamic interaction with the environment by creating architecture, painting, sculpture, and other forms of art. These creations were part of an on-going relationship with the mountains, sun, moon, animals, and plants.

This human reverence for the earth provides valuable lessons for today's industrialized world, Dr. Townsend says. "These objects don't belong to the remote past; they speak to ever-present reality.... What can be more central a problem than our own adjustment to the land - now and in the future?" he asks.

"Ancient Americas" focuses on Indian cultures in the southwestern US, Mesoamerica, and the Andean region of South America. The exhibit begins with the Mimbres culture, dating to about AD 1000 in New Mexico, and continues southward to Peru. Large black-and-white photo murals of ancient architectural landscapes adorn the walls to remind people of the interplay between monumental or small-scale objects and nature.

Although the theme of man's connection to nature is common among many cultures, the form, depth, and degree to which this relationship is artistically interpreted differs from society to society.

The Olmecs, who inhabited southern Mexico nearly 3,000 years ago, developed massive stone sculptures that depicted human figures with traits of felines. A large basalt Cave Mask has these characteristics. Found at a burial platform, its open mouth symbolizes the entrance to the realm of the ancestors, who were intermediaries between the living community and earth's regenerative powers.

Mayans, who lived in Guatemala from about 1000 BC to AD 800, considered maize the staff of human life. An exquisite funerary vessel with a portrait head that was recovered from a royal tomb looks like a delicate puzzle made from square pieces of light green jade. In Mayan culture, jade represented maize, the color of water, and embodied a sense of permanence in the world and afterlife.

Gold was esteemed throughout Mesoamerica and South America. Panama's Cocle Indians (AD 700-900) designed plaques depicting human figures with animal attributes, such as crocodile masks, serpentlike appendages, and feline claws.

In Colombia, the Taironas, who emerged around AD 1200, created gold pendants and pectorals of mythical creatures. One of the most spectacular pieces of gold art in this exhibit is a rare sun mask made by La Tolita of Equador sometime between 200-400 AD. A face is surrounded by shimmering, zigzagging rays, which are serpents, and convey the vital energy of the cosmic forces.

Many other cultures and their art are represented, including the mysterious people of Teotihuacan in Mexico, the Aztecs, and the Incas, Paracas, and Nazca from Peru. Peru's mostly women weavers created brilliant textiles. Carefully preserved weavings were used to wrap mummies. The complex embroidered mantles portray mammals, plants, birds, which reflect the ecosystem of the sea, sky, and valleys.

Visitors strolling through "Ancient Americas" are treated to a cohesive and artistically arresting exhibit. But most are unaware of the considerable behind-the-scenes effort it took to organize.

Townsend, who conceived the project in 1987, says it required extensive travel to numerous countries, personal negotiations with shifting Latin American governments, and last-minute adjustments in order to secure many of the objects.

"Archaeologists from different countries told us this was an impossible exhibit," says Colin McEwan, special exhibition coordinator in the department of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. In Latin American countries, many national museums are managed by the government, and the government decides whether it's in that nation's best interest to lend art. Seven countries required presidential decrees. "A lot of good will was involved," Mr. McEwan says. "This exhibit has pioneered new ground and opened up rel ations with Latin America."

Townsend says the purpose of this exhibit is not to put a "guilt trip" on Europeans for invading the Americas. "In spite of all the destruction, there has also been a creative process of people learning from each other - new societies have formed ... and we continue the encounter of cultures."

* "Ancient Americas: Art from Sacred Landscapes" is at the Art Institute of Chicago until Jan. 3, 1993; It will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Feb. 14-April 18, 1993; and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, June 6-Aug. 15, 1993.

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