Luminescence, the silver of Peru, Museum of Anthropology, at the University of British Columbia, until December 16, 2012.
I was traveling in Peru recently and I had the chance to see many examples of Peru’s dazzling metalwork in the museums and churches of Lima and Cusco. So I was thrilled when I found out I would have another opportunity to see these treasures right here at home.
The exhibition is well organized and divided into four main historical periods over three thousand years: pre-Columbian, Colonial (after the Spanish conquest in 1532), Republican (after Peru’s independence in 1821), and finally the contemporary era. From the pre-Columbian period – my favourite – which consists mostly of Moche, Chimu and Inca artefacts, there are body ornaments and various ritual objects, including two remarkable tunics made out of hundreds of small silver tiles. During the Colonial period, silversmiths made altar decorations and liturgical objects commissioned by the Church. After Peru gained its independence, they created delightful naturalistic pieces inspired from the fauna and flora of their country. A few striking contemporary pieces are included as well. The exhibition gives a very good overview of the prodigious silverwork of Peru and of the exceptional level of virtuosity of Peruvian silversmiths.
The curator chose to present the artefacts in a way that really emphasises their beauty – or, as the title of the show states, their luminescence – and conveys the importance of silver in Peru. Silver and gold were associated with the Moon (Mamaquilla) and the Sun (Inti), the two most important deities; silver was considered to be the tears of the moon. And this really resonates with me. I remember back in July when I was on the Inca Trail on the way to Machu Picchu, standing outside the tent at night under the Milky Way, with the brilliant silver moon above; it was hard not to believe that Mamaquilla was watching over us. Machu Picchu itself is perched on a ridge between towering mountains, and is perfectly aligned with the movement of celestial bodies. Silver, because of its reflective qualities, of its luminescence, was indeed at the heart of the Andean civilizations.
Despite the fact that I really enjoyed seeing this impressive display of extraordinary work, where dramatic lighting brings the objects to life as you walk through the darkened rooms of the gallery, I had some issues with the display.
The captions are much too brief. Even a succinct description of each piece would have helped, particularly some information about the techniques used (i.e. casting, embossing, filigree, etc.), so it would have highlighted the virtuosity of the silversmiths. Of course, as a silversmith myself, I always want to know how things are made, but I think that even for the general public, finding out more about the techniques employed by the metalworkers would have shown what they could accomplish, even with limited technological means, and how skilled and sophisticated they were.
I understand that the premise of the exhibition, according to Dr. Anthony Shelton, the curator, was to focus on the “idea of silver” rather than on the objects. I think that the way some of the objects are displayed, especially some of the pre-Columbian pieces, is not doing this justice. Let’s take for instance the nose ornaments.
The caption seems self-explanatory enough, but it was in fact much more than an ornament. The guide at Museo Larco in Lima told us the true function of these objects. A nose ornament would have been worn by the ruler, the Inca for instance, or a member of the nobility. It was attached to the nostrils and hung over his mouth so that it would flutter when he spoke. And the words coming from his invisible mouth would have materialized in the gleams of silver and gold as the metal moved. To see these supernatural flashes of light as he spoke would have made him look more otherworldly and divine. Unfortunately there is nothing in the way this piece is displayed that hints at its role as a ritual object. It would have been helpful to display it on a mannequin or to include an illustration of how it would have been worn, and in what context.
Silver and gold played a crucial role in the Inca Empire, not only in its culture, but in its politics as well. For the people of the Andes, silver and gold were especially important not because of their monetary or aesthetic value, but because of their spiritual meaning. These luminous metals embodied the divine power of the moon and the sun. This is very well articulated in the catalogue of the exhibition (ISBN 978-612-46274-0-8, edited by A. Shelton) which is thorough and informative. It provides substantial historical and sociological context, and explains the role of silver in pre-Columbian religion and politics. Sadly, unless you buy the catalogue, you won’t be able to find out. Some of this information should have been readily available on the panels accompanying the exhibition; instead, these panels are too general.
Despite these disappointments, I would still recommend this show, and if I were to rate it; I would give it 4 out of 5 stars. These are beautiful and important objects; many of them are being been shown outside of Peru for the very first time. It is a rare opportunity not to be missed!