A small but exceptional spectacle of exceptional treasures


The intensity of the colors is a shock: stony blue edged with warm ocher tinged with pink. This thin piece of woven fabric, wide as a shawl, is embroidered with a multitude of figures wearing radiant headdresses – bright blue, pink, brown – and colorful dresses. Decorative jewels in the form of jaguar mustaches hang from their noses and carry the stylized head of an ancestor in one hand.

Made 2,000 years ago, this magnificent textile was once part of a funeral package, buried by people of the Nasca culture in the desert of present-day southern Peru. Desert conditions are responsible for its remarkable state of conservation.

Marking two hundred years since Peru declared independence from the Spanish Empire, this exhibition explores material cultures of the Andes over millennia, from a tiny golden llama to vast land forms.

There are artefacts from even older cultures: a cupisnic ocarina (vessel flute) shaped like a human body with note holes in the navel, nostrils and eyes; a gold headdress and earplates decorated with fierce jaguar heads from 800 BCE to 500 BCE; a Moche jug in the abstract form of a mountain, with stepped sides and a ridge wave on top.

The Cupisnique culture was an indigenous pre-Columbian culture that flourished from around 1,500 BCE to 500 BCE along what is now the north Pacific coast of Peru.

Gold alloy and shell earplates with feline features, Peru, 800 BCE to 550 BCE (Photo: Alvaro Uematsu / The British Museum)

The ceramic work is remarkably fine, combining sculptural modeling – a naughty white-tailed deer sitting atop a bottle, for example – with painted details, in this case a mythical encounter between beast, dog and hunter.

While it is easy to be wowed by the sophistication of early Andean culture, part of the vanity of this show is to break away from the linear European concept of progress and explore time as a parallel, cyclical, continuum. .

The partitions between the sections of the gallery are strung with threads, as on a loom, suggesting a permeability between cultures and eras, an influence circulating between different geographical regions – coast, desert, high mountains, tropical forest – and generations. .

Ceremonial pottery drum depicting a mythical scene, Peru, Nasca, 100 BC to 650 AD (Photo: Daniel Giannon)

The artefacts are presented in a geographical context through discreet films. Aerial images reveal the lines of Nasca – geoglyphs of symbolic creatures carved into the surface of the desert. The Nasca lines were created by removing the top layer of pebbles to reveal the lighter colored earth below.

Elsewhere, Victor Huamanchumo, a fisherman from Huanchaco, shows how he makes a boat from grouped reeds, and farmer / biodiversity champion Manuel Choqque de Piuray discusses the cultivation of thousands of varieties of potatoes and corn , each adapted to specific local conditions. Coming after a period when few trips were possible, this invitation to travel in the spirit is welcome.

Ship depicting a mythical scene with a deer on top, Peru, Moche, AD 100-800 (Photo: The Trustees of the British Museum)

It’s not a large exhibit and the threaded partitions make it particularly airy, but the exhibits are exceptional, with award-winning pieces from the British Museum’s collection bolstered by exceptional loans from Peru.

These include a turquoise inlaid beaded facial decoration worn hanging from the septum, Moche ceramic vessels in the form of tied prisoners awaiting sacrifice, and a huge Nasca clay drum painted with scenes of combat, ritual and mythology. .

Read more

World’s oldest map of stars and a bronze age gold solar pendant will shine in the British Museum

The arrival of the Spanish in 1532 was devastating for the short-lived Inca Empire, resulting in enormous loss of life due to conflict and disease.

While the Europeans failed to eradicate indigenous cultures, they were suppressed and demeaned.

Opening, rightly, at the COP26 summit, this show invites us to appreciate cultures that have evolved over five millennia in subtle balance with the environment, informed by a sophisticated understanding of the natural world.

As of February 20 (03330 096 690)

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