j99news– Llike a llama chewing his dribble, Peru begins calmly: there is an exhibition of pots. You may be forgiven for feeling a little overwhelmed. But the calm, steady pace and cool layout of this exhibit provide essential grounding as you try to get your head around 2,000 years of ritual warfare, human sacrifice, and first-class hallucinogens.
This is not really an exhibition about Peru, the modern country, but the civilizations of the Andes that long preceded its existence. It traces the cultures of this mountain region from antiquity up to 1534, when Francisco Pizarro and a group of Spanish conquistadors defeated the Inca Empire. The ancient Peruvian people, from the Chavín culture, dating back to around 800 BC. through the great art of Nasca and Moche art to the emergence of the Incas, is presented clearly. Once you get used to all the clay and the incredibly preserved textiles, you are in a lost world of addictive acting and mystery.
Lots of people have lost their heads over ancient Peru. I first read about the Nasca Lines, giant ground drawings up to 2 km across the desert plain between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean when I was a child. Unfortunately, my source was Erich Von Däniken’s book Freight Wagons? who claimed they were UFO landing strips. So the Nasca got alien help? No. However, they used a lot of drugs.
A gripping exhibition of Nasca art at the heart of this show proves that these giant images of animals are far from a random cosmic mystery, the pinnacle of an amazing visual culture. One of the most beautiful geoglyphs portrays a stylized hummingbird with thin elongated shafts representing feathers: In front of a drone video of it is a 2,000-year-old textile embroidered with the same hummingbird designs. You could not have clearer evidence that the Nasca lines are rooted in human culture, not extraterrestrial activity.
When the Nasca people made their enormous art, the Roman Empire rose and fell. But there was no connection between people in America and Europe, Asia or Africa. The civilizations we meet here rose and fell to their own beat. There are clay pipes here made by Nasca – but they were not for entertainment. A painted vase depicts a shaman in a monstrous mask and a snake-like headdress – or does he have real snakes on his head? – holds his forehead pipes among an assembly of fellow musicians while he goes into a trance and communicates with animal spirits. Next to him is a San Pedro cactus whose hallucinogenic flesh he has ingested to open the doors of perception.
Maybe Nasca went out into the desert high on cacti to draw their totem animals. Even the rock, they had an amazing eye for nature. Killer whales, monkeys, snakes and cats are depicted with sharp, strong lines and colors. A vase takes the form of a tall, wavy corn stalk, the agricultural crop that sustained civilization in the Andes.
What does the word “civilization” mean? Technically just a society with cities, agriculture and an organized culture. But we fill it with moral values. The civilizations of pre-colonial America combined urban ambition with beliefs where human blood was essential to keep the universe in balance. The reality of human sacrifices hits you in front of one of the most incredible artifacts here, an embroidered cloth to wrap a dead body in, made by Nasca around the time of Christ. It is covered with happy dancing figures in animal masks, each of which dangles a severed head in the hair.
Nasca shared these sacrificial beliefs with the Moche culture, which flourished in northern Peru from about 100 to 800 AD. Warriors participated in ritualized battles – but the aftermath was not friendly. Moche sculptures portray the defeated, bound to await sacrifice. Their faces are studied with tragic precision. A bound prisoner on a model boat retains his dignity as the threatening god of death rowes him to the place of sacrifice. He throws his body back as in acceptance.
This exhibition takes you outside of yourself, if you let it, into a world of predatory gods and magical music. The most amazing object is a giant clay drum, from the Nasca civilization, painted with images of ritual war and sacrifice. Defeated, gnawing gods hold the heads of the defeated. Monkey-like zombies hang in the trees. Trophy heads are transformed into the spirits of ancestors. The scene is held together by twisting shapes that are half snake, half cactus. It’s like a manic masterpiece of street art.
Even when they were not consuming psychedelic cacti, these ancient people regularly chewed coca leaves. Imagery on pots shows how lime was mixed with coca to amplify its effect by specialized coca officials – whose bureaucratic job title shows how complex these societies were.
The last native rulers of the Andes, the Incas, built a network of roads with runners stationed at intervals to carry messages and gifts: a clay model of a muscular leg celebrating their running power. The Incas took power late, as it turned out, in the history of pre-colonial America. Originating around Cusco, their capital, from the early 15th century they conquered a large area that spread to modern-day Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia and Chile, as well as Peru. The exhibition shows how they used elaborate knotted strings to record crucial information. And a ceramic model of a hoe documents their agricultural revolution, where they terraced the Andes to grow corn at ever-higher altitudes.
They also had coca. An embroidered incapose still has fragments of centuries-old coca leaves inside. They also refined the art of sacrificing people. Selected children were taken to high mountain reserves to be killed. They were buried with small doll-like figures. The doll-sized clothes from the graves of these victims are in sight.
What would have happened in the Andes now? A film by the legendary Inca city Machu Picchu dwells on astonishing details in its architecture and technique. Even the conquistadors admitted that the cities they saw competed with those of Europe. If the Spaniards had never arrived, it is entirely possible to imagine the Inca Empire advancing technologically and moving towards a different version of a modern world.
In fact, this show downplays the Incas because it wants us to discover the people who came before them. What amazes in the art of Nasca and Moche is a combination of factual probability with amazing and shocking content, dry clay and wet veil. Peru is a lime-sharp cocktail of the real and visionary.