Arts » Visual Art

Forgotten Treasures

At CMA, a captivating look at a little-known civilization


A square mouth bares square teeth set in a tan face. Two stubby arms are held parallel to the chest, grasping or making fists. The figure's aggressive stance is reinforced by the authority implicit in the litter that carries him, and the elaborate spotted and jaguar-faced patterns of his dress and vehicle. This "Figure with Litter" perhaps best represents the nobility of the titular Wari: Lords of the Ancient Andes, a unique exhibition of pre-Columbian South American antiquities currently showing at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Every introductory American history course begins with an all-too-hasty chapter on Native American life before the European invasion. The Maya, Aztec, and Inca societies are held up as examples of the governmental, engineering, and artistic powers of the first peoples.

However, these were not the only civilizations that reigned in the Americas. Complex societies existed in the Western hemisphere for millennia before colonization. Most remain unknown outside tight circles of specialists. The museum, following the leadership of Curator of Pre-Columbian and Native North American Art Susan E. Bergh, hopes to correct this with an exhibition focused on a forgotten people.

Among the parched slopes of Peru, between about 600 and 1,000 AD, two centuries before the ascension of the Inca, a culture maintained at least four major cities, networks of roads, and uncounted outlying settlements. This impressive administrative feat appears to have been accomplished without written language, leaving us with no knowledge of what its creators called themselves. Modern scholars have dubbed them the Wari.

The Wari empire seems to have supported a military, but it propagated itself mostly by soft power. The museum showcases 170 objects used in the rituals by which the Wari ordered and advanced their society.

The Wari propagated religious objects — and with them, the loyalty of devotion — throughout the Andes. "The sacrificer" is represented in ceramic and wooden carvings depicting a feline head grinning with sharp teeth. He carries a dagger and a human victim, or the choicest cuts thereof. However, much more prominent is the "staff deity," a patriarch in an elaborate headdress. Across various ceramics and tapestries, his attribute appears either as a scepter or a serpent.

Perhaps the most technically striking objects are ritual shrouds, believed to have been worn by clergy or political leaders for ceremonies. Woven from llama hair and cotton, the garments show both practiced craftsmanship and expressive sensibility. Representative images are stylized and scattered among abstracted objects to emphasize spirituality. Human figures appear as pinwheels of limbs, rolling along with regularly recurring geometric forms, like gears of metaphysical clockwork.

Along with religious evangelization, feasting was an important institution for Wari rulers. Elaborate banquets served as an opportunity to both show off to other regional powers, and lure them into alliances. Important attendees apparently wore not only ritual shrouds, but also jewelry made of stone, metals, and shells. Medallions made of precious metals portray supernatural beings with wings full of growling faces, or solid, stern-faced warriors.

Yet the most prolific products of the feasts are the drinking vessels. They are crafted in every shape, from human heads to jaguars to nameless fanged monsters to llamas. Even comparatively simple vase-shaped pitchers are lined with elaborate geometrical patterns or ruffled, plantlike images.

This show is the first of its kind, and one of the largest ever of Wari artifacts. Bergh hopes the exhibition and its 296-page catalogue will bring a greater interest to the art history dimension of Wari scholarship. For the general public, the show offers an accessible entry point to an unfamiliar chapter of history.


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