Mochica, Chimú, Lambayeque, Chancay, Chavin …
Those words don’t spark the instant recognition of “Inca.” Yet they’re also the names of civilizations that occupied areas of Peru for many centuries before the Inca held sway over the whole western tier of South America from 1450 to 1532.
In the new show at the Seattle Art Museum, “Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and the Moon,” these older indigenous societies dominate half the space in an exhibit that covers 3,000 years of art and cultural history in 300-plus artifacts. And that makes the exhibition something never seen in Seattle before.
As curator Victor Pimentel notes, “It’s not just about the gold from the Inca. … It’s really about the construction of identity.”
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That Peruvian identity has evolved swiftly in the past century, as millennia-long perspectives opened up with new finds at archaeological sites across the country. Result: Peru is now seen as one of the six global regions where civilizations developed (the others are Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, India and Mexico).
The pyramids and plazas of Caral, 125 miles north of present-day Lima, date back as far as 3,000 B.C. and may mark the site of the oldest urban settlement in the Americas. One of the earliest pieces in SAM’s show is an impressive, carved-stone animal head from the Chavin civilization (900-200 B.C.).
With the ceramics of the Mochica, who thrived in northern Peru 100-800 A.D., you enter the presence of master artists with a keen, antic sense of design. Highlights include a bottle depicting a deity known as “Wrinkled Face,” another that takes the shape of “an anthropomorphized potato,” and a third that, more elaborately, bears the image of a sea eagle catching a fish — more elaborate because the action is rendered in both the shape of the bottle and the illustration on its side.
Gold and silver artifacts abound, too, putting a spotlight on the splendor of royal households that predated the Spanish conquest of the early 16th century.
The reason the exhibit focuses so vividly on the societies that preceded the Inca and Spanish is to establish the roots of a work still in progress: the gradual synthesis and acknowledgment of a complex Peruvian identity as the country discovered its own past.
In the second half of the show, indigenous styles are largely obscured by rococo Spanish excesses. Yet the European influence imposed seems merely to mask Amerindian vitality rather than permeate it.
An essay from the exhibit catalog notes the presence, from the late 17th century on, of “a powerful indigenous aristocracy” that pushed for a place in colonial Peru. After the rebellion and defeat of Túpac Amaru II in 1781, they were seriously marginalized. By the mid-19th century, however, an indigenous strain in Peruvian sensibility cropped up again at the 1855 World’s Fair in Paris, in the form of Francisco Laso’s “Inhabitant of the Peruvian Highlands.”
This painting, which greets you at the entrance of the exhibit, seems to sum up the show’s whole narrative arc with a single image. It shows a man holding a Mochica ceramic sculpture of a prisoner with a cord around his neck. The link between Peruvians of the 1850s and their pre-conquest society is firmly, hauntingly stated.
The advent of photography brought yet another kind of eye to the way Amerindian presence survived into a post-colonial present (Peru declared its independence from Spain in 1821, though Spain didn’t fully grant it until 1879). Peruvian Martín Chambi, German ethnographer Hans H. Brüning and American Irving Penn have virtual one-man shows folded into the exhibit, as does Peruvian artist José Sabogal (1888-1956) whose handsome wood engravings and oil paintings eloquently testify to an enduring native presence in his country.
The “poster child” for the exhibit — literally, as it’s on much of the SAM literature promoting the show — is an eight-armed gold Mochica forehead ornament that was stolen during an illegal excavation in 1988 and repatriated to Peru in 2006. The story of a lost heritage returned to its rightful home is central to the show.
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com