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Savage Beauty

"Miniature Ancestor Figure," carved stone in the Tiwanaku style.

One of the Denver Art Museum's greatest strengths is its New World department, which houses two distinct collections: Pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial. For more than two decades, the department's founder, visionary curator Robert Stroessner, enthusiastically collected relevant material way ahead of supporting scholarship. He was buying things before anyone -- even he -- knew what they were, and thus paying pennies on the dollar for much of it. This was especially true of the Spanish Colonial stuff, because almost no one wanted it.

Sad to say, it all came to an end when Stroessner died of AIDS in 1991, two years before the refitted galleries he'd imagined were installed. In 1999, Stroessner's job was split between Margaret Young-S´nchez, who would head the Pre-Columbian collection, and Donna Pierce, who took over the Spanish Colonial portion. Both positions are underwritten by wealthy Denver duo Frederick and Jan Mayer, who were the key donors during Stroessner's long tenure.

The vast holdings in New World art make the DAM one of the most important repositories of these kinds of things anywhere. Alas, limited public interest in both fields means that exhibitions attract only a handful of visitors. In fact, when I was at the blockbuster Tiwanaku: Ancestors of the Inca last week, there were only a handful of fellow gallery-goers, which actually made it a very nice museum experience. The situation was the same for curator Pierce's Painting a New World, which was presented earlier this year: Only a few people availed themselves of the opportunity to see the largest selection ever assembled of Mexican paintings from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries.

Tiwanaku -- the word describes a city, the people who lived there and their civilization -- is little known to most, and despite being a fan of the Discovery Channel in its pre-home-repair incarnation, I'd never heard a thing about it. That means the whole experience, the wondrous objects and the riveting yarn about these long-gone people was completely new to me -- and probably will be to you, too.

Curator Young-S´nchez tacitly acknowledged the obscurity of Tiwanaku by referencing the more famous Inca in the show's title. Although the Tiwanaku were not direct predecessors of the Inca, the Inca believed that they were, and the Spanish thought the city was Incan when they first came upon it. But that obscurity also gave Young-S´nchez a chance to do something original. This exhibit is the first attempt anywhere to lay out the story of Tiwanaku completely. Plus, the catalogue represents the first definitive scholarly take on the city, the people and the civilization.

The catalogue, which I heartily recommend, is unusual by art-world standards in that it is written like a series of articles in a professional journal as opposed to being a frothy coffee-table tome. Young-S´nchez has a B.A. and an M.A. from Yale University, as well as a Ph.D. from Columbia University, and the catalogue bears out that distinguished academic resumé. Young-S´nchez attempts to take full account of everything that was ever written about Tiwanaku, with citations tied to every fact.

It might seem like this would make it a dry read -- until you begin to take in the story of a people whose religion involved taking hallucinogenic drugs, drinking lots of maize beer and then hacking people up and cutting off their heads. "The elites of Tiwanaku were obsessed with decapitation and the ritual display of severed heads," writes Alan L. Kolata, one of Young-S´nchez's co-authors. This is in the chapter "The Flow of Cosmic Power," which discusses at length social events that included feasting among the recently slaughtered corpses. Yuck. And those zany Tiwanaku kept it up for almost 1,000 years, beginning around 200 A.D. and lasting until 1100 A.D., at which time they rapidly and inexplicably abandoned the whole enterprise, city and all.

Considering how little the public knows about Tiwanaku, Young-S´nchez began the show, which is in the first-floor Stanton Galleries, with a photo enlargement of a semi-submerged temple at the site. It's an elegant and simple structure, with a stone gate at the center framing a standing figure. In the foreground is a low wall with a checkerboard pattern of carved stone heads in high relief. The style relies on rectilinear details that are almost modernist and broadly relate to the aesthetic of people who came along later, including the Inca and the other ancient cultures of what is now Latin America. Maybe this is why the city of Tiwanaku is regarded as one of the most significant sites in South America.

The gallery beyond the entry space is treated as an auditorium, with rows of seats facing a video screen that plays a continuous loop about Tiwanaku. The site is in Bolivia, near Lake Titicaca, on the high plateau of the northern Andes. The location, 12,500 feet above sea level, was difficult to farm because of frequent frosts. Like their forebears, the Tiwanaku used raised-bed farming, in which strips of land were surrounded by canals. The water absorbed solar energy during the day, then warmed the cultivated beds at night. Hydrology was important to Tiwanaku, and beneath the ruins of the city lies an elaborate system of cisterns, tunnels and drains.

 

The Tiwanaku had direct ancestors among earlier people in the area. Given that this show is a primer on the Tiwanaku, a gallery devoted to artifacts lays out the story of those who came before them, notably the slightly earlier Pucara, in nearby Peru. You can't appreciate how thoughtful Young-S´nchez was with these inclusions until you see the rest of the show, so I suggest making a couple of laps through the galleries. I felt I had a better grasp on who and what the Tiwanaku were after seeing the informative show twice.

These pre-Tiwanaku pieces are a setup for the subsequent displays. For example, the "Llama Head Sculpture," done in the Titicaca basin sometime between 1000 and 200 B.C., anticipates the conventionalized features in Tiwanaku sculpture. The religion of which human butchering was a part is exemplified in "Relief Carved Panel with Victim," a Pucara-style stone sculpture depicting a dismembered man in simple, hard-edged forms. Both of these pieces, like the later architecture of Tiwanaku, have a decidedly modernist look to them, with lots of straight lines and flat planes used to create visual interest.

Also in this section are the first of many textiles. For insiders of Pre-Columbian art, the textiles, which are in remarkable condition considering their great age, are thought to be the most significant objects in the exhibition. I'm no expert on the topic, but it's easy to see why scholars feel that way -- namely, the great beauty of the intricate patterns and vibrant colors. Do not miss "Animal-shaped Tapestry Sash," a Pucara-style piece from 200 B.C. to 200 A.D.

The next gallery is concerned with the spiritual cosmos of Tiwanaku, which comes out of the Yaya-Mama group of religions dating back to the third century B.C. Here the show introduces some of that hard-core stuff, like the gorgeous little "Decapitator Amulet," from 400 to 1000 A.D. The bone carving depicts a supernatural being holding a severed head in one hand and an ax in the other. The style is remarkable, utilizing stacked geometric forms to convey the lethal figure. Also related to the Tiwanaku's decapitation mania is the exquisitely done "Snuff Tray with Fox Man," from 400 to 1000 A.D., in wood and turquoise. The Tiwanaku used the tray, along with a tube, to snort hallucinogenic seeds, surely a necessary preparation for cutting people's head's off for fun and worship.

The portion on religion is followed by one on the life of the Tiwanaku elite class, for whom luxury goods were produced. In this section is one of the most incredible textiles imaginable: "Tunic with Shoulder Pads," from 200 to 400 A.D. Principally made up of a red field, the shoulders are adorned with rectilinear and hieratically composed decorative panels with a matching border. It's breathtaking. Also in the clothing line are three four-cornered hats -- pillbox affairs -- any one of which would have looked great with that tunic.

The Tiwanaku's wealthy didn't just decorate themselves; they also decorated their homes with sculpture, including the three figures carved in stone that are on display in a showcase -- most notably, the small but monumental "Miniature Ancestor Figure," from 400 to 1000 A.D., which relates well to the later cultures in the region.

It's back to religion in the next part of the exhibit, where there are many snuff trays and snuff tubes. The most eye-catching is "Snuff Tray with Sacrificer," wherein our old friend the decapitator is depicted in carved wood with Orphan Annie-type blank eyes in turquoise.

The final section, which is quite large, deals with the styles of the late Tiwanaku and the Wari. Wari was a contemporaneous civilization to Tiwanaku, existing from 500 to 1000 A.D. in Peru. It is a matter of argument among scholars as to whether Wari and Tiwanaku were affiliated, but to an untrained eye like mine, they sure look like two variations on the same theme. Ceramic pieces, many of them of the highest caliber, are found throughout the exhibit, but the Wari ceramics steal the show. "Masked Dignitary in a Litter," from 500 to 900 A.D., which depicts a squat little man in a helmet and polka-dot tunic standing in a tray surrounded by images of animal deities, is tremendous. Even more stunning is "Effigy Vessel," from 500 to 800 A.D., a large jug with a face on the neck. The simple overall form and geometric decorations are absolutely wonderful.

 

Tiwanaku strikes me as the perfect diversion this Thanksgiving weekend. It may be more crowded than when I saw it, but it's definitely not going to be as jam-packed as the malls. And that will allow you to really get a good look at all the beautiful things those disturbing Tiwanaku made and used during their millennium-long run.


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