The British Museum’s Peru is a land of hallucinogenic flora and highly diverse fauna, albeit without Paddington or any other bears. It’s a long journey: 4,500 years across rugged terrain. The art ranges from impossibly cute to inescapably grim.
Somewhere in the middle is an erotic work so mild it might have come from a Wicked Willie cartoon book. The caption describes the couple as “having sex”. Without sighting any naked flesh or genitalia, it’s one possibility. They might also be saving space in a cramped home, or keeping each other warm on a cold Andean night. There’s so much we don’t know about Peru.
What the curators do know is the names of a multitude of civilisations. Visitors who thought that Peru equals Incas are about to have their consciousness expanded. You will soon be immersed in the Chavin, the Chimu and the Lambayeque. The names may not be tripping off the tongue, but the drug culture is memorable. In addition to getting off their heads with cacti and coca leaves, the ancient Peruvians shared a tendency to lop off people’s heads. It’s a practice guaranteed to provoke the modern viewer, but were the Celts any better? Dressing their horses up with enemy heads was one of the few things to alarm the battle-hardened Romans. In more recent times, many a Catholic martyr’s rotting skull adorned London Bridge.
The artists of Peru were as enamoured of decapitated heads as a Tudor executioner. They appear on textiles, woodcarvings and ceramics. Sometimes the heads are not severed, as with the many ceramic portraits from around 2,000 years ago. These disembodied Toby mugs are among the few Peruvian artefacts that visitors might already be acquainted with. They are superb accomplishments of the potter’s art. Not even ancient China rivalled their bold expressiveness.
Like China, Peru was making advanced pottery a very long time ago. Some of these cultures go back to 2,500 BC. It was slow, steady progress. The peoples of Peru were less concerned with literacy and inventing the wheel than with developing their own distinctive brand of civilisation. Judging by the quantity of pottery in the exhibition, this must have been their greatest passion.
There is no single object to steal the show as there was with Thomas Becket and the stained-glass window from Canterbury Cathedral. That was the last exhibition in this relatively small space. Crowd traffic was a definite problem then. On this occasion, there are no jams as there are no manuscripts with lengthy explanations to detain visitors. Most of the Peruvian exhibits are works of art in their own right, rather than being a part of the detective puzzle that surrounds the martyrdom of Becket.
There are other puzzles with Peru. The Nasca lines in the desert are still a mystery. It’s no surprise von Däniken’s theory about visiting aliens was once so popular. Not at this exhibition though. Here, the curators are determined to make us wonder at the aesthetic and technological achievements of earthbound humans.
As the British Museum is failing to join the flood of institutions returning looted goods, it might be using this opportunity for reparations to those ancient gods. Everything on view has a proper provenance. There’s an unavoidable push to make amends for previously calling these civilisations ‘primitive’. The deeper you dig into Peru’s highly cultivated soil, the more civilised this land seems to be. Even the Incas are arrivistes by the standards of this exhibition. Their golden age lasted less than a century, ending circa 1530.
Impressed though the rest of us are by Macchu Pichu and other great Inca monuments, the curators would prefer us to look further back. They do not want us to ponder the past 500 years. This is the age of the Spanish and Catholicism, which for some reason has been excluded altogether. The glories of hybrid indigenous-Spanish art would have shown the creative versatility of the native Peruvians. Their images of the crucifixion and the Virgin Mary are among the most colourful and moving expressions of piety that have ever been created.
Bizarrely, some evidence of the colonial and modern eras has been allowed in. Needless to say, it’s not sacred art. Having had thousands of years of faith-based artefacts on display, the grand finale is all secular. The curators could have kept up the gore most effectively with some Catholic devotional items, but instead it’s all about non-denominational weaving cooperatives.
Peru: a journey in time is on at the British Museum until 20 February 2022
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