Thursday, May 1, 2014

Ceramica de los Ancestros: Central America's Past Revealed

Where: American Indian Museum

When: through February 2, 2015

This is a very large exhibit of Central American pottery, in the big display space on the 3rd floor of the museum.  I didn't have time to do more than skim through, but if you like ceramics, you may want to take some time and look at these on display.

Ceramics are an anthropologist's dream find.  Unlike wood or cloth or most other materials, ceramics remain constant through the ravages of time.  Of course, they can be broken, but even pottery shards can provide useful information on the people who created them.

My first thought upon entering this exhibit was that the works on display reminded me strongly of traditional African art.  Depictions of both people and animals are prevalent in the carvings, and one has the sense that all of the items on display were actually used by people and were not merely designed to sit on a shelf and look pretty.

Apparently, Central American art works and crafts have suffered a fate similar to Asian statutes - collectors have visited the area and taken what they wanted, leaving the countries to whom these items actually belong without their treasures.  Happily, in this instance, what you see on display are not damaged goods (like the Buddha statutes missing heads or hands) but intact pieces.  What's more controversial is that you're seeing them here and not in their home country.  I always have a bit of a hard time with this.  If nothing ever left its place of origin, I wouldn't be able to see it (I can't go to Guatemala on my lunch hour), so it seems a bit hypocritical of me to decry the movement of art around the world.  In the case of many Central American pieces, there was a feeling that the local governments wouldn't be able to safeguard this art, so it was removed from the country for safekeeping.  I guess I'd like for some art to remain in the US and some art to go back to where it "belongs."  Sort of a wishy-washy position I guess.

Controversy aside, there's lots to see here, and I found the arrangement a bit confusing.  I wasn't sure where I was supposed to turn next to see everything - a bit more clarity in the signage would have been good.  I liked the things I saw, although nothing really jumped out at me as wonderful.  I was reminded both of shows I've seen at the African Art Museum and at the Freer/Sackler, proving yet again that for all of the differences between cultures, there are also similarities.  This collection includes not only kitchen ware, but also musical instruments, jewelry and figurines.  If you're interested in interpreting the meaning of the animal representations, there's a chart that explains what everything means.

I was reminded by this show that native peoples are not confined to the continental United States.  Many indigenous communities still exist in Central America as well.  Through the items their ancestors made for use in their everyday lives, we can gather an enormous amount of information about how they lived.

Verdict: If you go on a lunch hour, plan on getting strictly an overview.  If you want to take your time, plan on spending more than an hour.

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