Culture  Skimming over Peruvian history

Kingdoms of the Moon and Sun’s artistic survey leaves unanswered questions

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ newest exhibit, Kingdoms of the Moon and Sun, offers a survey of Peruvian art from the pre-Columbian era to the early 21st century. The exhibit includes a wide variety of media, with a strong emphasis on material history, in the form of everyday artifacts. The exhibit aims to explore collective Peruvian identity through artistic self-representations. However, the choice of artifacts does not reflect all facets of Peruvian history and lack some contextual information, detracting from a critical analysis of Peruvian identity in favour of a seamless presentation.

The time span of the exhibit is so extensive that the collection can offer only a cursory glance at best – a summary of a long and complicated history plagued with cultural tensions. The first room of the exhibit, presenting the initial discovery of Machu Picchu, offered a brief yet pertinent insight into the subjective archaeological process of uncovering artifacts of Peruvian history.  At the time of its discovery, the site was a fact of life to locals. They lived there and grew their maize on the ancient Incan terraces, but newly-arrived archaeologists put a stop to this, taking over the site in the name of excavation. This archaeological context, however, is somewhat glossed over in the rest of the exhibit, leaving the viewer to wonder how the specific pieces were selected and which factors determined their importance. The introduction to the exhibit claims these relics are symbols of “living cultural identity,” yet the multiple intersectionalities of culture fail to come across. In fact, the trajectory of the exhibit seems to reinforce an overly predictable colonialist narrative in which European conquest is presented as an inevitable turning point, something all of the area’s pre-Columbian history had been building to.

The first part of the exhibit focuses on artifacts of pre-Incan peoples – such as the Chavín, Mochica, Paracas, and Chimú – who predated European contact.  The second portion focuses on the Incan empire and its transformation by Spanish conquest. The third component of the exhibit features colonial art and works of the “Inca Renaissance,” followed by pieces of Indígenismo, a movement fueled by Peru’s 1821 independence, which extended into the 21st century.

The pre-Incan portion centres on material objects. These object – for the most part ritualistic – depict human sacrifice, war, sexuality, death, and the afterlife as embodied by human figurines, anthropomorphized agricultural goods such as maize, and feline and snake motifs. Unsurprisingly, gold features prominently both in this section and in the rest of the exhibit, reflecting the attraction Peru held for the Spanish colonizers.

After the many rooms of pre-Incan pottery and jewellery, the exhibit segues into artifacts from the Incan empire and the period of colonial contact, including eye-catching llama-fur textile tapestry. Pre-contact Incan culture is only briefly presented before an unsettling and abrupt shift into Spanish colonial art. The lack of diverse perspectives is echoed by the paucity of artifacts which seem to truly represent indigenous Peruvians’ experience of colonization. In fact, the only colonial-era piece accurately depicting the horrors of conquest is a series of drawings by  Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala depicting the realities of indigenous oppression for the Spanish king.

The remainder of the colonial section marks a radical overturn of aesthetics. The works featured are, for the most part, neo-classical religious-themed oil paintings and ornamental metalworks. The minimal presence of authentic Peruvian subjects and artists in this section points to the missing voice in the narrative of colonialism, especially noticeable in the absence of any mention of the Mita, a forced labour system used to extract the precious metals for many of these artworks.

The exhibit shifts again in its last section, exploring a series of post-independence works. At this point, the variety of media grows, as the proportion of paintings diminishes in favour of photographs, engravings, prints, sculptures, and mixed-media works. The theme of Peruvian identity is reiterated in a somewhat mechanical fashion by accompanying audio of children singing the national anthem. This section showcases the hybridization of post-independence art, as traditional Peruvian art and Spanish influence converged to create a bi-cultural artistic movement.

The artworks bookending the exhibit reflect the intended message of fruitful cultural marriage. The first artwork to greet visitors is Francisco Laso’s 1855 European-style painting Habitante de las Cordilleras, a portrait of an indigenous man holding a pre-Columbian artifact thought to embody Peruvian identity.  However, when related to the exhibit as a whole, this iconic painting’s meaning becomes more nuanced. One of the final pieces of the exhibit is an Arquebusier angel, a hybrid doll-like sculpture of a Spanish woman made from materials traditionally associated with indigenous culture.  While this angel appears on the surface as a unified, victorious marriage of Hispanic and indigenous cultures, the sculpture also brings to mind the chilling incongruities of post-colonial culture.

The narrative of colonialism is a challenge to broach in a single exhibit, given its controversial and lasting legacy for Peru. Peru’s current indigenous population, estimated as between 30 and 45 per cent of the national population, still faces many struggles of social integration, economic opportunities, and political rights as discrimination carries on. The hybrid artistic identity expressed in this exhibit seems somewhat discordant with Peru’s current cultural reality. Kingdoms of the Moon and Sun strives to fold all the pieces of Peruvian history into a morally satisfying, aesthetically pleasing result, but is this really a desirable objective? Although the artworks in this exhibit are worthy of appreciation in themselves, the survey of Peruvian art presented in this exhibit is overly broad, at times ignoring the lasting repercussions of historical narrative.

Kingdoms of the Moon and Sun will be on view at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts from February 2 to June 16