Art of lost Amazon culture a surprise
Islanders lived 900 years in the Amazon. Then they vanished.
While many of the pieces follow conventional vessel forms, a few take on animal shapes, like this crab bowl, earthenware with colored slip, 6N inches in diameter. Lent by Museu Barbier-Mueller d Art Precolombi, Barcelona. (Provided by Denver Art Museum)
It is one of the most enticing archaeological mysteries of the Americas — a long-overlooked ancient culture that existed for 900 years on an island at the mouth of Amazon River and then disappeared.
Little is known about this lost people, who are called the Marajo — the name Portuguese explorers gave the Brazilian island (about the size of the Netherlands) where they once lived.
"We don't know their language," said Margaret Young-Sánchez, curator of pre-Columbian art at the Denver Art Museum. "We don't know their ethnic group. We don't know much about them. All we know is that they were not the same as the people who were there at the time of the European arrival."
But as a new exhibition she organized makes clear, the Marajo were extraordinary clay artists, creating red, white and black earthenware works of striking scale, originality and complexity.
Marajo: Ancient Ceramics from the Mouth of the Amazon" is one of the eight Denver Art Museum shows that make up "Marvelous Mud: Clay from Around the World," an institution-wide offering that opens this weekend and runs through Sept. 18.
This nub-edged plate, whiteslipped earthenware, 12N inches in diameter, evokes a turtle shell. Gift of Frederick and Jan Mayer. (Provided by Denver Art Museum)
It contains 54 works, including selections from the museum's holdings as well as loans from private collections and such institutions as the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and Museu Barbier-Mueller d'Art Precolombi in Barcelona, Spain.
Young-Sánchez believes the display is the largest and most comprehensive exhibition of Marajo works ever mounted in the United States, and she hopes it will be a big step in bringing wider recognition to the culture and its art.
Most of the archaeological and art-history research in the pre-Columbian field has focused on Meso-America and the Andes Mountains, where the Inca and Maya and other well-known ancient cultures lived.
To contemporary eyes, this 15K-inch-tall male funerary urn, earthenware with colored slips, has a cartoonish quality. Lent by Museu Barbier- Mueller d Art Precolombi, Barcelona. (Provided by Denver Art Museum)
Meanwhile, much of the rest of Central and South America has received little attention because the lack of masonry dwellings and written language suggested that the peoples in these regions were less advanced and therefore less interesting.
"In particular, there was a kind of operating assumption for much of the 20th century that a serious civilization — a high culture with a hierarchical society and sophisticated art and those kinds of things — could not have developed in the Amazon," Young-Sánchez said.
CIV 102 : Civilisations précolombiennes d’Amérique du Sud / South American Civilizations
The extreme climate was the main reason for such thinking. Because the Marajo's island floods for one-half of the year and is dry the rest of the time, it seemed impossible that anything more than small, scattered settlements could have existed there.
"And therefore," she said, "there wasn't going to be much to find, so people didn't really explore very much."
But beginning in the 1980s, researchers discovered that was wrong. In fact, there had been a substantial population that built large artificial mounds to escape the flooding and developed fishing and irrigation farming.
What distinguishes Marajo ceramics more than anything else are their geometric, mazelike patterns, which are variously angled, rectilinear and swirly. Some incorporate animal or figurative motifs, such as a flanged bowl with what appears to be a bat on its bottom, but abstraction rules.
Some of the patterns can be loose and open, but most are astonishingly intricate like the interwoven, eye-challenging ones on a straight-walled, 16
While many of the decorations are painted on, others are incised into the clay and still others are modeled or sculpted. Some of the most complex works employ all three processes — a sign of the culture's artistic sophistication.
A good example is a plate, 10 1/2 inches in diameter, in the vague form of a turtle shell. An interlocking arrow pattern is painted inside the bowl, with two tiny modeled heads on the rim. The bottom is decorated with an incised spiraling design.
While many of the pieces follow conventional vessel forms, a few take on animal shapes, like a 3 1/2- inch-long turtle figurine and a crab bowl about 6 1/4 inches in diameter.
Others have figurative elements, including a pair of funerary urns, which are believed to be portraits of the persons whose bones they contained. To contemporary eyes, these works have a cartoonish, almost whimsical quality.
Among the biggest surprises in this show is a group of eight tangas. These triangular, curved pieces — each strikingly adorned with different abstract, sometimes textile-like patterns — served as thonglike pubic covers and were probably custom-fitted to each female wearer.
Another surprise are several large-scale pots, believed to be funerary urns, that were partially or fully buried with a body folded inside. One of the largest is a 36-inch- tall example, with an array of modeled and painted faces on all sides.
The Denver Art Museum acquired its first Marajo work in 1989. Then, in 2005, a major European collection came up for sale, and Jan and the late Frederick Mayer , major Denver collectors of pre-Columbian art, bought 13 of the best pieces from the holding and donated them.
The resulting group of 14 works is on view for the first time in this exhibition.
Young-Sánchez's desire to unveil these works to the public and art world at large was a key catalyst in the museum's decision to put together "Marvelous Mud," its massive, cross-cultural display dedicated to the medium of clay.
The Marajo exhibition gives viewers an intriguing, overdue look at the underappreciated artistic legacy of an enigmatic, virtually unknown culture that deserves to be much better known.