Members of the Arhuaco community looking at Tairona objects in the Museo del Oro Santa Marta

Members of the Arhuaco community looking at Tairona objects in the Museo del Oro Santa Marta

A Quest for Knowledge: Curatorial Research in Colombia—Part 3

October 10, 2019
Julia Burtenshaw, Assistant Curator, Art of the Ancient Americas

This series of blogposts will provide a behind-the-scenes look at the process involved in planning a major exhibition on ancient Colombia—Portable Universe/El Universo en tus Manos: Thought and Splendor of Indigenous Colombia—opening at LACMA in the fall of 2021. For this particular exhibition, the focus is on the compelling need for more research and our collaboration with Indigenous people in Colombia.

To ask whether an ancient culture has survived from pre-Hispanic times until today is the wrong question: no culture remains unchanged for 500 years. The societies of the Sierra Nevada have a long history, with the Tairona chiefdoms developing and flourishing between around 900 to 1600 CE. Descendent societies have continued to undergo various changes, though it cannot be denied that many traditions have persisted through time. This is why we sought out the Arhuacos, one of the four Indigenous communities that claim direct descent from the ancient Tairona culture. In particular, we were interested in their worldview—their most fundamental ways of classifying and understanding the world—the kinds of things that are so deeply ingrained in culture that people take them for granted, and that thus tend to remain even as other things change. The distinction between animals and humans, for instance, or between green and blue. We rarely think about these categorizations because they seem obvious to us, but other cultures in time and around the world have understood them differently. Green and blue are on a continuum, so where you define the boundary between them is culturally specific. Drawing a hard line between animals and humans, too, is a cultural choice. You can just as well group them under “sentient beings” and have that be the framework by which you go about your daily life.

In last week’s blog I wrote about our meeting with Mamo Camilo and Jaison, who introduced us to the Arhuaco worldview and invited us to participate in a small ritual at the sacred rock art site of the Piedras Donama. This made it very clear how rich and informative this collaboration with an Indigenous community could be as we investigate the ancient Colombian past and associated objects in LACMA’s collection. However, it was also clear that we had a lot more to learn, not only about their worldview but also about what a process of true collaboration entails.

The day after we visited the Piedras Donama, we visited the Museo del Oro Santa Marta, which is managed as a regional outpost of the Gold Museum in Bogotá. Housed in a beautiful colonial-era building, it displays metalwork, ceramics, and stone artifacts of the Tairona—the main pre-Columbian culture in this area. There is also a room dedicated to the living Indigenous people of the region, showcasing and explaining traditional weaving techniques and outfits which, as you can imagine, provided no end of amusement to our Indigenous collaborators who were dressed in those exact same clothes. However, the Arhuacos made it very clear to us that they did not want to be seen as a curiosity—another artifact to be part of our exhibition. They wanted a voice, real input, and a true collaboration. They cared far more about us understanding them as people with a valid point of view, than agreeing on an interpretation of any of the objects we were researching.

A member of the Arhuaco community looking at Arhuaco objects in the Museo del Oro Santa Marta
A member of the Arhuaco community looking at Arhuaco objects in the Museo del Oro Santa Marta

As we paused in front of a small, gold-alloy pendant in a vitrine, Jaison looked at the label (Pendant in shape of a bat. Tumbaga. Tairona, 900–1600 CE) and rolled his eyes as if to say, “What is that supposed to mean, 900–1600 CE? The object is right here!” He had a point… We understand this label as an explanation of when the object was made and used in its original context, but there it was, obviously still being used: it was carefully displayed, being looked at, thought about, discussed, and highly valued. To say that the object’s use or life had ended in 1600 CE and was “of the past” is simply not the case. It is very much still being used and fulfilling a purpose in the present. In light of this conversation, the dating of the Piedras Domana (estimated to have been created sometime between 500 and 1600 CE) also suddenly felt a bit absurd—the petroglyphs, just like this gold bat, are still being used to this day.

Jaison also disagreed with 900 CE as the beginning of the date range. To him, the object was from the time of creation, when all things began. This doesn’t mean that he thinks it was made 4.5 billion years ago, but his way of thinking about time doesn’t work in the same linear way as ours. The way the Arhuacos see it, we constantly recreate the world anew, and as such, the original time of creation is still with us. It seems that they collapse the totality of linear time into a single point.

I must admit that I am still working on trying to fully grasp the concept of “total time” as understood by the Arhuacos, but even to me as a Westerner, there was a valid point: this object could not have come into existence “out of the blue” in 900 CE. Its existence is only possible because of the totality of history that came before it. For this bat pendant to have even been conceived of, mining and metalsmithing had to be invented, and an appreciation for gold and for bats as being considered worthy of representation had to be developed in the human mind. A tradition of wearing pendants also had to exist, and these concepts obviously go much, much deeper into the past than 900 CE. So when can you really, truly, say the original starting point for this bat pendant was? Given that everything builds on what has come before, is it not somehow at the time of creation?

This blog post has barely scratched the surface of what we learned, but it is these kinds of insights that make this collaboration so interesting—these fundamentally different ways to seeing things, of relating to objects, concepts, and to the past. This trip was the first of several. We will continue to work with the Arhuacos and other Indigenous groups as part of a commitment to better understand and work in the most ethical and collaborative ways with our pre-Columbian collection. We are still figuring out how such insights will be presented within the exhibition—how to guide visitors beyond their own cultural perspective and engage with voices and concepts from a different culture. A culture where objects are more like living entities, fulfilling a purpose not only in the past, but also in the present and for the future.

We look forward to sharing more updates during this research process. Stay tuned! Portable Universe/El Universo en tus Manos: Thought and Splendor of Indigenous Colombia will open at LACMA in the fall of 2021.