In 2018, the Bolivian government expanded the presidential residence into a 38-million-dollar skyscraper decorated with iconography from the ancient Tiwanaku culture (Fig 1). Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, had frequently employed the ruins and artifacts of Bolivia’s preeminent archaeological site to imbed his government in local histories. The scale of this iteration, however, prompted divisive public reactions. To some it was an egregious appropriation of Native heritage; to others, a recommitment to decolonial goals.
As an archaeologist working at the historic Tiwanaku capital, I cannot dissociate my work from these ongoing debates. The way I have come to understand Bolivia’s first state society is as dependent on the modern, ongoing lives of its art images as it is on their original cultural contexts. It is this perspective that has informed my research with Krannert Art Museum’s Andean collections.
My research considers not just the formal and artistic qualities of these objects, but, as much as possible, their life histories: their beginnings as raw materials, their exchanges over long distances, their repair and reuse, and, crucially, their biographies once removed from their original sites. Western art museums have too frequently ignored the processes of natural decay, violent looting, and exploitative commoditization that leave their collections fragmentary and partial. Instead, many continue to treat their Latin American archaeological objects as if plucked directly from some cultural moment frozen in the past. The reinstallation of KAM’s Andean collection offers an opportunity to depart from these sanitizing conventions.
For instance, KAM’s collection of Andean textiles includes several examples from the Paracas tradition of Peru’s south coast (900-200 BCE). Burials at Paracas sites included tapestried mantles several meters long and featuring psychedelic figures with snaking tongues, golden masks, and ceremonial blades. Many of the Paracas textiles at KAM, however, are ragged strips with just two or three figures intact (Fig. 2). Some of the fragments have been reassembled and framed as something suggestive of a Western art canvas (Fig 3). These objects can tell us very little about ancient mortuary practices on the Paracas peninsula, but they embody fascinating histories of commodification for a foreign art market.
The academic histories of these objects are equally fraught. The classifications archaeologists and art historians use to make sense of complex material culture are never settled. Uncritically representing those groupings in museums, absent the process that created them, can present ethnic and stylistic categories as rigid and natural.
Several objects in KAM’s collection speak instead to the fluidity of social boundaries and artistic ideas. A ceremonial kero goblet from the Huaura valley of central Peru is an inexact replica of the imperial Wari style (500-1100 CE) (Fig4). Its decoration betrays only a vague familiarity with the Wari artistic vocabulary—its imagery an effort by local elites to claim the political prestige associated with the Wari state.
A contemporaneous effigy bottle from Huaca del Loro far to the south, on the other hand, has a female form that sharply contrasts with the male figures prevalent in Wari art (Fig 5). This stylistic tradition was likely an intentional expression of regional identity and rejection of Wari influence. Despite this, both objects, and others like them, have historically been classified as simply “Wari.”
By bringing these objects into conversation, the KAM installation will reveal the dynamic and shifting social lives of these objects that move beyond the static archeological categories that have long contained them.
Author: Corey Bowen, PhD candidate in Archeology, University of Illinois at Chicago, 2020
Kojan, David. 2008. “Paths of Power and Politics: Historical Narratives at the Bolivian Site of Tiwanaku.” In Evaluating Multiple Narratives: Beyond Nationalist, Colonialist, Imperialist Archaeologies, edited by Junko Habu, Clare Fawcett, and John M. Matsunaga, 69–85. New York, NY: Springer New York.
Nelson, Kit, Nathan Craig, and Manuel Perales. 2010. “Piecing Together the Middle.” In Beyond Wari Walls: Regional Perspectives on Middle Horizon Peru, edited by Justin Jennings, 171–87. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Proulx, Donald A. 2008. “Paracas and Nasca: Regional Cultures on the South Coast of Peru.” In The Handbook of South American Archaeology, edited by Helaine Silverman and William H. Isbell, 563–85. New York, NY: Springer.
Spivak, Deborah. 2017. “Women in Opposition: The Sociopolitical Implications of Loro Female Face-Neck Jars of Middle Horizon South Coastal Peru.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 27 (1): 55–76.