An embroidered mantle patterned in vivid indigos and reds. A meticulously modeled crustacean in clay. Black ceramic bottles burnished to give off a metallic sheen.
The Blanton’s new exhibition of ancient Andean material arts, Between Mountains and Sea: Arts of the Ancient Andes, is a feast for the eyes. The phrase is perhaps most apt in the gallery dedicated to the Nasca, a culture that inhabited the south coast of Peru from about 100 BCE to 600 CE. Here a selection of vibrant, polychrome vessels and bowls are decorated with unmistakable imagery: beans, chili peppers, and tropical fruit.
For the contemporary viewer, the stylized food imagery may seem strikingly modern. Having developed one of the most varied palettes in the Americas—it included as many as 13 distinct colors—Nasca artisans favored figural designs made up of flat areas of color and clean outlines. They turned to the natural world for subject matter, often depicting local birds, fish, and plants.
Two bowls on view are painted with a repeating chili pepper, or ají, motif. On one, the peppers have been simplified to silhouettes, which alternate in red and earthy green on a white background and are separated by thin vertical lines. One of the earliest known cultivated plants in the Americas, the chili pepper was used by Andean cultures as both a cooking ingredient and a preservative. Its repetition here may symbolize agricultural abundance. For Texans, it may also bring to mind the visual culture of the Southwest—an indication of just how enduring some Pre-Columbian motifs have been.
In another example, a double spout bottle has been modeled and painted to resemble two lúcuma, Andean fruit still popular in Peruvian desserts today. The strategic juxtaposition of the fruits, each bearing a star-shaped apex where a stem might have been, can only be read as a reference to breasts—a playful double entendre that perhaps links natural abundance with female fertility.
Food has of course appeared as imagery in the artistic traditions of innumerable cultures. But along the desert coast of Peru, the setting for most of the exhibition, farming presented unique challenges. Rainfall in the region was so meager that the Nasca had to rely on the occasional flooding of small rivers and a system of underground canals for irrigation. Thus, repeated references to agricultural abundance may reflect the society’s aspirations as much as its reality.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, we encounter other references to food sources. The Chancay, a central coast culture, made ceramic effigies of camelid species like llamas. While these animals were domesticated for their use as pack animals and for their fine wool, they were also consumed as food. Another important resource for coastal cultures was, naturally, the sea: ceramics from the region feature sea lions, anchovies, and other fish that thrive in the cold Humboldt current off the coast of Peru. Discernible in each of these material traditions is an acute observation of the environment and appreciation of what it had to offer.
Visit the Blanton to view these and other ancient Andean objects. Between Mountains and Sea is on view until August 17.
Beth Shook is the Blanton’s Administrative Manager for Education. She holds an M.A. in Art History from George Mason University, where she specialized in 20th-century Latin America.