Gold and the Incas is the first survey of Peruvian art ever staged in Australia and is show-casing the splendour of the ancient pre-Hispanic cultures of Peru. The aim is to show a European-focused Australian audience the aesthetic depth, drama and beauty of the southern empires who lived and thrived before the Spanish arrived.
For 2,000 years before the Spanish came to Peru, great cultures rose and fell, were conquered by others or absorbed into them. Gold and silver objects were plundered by the Conquistadors, sent to Spain and melted down to make coins. But in the last 100 years there have been impressive archaeological finds, and much scientific research is still continuing. In fact the objects in this exhibition come entirely from funerary artefacts uncovered in Peru during the C20th.
200+ objects in the exhibition include rare gold pieces made to decorate the nobility in life or in death, intricate jewellery, elaborate embroidered and woven cloths, and sophisticated ceramic sculptures. The senior curator of international painting and sculpture, Christine Dixon, said some of the items in the show had been found buried in the Paracas Caverns - cliff shafts used as tombs, in which dignitaries had been mummified in dozens of wrappings.
gold vessel with bridge and double spouts, 750–1375 AD
20 x 23 cm Lent by the Museo Oro del Perú, Lima
Some Peruvian sites have their own museums, and were prepared to lend some of their greatest treasures to the National Gallery of Australia. Many extraordinary objects on view belong to three museums in Lima, all founded by Peruvian archaeologists and collectors, while the National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology and History has a central role in Peru's national life.
As well as being highly-skilled metalworkers, potters and weavers, the artisans of Peruvian civilisation included in their works religious and political ideas based on the importance of the natural world. The oldest piece in the show is a carved idol dating back to 1000BC where we can see lively depictions of animals, birds and fish as decoration. Technological inventions such as the knotted string quipu provide a new outlook on the sophisticated world of the Incas.
The Chavín, Nazca, Moche & Chimú cultures were overcome by Inca warriors by 1400 AD. Yet the famous Inca empire, that conquered all of Peru as well as most of Argentina and Bolivia, only lasted 130 years. In 1532 the Spanish, led by Francisco Pizarro, began their conquest. Within a very short time the mighty Inca builders of Machu Picchu were themselves in trouble. In 1572 the last Inca stronghold was discovered, and the last ruler was captured by the Spanish and executed, bringing the Inca empire to an end.
A somewhat similar exhibition in Seattle Art Museum in Washington is wowing the population there. But the response there suggested that historical artefacts and art objects were not necessarily the same thing. “It’s hard to get past the fact that the ceramic bottle in the display case is dated to the year 100 AD and was used in sacrificial ceremonies, and the aesthetics of the art pale in comparison with its history. The works are not necessarily the best art in terms of modern standards, but they serve to showcase ancient cultures in all their greatest, glimmering glory".
sacrifical knife, 750–1375 AD
gold, silver, chrysocolla, turquiose, lapis lazuli, spondylus;
28 x 10 cm
Lent by the Museo Oro del Perú, Lima
For those who cannot get to Canberra or Seattle, read Gold and the Incas: Lost Worlds of Peru, published by National Gallery of Australia in 2013. This book includes essays by Peruvian and Australian scholars, maps and a useful timeline.