Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 22, 2018
Adam Herring Art and Vision in the Inca Empire: Andeans and Europeans at Cajamarca New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 258 pp.; 61 color ills.; 10 b/w ills. Hardcover $103.00 (9781107094369)

The Inca Empire, its art, architecture, and culture, often serves as a benchmark for scholarly and popular understanding of ancient Andean culture. For better, and often for worse, scholars are reliant upon the records, and therefore the cultural lens, of Spanish conquerors to interpret those they conquered. Each chapter of Art and Vision in the Inca Empire begins with a Spanish author’s observation written about key moments of the encounter at Cajamarca, a northern city far from Cusco, the Inca capital in the highlands, where Atawallpa was encamped on his march north to conquer those who had been resisting subjugation into the empire. Herring translates each phrase into the Inca vision for the alternately macroscopic and microscopic moments of contact: first, the vista of Cajamarca from where Pizarro’s men approached from the north; the sight of the Inka king seated behind a veil; the vision of the army on the fields of the Cajamarca valley; the luminescent brilliance of Atawallpa’s entourage as it processed to meet its new subjects in the central plaza; and, finally, glimpses of what was described as a “casa de plazer,” where the Spanish confronted acts they could only translate into European strangeness in an attempt to realign what they encountered with what they knew. Herring elevates this historically lightning-fast moment to one of great significance for understanding a deliberate and unyielding cultivation of Inca visuality, the foundation of what it meant to be Inca, and the fabric into which it was inevitable the Spanish would be folded. He does this using varied modes of evidence, from linguistic and archaeological to historical and visual.

The book’s introduction establishes the terms by which Herring aims to reassess Inca art and visuality. Herring positions his work in contrast to previous Inca scholarship that reiterates Western prioritizing of text and image, thereby misinterpreting Andean visual expression as lacking the capacity for cultural exchange. He grounds his study in the historical narrative of the encounter between the Inca and the Spanish at Cajamarca, and assesses the clash as one between two distinct cultural institutions. Importantly, Herring defines visuality as encompassing practices and things imbued with social life, and all its inherent shifts, by examining some Andean linguistic patterns and Inca concepts of the body and senses. Visuality is understood in Inca terms, that is, not solely as a function of the eyes or through one’s sense of sight. He supports this definition on three premises that also structure his argument: first, that Inca works do not stand alone nor in historical isolation from that which preceded them, but rather should be situated within the broader Andean tradition; second, that Inca visuality is bound up with the expressive nature of Inca indigenous languages, which Herring uses throughout the text as both interpretive tools and conceptual frames that augment his definition of the term; and, finally, that the ways in which Inca visuality structured the experience of cultural contact at Cajamarca places it within the discourse of the gaze and visuality in global historical terms. Although specialists might be best suited to engage with Herring’s argument, the structure of the book adroitly presents material and ideas by which Herring informs his reader as much about the Inca as through the Inca.

Chapter 1, “Llamas and the Logic of the Gaze,” examines the scene encountered by the Spanish as they approached the Inca encampment in the valley of Cajamarca. Herring describes the immediacy of a clash of Inca and European frameworks for understanding nature, arguing that for the Inca the vast herd of llamas occupying the valley were meant as anything but natural and instead were a calculated risk to exhibit an overwhelming display of an Inca political order imposed on the landscape. Here Herring emphasizes llama pastoralism, specifically its display at Cajamarca, within the context of Inca practices of transhumance, sacrifice, fertility, the ceque system and roads, and the feasting for which both llama meat and maize beer were essential. To bolster this claim, Herring presents visual evidence in tumi knives topped by llama heads, beakers (qeros) with birds perched in maize fields, silver and stone llama effigies, and rock carvings and geoglyphs showing llamas and other power symbols inscribed within the landscape as well as the cultural practices of feasting with maize beer. Through these comparanda, Herring establishes the encounter at Cajamarca as one of many during which the Inca kinetic landscape was on display on a devastating scale. To Herring, the Spanish were confronted at the valley rim with a vista that necessitated a shift of analytic perspective, or wak’a.

“Under Atawallpa’s Eyes,” chapter 2, offers another such perspectival turn: the first yet less-examined face-to-face meeting between Atawallpa and European soldiers. Beginning with a quote from Juan Ruiz de Arce describing the Inca king seated behind a cloth held up by two women at his sides, Herring deconstructs the elements of the scene to understand broader implications of the meeting: how each side of the conflict saw the other and were seen. Herring uses artworks to emphasize how the Inca harnessed many cultural identities as the basis for their own. Visual examples range from Recuay ceramic architectural scenes to Inca stone architectural features (niches, doorways, reliefs, and masonry techniques) and Tiwanaku woven panels depicting the “Frontal Deity” motif. Notably, two distinct textile types bookend the chapter: Chancay gauze (open-weave cloth reminiscent of coastal fishing nets) and the all-tocapu tapestry-weave tunic reserved for the Inca ruler. Each work highlights how the spaces the soldiers entered and the views they encountered inside could simultaneously focus and blur their vision of the Sapa Inca. For Herring, the experience of the soldiers was precisely dictated by Inca visuality, which reinforced the political authority contained within, and sacral energy emitted by, the king’s sight.

Chapter 3, “Chessboard Landscape,” examines the Inca campaign into Cajamarca from the encampment up the valley. If the preceding chapter was an intimate view of the Sapa Inca’s position of authority and visual power (emitted and absorbed), Herring casts the march of Atawallpa’s retinue as the enactment of the Inca world view on display across the landscape, a procession presenting the founding of the Inca dynastic order, timeless and resplendent, within a sacred and mythic landscape. Herring contextualizes the Inca’s foregone conclusion of Spanish fealty in a scene rich with textiles and metals that encompass the visual brilliance of Inca dominance. Underscored here is the role of the relics present during the procession into Cajamarca as proxies for mythical places. To Herring, these stand-ins, set against the backdrop of the checkerboard military tunics, confirm the performance of timelessness and the unquestionable nature of the event taking place.

Chapter 4, “Quri: A Place in the Sun,” defines sight as the sense through which humans experience the world and then addresses the strange sights the Spanish were forced to describe in words that seem now to have failed. Introducing quri (gold) within the context of an Andean understanding of light, shine, and optical brilliance, the author emphasizes the performative nature of the procession into Cajamarca. Spaces became timeless replications of Cuzco. Herring describes the masses of shimmering people and objects approaching the city center, where the Spanish were encamped, as mechanisms of disorientation and, concurrently, as reiterations of Inca sacral authority. Herring offers a plethora of golden and glittering things as an essential framework of Inca thought: beakers, a hammered sheet-metal mummy mask, gold feathers, bangles, and gold appliqué on textiles. Importantly, Herring reflects on the term abstract as it has been applied to Inca works in the past, and argues for new consideration of the goals of Inca aesthetic choices. This discussion is capped by the final chapter, “Conclusion: Fount of Beauty,” in which Herring revisits the questions raised by the practice of hair eating by Inca women, which serves as another lens for viewing Inca concepts of human perceptual experience.

Art and Vision in the Inca Empire is exhaustively researched, and well written. Herring takes as his subject what has been deemed historical fact and mines its details to effectively broaden the scope of what can be gleaned from what on the surface may seem to be “the unwieldy language of a soldier” (19). He deftly employs visual examples in myriad media made by the Inca, as well as pre-Inca cultures, to place the layered complexity of Inca visuality within the long trajectory of visual stratagem in the Andes. Herring’s narrative therefore stands in contrast to scholarship that sets the Inca aesthetic definitively apart from its predecessors. At the same time, his style provides a welcome alternative to publications about the Inca that relegate art and its history beyond Western definitions to a subheading. In sum, Art and Vision in the Inca Empire provides a useful resource and compelling model for scholars and students of art history and the Andes.

Meghan Tierney
Postdoctoral Fellow, Carleton College