Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 27, 2017
Izumi Shimada, ed. The Inka Empire: A Multidisciplinary Approach William and Bettye Nowlin Series in Art, History, and Culture. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015. 392 pp. Cloth $75.00 (9780292760790)

The Inka Empire: A Multidisciplinary Approach aims to assemble the latest thinking about the largest indigenous state in the history of the Americas. Editor Izumi Shimada outlines four goals in his introductory chapter: 1) offer the latest data and interpretations regarding the rise of the Inka state; 2) present an updated overview of the material remains and the organizational and ideological features of the Inka state; 3) demonstrate the importance of multidisciplinary approaches to Inka studies; and 4) acquaint readers with important scholarship on the Inkas, including work usually not published in English. With some exceptions, Shimada admirably accomplishes his objectives. Across nineteen chapters that are richly illustrated with color plates, maps, diagrams, and plans, twenty-three scholars representing six disciplines and seven countries provide analyses of the Inka state’s political organization, both at its heartland and in the provinces, as well as its economic systems, infrastructure, and elite lifestyle. Surprising for a series devoted to “art, history, and culture,” however, the book centers on research in the social sciences, displaying relatively little interest in the great range of arts and humanities. readers may be most interested in part 3, entitled “Inka Culture at the Center.” This section opens with a chapter on cosmology, closes with a chapter on Inka beliefs regarding cycles of life and ancestor worship, and contains an excellent summary of what is known to date of the knotted string devices, known as khipu, used by the Inka for record keeping. Part 3 also includes two chapters devoted to Inka architecture and the built environment. Stella Nair and Jean-Pierre Protzen summarize building types and formal arrangements, as well as construction materials and techniques. Their chapter draws attention to the ways the Inka adapted to and transformed the landscape, not just through the construction of buildings, but also through extensive road networks, waterworks, and agricultural terraces. They draw attention to the ways the Inka built environment, although employing a standardized formal language, was readily adapted to local geomorphology, producing sites that radically transformed the landscape while accenting its unique topography. Building on Nair and Protzen’s general observations about the built environment is Susan A. Niles’s chapter on Inka royal estates. As manifestations of rulers’ ambitions, estates were “places created with little regard to what is practical” (233). Estates demonstrated Inka superiority in general, but also reinforced the prestige of a particular ruler and his lineage. Also of great interest in part 3 is a chapter on textiles by Elena Phipps, who focuses on elite Inka garments. She provides a summary of form, layout, designs, production values, materials, processes, and color palette. Unlike other chapters in the book, Phipps’s discussion continues into the Spanish colonial period, making the important point that some Inka traditions—and much of Inka thinking—did not cease but was transformed by the collapse of the Inka state.

There are no chapters focused on Inka aesthetic accomplishments in metallurgy, large and small rock carving, ceramics, and wood carving. Given that a single author was asked to address the full range of the Inkas’ visual arts, we are fortunate that Shimada called on Thomas B. F. Cummins, who handled the task brilliantly. His chapter, simply titled “Inka Art,” provides a masterful summary of the scope of Inka visual culture while also synthesizing Inka aesthetic priorities. Cummins discusses textiles, masonry, metalwork, ceramics, drinking vessels, stone sculpture, and waterworks; he draws attention to the fact that both two-dimensional images and three-dimensional forms “are conceived within a visual idiom of pure geometry that emphasizes design and the relationship of parts to a whole” (169). Evoking the Andean concept of yanantin, or the necessary pair, he identifies the binary as the key to Inka aesthetics in which the complementary pair militates against uniqueness as a trait of beauty. We can observe yanantin in the intertwining of two fibers to make yarn; the warp and weft of textiles; the knotting of khipu cords to either the right or the left; the play of water in fountains between pools and flows; the consistent use of trapezoids in architecture in which the lower, wider sill complements the upper, narrower lintel; and the division of numerous forms, from beakers to communities, into upper and lower sectors. Each complementary composition reminds viewers of the social and political divisions of the empire, which are also the sources of the state’s unity. Cummins argues that the Inkas’ often austere visual language reinforced not only Inka socio-political systems but also Inka philosophy and cosmology. He also draws attention to the Inkas’ use of visual culture to underscore and express order, rather than illustrate military conquest in pictorial narratives designed to instill fear, as did other empires in world history. Cummins’s chapter not only synthesizes much of the visual and philosophical material presented across part 3, in which his chapter appears, but also resonates with other parts of the book that focus on Inka social, political, and economic organization.

Whereas a general strength of The Inka Empire is the assessment for future directions of research in each of the chapters, this is the only weakness in Cummins’s otherwise splendid essay. In the final paragraphs, Cummins asserts that scholars of Inka visual culture work within categories defined by the Western episteme, naming those who study khipu, metallurgy, architecture, textiles, stonework, and ceramics specifically. In so doing, he seemingly ignores the fact that there have been numerous examples of scholarship that bring Inka textiles into conversation with metalwork, khipu, and stone carving. Of the two scholars he cites as working on “stonework,” which is apparently apart from “architecture,” one studies stones carved for use in architecture (Dennis Ogburn), while the other writes as much about stone used in architecture as about stones that might be called sculptures (Carolyn Dean). One need only look to the other chapters in part 3 to see that the essays on the built environment discuss the intimate relationship between stonework and waterworks and the built environment and cosmology. Much scholarship on Inka culture calls on scholars to work across specialized fields of study. For example, capacocha, the rite of child sacrifice conducted on special occasions at the most important sacred geographical locations within the empire, brings together discussions of beliefs and practices involving Inka religious, political, social, and economic systems. An analysis of the material remains of capacocha requires experts in a variety of media and across a range of fields, from the physical, biological, and social sciences to the arts and humanities. Unfortunately, although there is much recent work on capacocha and it is mentioned by several authors, there is no single chapter devoted to this topic; such a chapter would have greatly enhanced the multidisciplinary nature of The Inka Empire. Not only is the outlook for interdisciplinary and cross-media conversations more positive than Cummins’s characterization, but many scholars of Inka visual culture today work with native lexicons, seeking out indigenous perspectives, precisely in an effort to avoid Western epistemic pitfalls. Cummins has led the way in this effort, and this reviewer notes that his work has not been in vain.

In his conclusion, Cummins observes that scholars ought to talk to one another more. This is a weakness of The Inka Empire itself and of many anthologies in which editors do not urge their authors to adopt common spellings or definitions of often-used terms. In this volume, the authors all spell “Inka” with a “k” even though many of them use the spelling “Inca” in their own writing. However, in other cases the spelling of significant words is inconsistent. The issue of Runasimi (Quechua) spelling is complex, vexed, and beyond the scope of this review, but the close reader may well be bothered that some chapters employ the “traditional” spelling for some words, “new” spellings for other words, and particularly odd combination spellings—half traditional, half new—in still others, as in “cumbikamayuq,” which would be spelled cumbicamayoc traditionally or q’umpikamayuq newly. The index ignores the inconsistencies and is apparently arbitrary in the choice of spelling preference. Other inconsistencies or outright contradictions between chapters reflect more profound divisions within the field, which is intentional. Shimada states that the book neither promotes nor seeks a consensus on many of the topics and issues broached in the book as a whole (4). One issue is the dominance of archaeology, a field that admittedly depends on material remains. The picture of a society painted by the interpretation of material remains alone is, however, often lopsided. Expressive culture is entirely absent from The Inka Empire. Song and dance combinations called taki were a vital part of Inka performance culture. The haylli, a type of taki, performed both in agricultural ceremonies and to celebrate military victories—another intriguing pair of complements—invites rich insights into Inka thinking. How scholars might write fuller accounts of Inka cultural accomplishments in light of what does not leave material traces remains to be discussed. Even in its lapses, however, The Inka Empire largely succeeds at what it sets out to do; it conveys clearly the state of the field—both how much work has been accomplished and how much remains to be done.

Carolyn Dean
Professor, History of Art and Visual Culture Department, University of California, Santa Cruz