Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 20, 2018
Joanne Pillsbury, Timothy F. Potts, and Kim N. Richter, eds. Golden Kingdoms: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas Exh. cat. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2017. 311 pp.; 428 color ills. Cloth $59.95 (9781606065488)
J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center, Los Angeles, September 16, 2017–January 28, 2018; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, February 27–May 28, 2018

This magnificent exhibition and its corresponding catalogue, Golden Kingdoms: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas, are the product of a dedicated four-year research effort that gathered scholars from Latin America and the United States. The exhibition presents approximately three hundred objects that come from fifty-seven museums in thirteen countries. In addition to the prestige of the Getty and the Met, the worldwide recognition of the conscientious scholarship of the curators Pillsbury, Potts, and Richter helped to elicit the trust of a number of international institutions. This made it possible to feature many uniquely important and often recently excavated artifacts that have rarely or never left their countries of origin. The objects in this exhibition represent the pre-Hispanic cultural production of numerous Latin American nations, and this material is also part of the ancestral heritage of Latinos in the United States, who today constitutes eighteen percent of the population.

Although the name of the exhibit might suggest that all the objects are made of gold, there are some made of silver, jade, turquoise, shell, as well as feather work, textiles, and even codices. The word “golden” is used here as a metaphor for sumptuary objects incorporating diverse materials that represent the most exquisite beauty and were thought by the ancient people to have contained divine power. In the Precolumbian cultures, works of gold—as well as in other metals—were associated with religious rituals and elite regalia. The tradition of creating luxury items emerged as a means to make offerings of gold objects to gods, kings, or queens. In the Andes, one of the deepest beliefs was the worship of huacas, a term used to refer to sacred places, peaks of mountains with special shapes, temples, ancestral mummy bundles (malquis), burial places, and the gods themselves. In his Royal Commentaries of the Incas and General History of Perú, Garcilaso de la Vega defined the huacas as all things that, either in their “beauty or excellence” or their capacity to “inspire horror and alarm,” set themselves apart from others of their kind (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987 (1609): 76–77). Thus, gold and luxury objects are intrinsically related to the huacas. When the golden headdress or a bracelet of a king glittered under the rays of Inti, the sun god, it was as if the ruler had the power to transmit the divine energy into the people or the land. Since gold represented the sun in the Andean mentality, an individual wearing this material was an embodiment of the god. At the same time, gold was a product of the earth, the mother-goddess Pachamama. So, in the Andes there could not be something more precious! Gold was likewise of great value for the Aztecs of Mexico. The word for gold in the Nahuatl language is teocuitlatl—“excrement of the gods”—which shows how gold was seen as having a divine origin.

The exhibition/book follows the path of the development of gold and metallurgy in the Central Andes around 2000 BCE, continuing northward through the Northern Andes and Central America to reach Mesoamerica. The journey ends in the colonial period with a history of approximately 3,600 years. Thus, gold is the unifying thread that establishes the itinerary and narrative of our virtual time-traveling experience. Consistent with the curators’ concept, the Getty Museum exhibit started by displaying the Peruvian Andean cultures in two large rooms, then the cultures of Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Costa Rica in one midsize room, and finally the cultures of Mesoamerica (Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras) in three large rooms. The profusion and beauty of the objects in the dimmed light of those spaces creates a spiritual and mysterious atmosphere. You could see the excited faces of the visitors who elicited exclamations that oscillated from incredulity to admiration when seeing the amazing sequence of treasures presented altogether. Any of these works could be the standouts of another exhibition, yet of particular note among them are the Moche gold earflares of the Lord of Sipán, the Wari geometrical tunics and the ninety-six panels of macaw feathers, the Olmec jade “Kunz” ax, the Palenque jade mask of the Red Queen, the gold ornaments from the Sacred Cenote of Chichen Itza, the Codex Mendoza, the Florentine Codex, and the Aztec feather mosaic Mass of Saint Gregory. The journey ends with the amazing portrait of Don Francisco de Arobe and his two sons, a trio of black-Indian noblemen of the Esmeraldas coast of Ecuador with their elegant attire that includes golden facial ornaments. This portrait, which was sent to King Philip III, shows how the rich mulattos adorned themselves with clothing and jewelry that referenced both European and indigenous traditions in a novel expression of social and political status that could rival the attire of the very King of Spain.

The catalogue is structured in the same way as the exhibition and consists of twelve thematic essays and eleven site-specific, one-page essays, all of which have been written by some of the leading scholars in the field. A great virtue of the catalogue is the excellent integration between the main essays, the one-page essays, and the illustrations of the objects. Among those twelve main essays there are four general articles about luxury arts in the ancient Americas, two about the Central Andean region, two that deal with Northern Andes and Central America, and four that cover Mesoamerica.

The introductory essay, “Luminous Power: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas,” written by curator Joanne Pillsbury, sets the tone for the purpose of the book and its approach to the meaning of these prestigious and precious objects. It shows the relationship between the contexts, materials, and artists to create objects that speak and convey messages. Pillsbury clearly and aptly states: “At its heart, this book is about how individuals, collectively or independently, made certain aesthetic and material choices about how to express their deepest beliefs” (1). We can see that objects of jade, gold, shell, and other precious materials are important not because they were created by or for the elites, but because of the cultural, political, social, and aesthetic values they embody. The arts of the ancient Americas speak about innovation and the exchanges of ideas between peoples, and the pieces shown in the exhibit and catalogue are the lone remaining witnesses of a lost world.

All of the essays in the volume are valuable contributions to the study of ancient American luxury arts, although the brevity of this review does not permit the mentioning of more than a few. The second chapter, “For Gods and Rulers: Metalworking in the Ancient Americas,” by Blanca Maldonado, discusses the techniques of metalworking and metallurgy. It is fascinating to see the degree of ingenuity that led to the development of processes such as mining, smelting, and lost-wax casting. These processes had a transformative power to convert the precious raw materials into regalia that transmitted the animated forces of the universe to people and places.

The seventh essay, “Forests of Jade: Luxury Arts and Symbols of Excellence in Ancient Mesoamerica,” by Laura Filloy Nadal, explores the relationship of artifacts made of jade with ideas of preciousness, wealth, perfection, authority, abundance, sacredness, eternity, water, maize, and fertility. The tenth essay, “Bright Kingdoms: Trade Networks, Indigenous Aesthetics, and Royal Courts in Postclassic Mesoamerica,” by Kim Richter, studies with an acute eye the Codex Mendoza with its rich catalogue of precious and luxurious objects that were paid as tribute to the Mexica-Aztec empire. And the eleventh essay, “Mexica Gold,” by Leonardo López Luján and José Luis Ruvalcaba Sil, masterfully discusses the gold objects recovered in the offerings of the Great Temple of the Aztecs in Mexico City.  

I have always believed that art is a window to history. The objects of art allow us to understand the mentality, the way of life, and the beliefs of people through time. There are cultures that disappeared centuries or millennia ago, but we can approach them through their art and artifacts, which give us the chance to understand the messages they left. The spectacular objects in the exhibition and catalogue are not just the product of a capricious lavishness of the elites of vanished civilizations, they are also unique survivors of history that have an account to tell. They are still with us as stoic witnesses of human barbarity and the destruction of time. They have survived while many other items, such as feather works, textiles, native manuscripts, and metal and stone artifacts were burned or destroyed over time. 

The luxury objects that have been gathered in the Golden Kingdoms exhibit were created to be in constant movement in religious rituals and in the regalia of high-ranking people. Today their contexts have changed, but they are still in motion. They are here to show us the endless potential of imagination, creativity, and innovation of human beings. With this monumental exhibition and catalogue, the curators have created a transformative experience that both situates the objects solidly within their original contexts and showcases their eternal beauty.

Manuel Aguilar-Moreno
Professor of Art History, California State University, Los Angeles