Peruvian silver glows, dazzles, and beguiles at the Museum of Anthropology
The Spanish word for silver is plata. In the Quechua language, spoken by the descendents of the fabled Inca people of Peru, silver is qullqi. At the UBC Museum of Anthropology, the silver of Peru is called “Luminescence”. At least, that’s the title of the MOA’s groundbreaking exhibition of Peruvian silver, with objects spanning two millennia and ranging from pre-Columbian crowns, beakers, and nose ornaments to a magnificent colonial-era altarpiece, to contemporary devil masks and jewellery, all richly gleaming under the carefully placed museum lights. The journalistic word for all this silverishness? Fabulous.
“Instead of [creating] just an exhibition on silver, we tried to look at it from different angles that other museums wouldn’t,” explains curator Anthony Shelton, MOA’s director and pre-Columbian expert, as he guides the Straight through the Audain Gallery as the work is being installed. “So we moved away from silver objects to the idea of silver and what it meant to different populations.” Then he adds, “It’s the effect of bedazzlement that associates silver with divinities, with the moon.”
Just as gold represented the sun, the masculine principle, and the godlike Inca ruler (also known as the “Inca”), silver symbolized the moon, the feminine, and fertility, he explains. “The power of the moon was invested in the Coya, who was the Inca’s wife. So silver becomes associated with female authority and the whole female domain.”
Many of the pre-Columbian objects in the show come from pre-Inca cultures, such as the Chimú, the Moche, and the Nazca. Funerary masks, headdresses, ceremonial daggers, and other precious objects survived in burial sites, recently excavated by the Peruvian government. “The rarest silver probably is Inca, because it was either destroyed or melted down by the Spanish,” Shelton says. In the exhibition catalogue, he writes that, in 1532, as Francisco Pizarro and his army marched through Peru, they “systematically stripped gold and silver from all the temples, palaces and storehouses they encountered”.
Some of these magnificent works, borrowed from public and private collections, are Peruvian national treasures and have never before been shown outside that country. Among them are two extraordinary ceremonial tunics, each composed of hundreds of small silver tiles. Although Shelton had never seen the tunics in reproduction, he’d heard rumours of their existence and was able to locate them and negotiate their loan. “We’ve got two,” he says proudly. “I think there’s only three in the country.”
As he moves into the next section of the show, which represents the period following the Spanish invasion of Peru, Shelton talks about using the “philosophy of light as a way of mixing things up a bit”. For instance, he has included postconquest oil paintings in Luminescence. Executed by indigenous artists at a time when they were absorbing Christian beliefs and European painting techniques, these works belong to what is known as the Andean Baroque school of painting. Often, their depictions of the Virgin Mary are embellished with silver paint or silver ornaments.
“The Virgin Mary…starts to become associated with silver,” Shelton explains, indicating a 17th-century oil painting from Cuzco, Coronation of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Trinity. In this work, the hem of the Virgin’s cloak is heavily worked in silver, which glows—luminescent—against the grey background.
Most of the colonial silver in the exhibition relates to Roman Catholic services and rituals and includes gorgeously crafted candlesticks, alms bowls, processional crosses, censers, and monstrances. “We decided to focus on the ecclesiastical here because we wanted to keep the story focused on religious beliefs,” Shelton says. The same focus on religious and spiritual belief is seen in the show’s references to Supay, a devil-like pre-Columbian spirit that has survived to the present day among the indigenous people of Peru and Bolivia.
“The belief is that Supay owns not only the silver deposits but all kinds of metals,” Shelton explains. “If you were a miner, you needed to make a pact with him. And in return he would look after you when you were down in the mine, and he would lead you to the rich metallic deposits. If you didn’t, he was also capable of moving his metal from one mountain to another mountain, or of inflicting you with illness.”
Is it possible that MOA had Supay’s assistance in moving all this glorious silver from Peru to Vancouver, bestowing upon us not illness but delight?
Luminescence: The Silver of Peru runs at the Museum of Anthropology from Friday (October 5) to December 16.