Pre-columbian pottery

I went to two museums dealing with pre-hispanic art on my recent trip. The first was in Madrid, called the Museo de América, and it was an odd little museum, filled with artifacts dealing with Central and South America. I was expecting to see a lot more maps and such, for some reason, but rather than maps what really struck my eye was the pottery. The museum was divided into various thematic sections, and these pots made their way into most of the themes, which ranged from social life to culture and religion. Let me describe a typical pre-columbian pot. They’re usually two chambered, with the spout on one chamber, the handle affixing the other and a small tube like structure connecting the two chambers. The pot was covered with various geometric patterns, that I later learned was usually linked to shamanic hallucination sessions. These were the simplest types.

This image is from Peru, called the Viru or Gallinazo House-model Vessel.

In the pre-columbian art museum in Santiago, Chile (which is said to be one of the best in South America), I saw a huge array of these pots. These pots were truly amazing. The shapes of the pots were either anthropomorphic, or of animals. The double chambers were infrequent and the shapes of the pots were bizarre. There were spouts emerging from human chests, or from parrot beaks. The bird shaped ones were spectacular, -the judicious placement of holes meant that the pots made bird like whistling sounds when the liquid was poured from the pot. Again the pots were also covered with typical geometric patterns. I wish I could recall more accurately the shapes, but there were so many and each was as whimsical as the next, and I foolishly didn’t make notes.
So when I got out of the museum in Chile, naturally I looked for souvenirs, and I especially was looking for some modern ‘pre-columbian’ pottery. My mind was full of the wonderful weirdness of the pots I’d seen in the museums, and I thought it wouldn’t be all that hard to find similar artifacts that I could take home. But even the museum shop carried really poor examples. I found boring pots that were so obviously devoid of imagination that it was startling. The ones in the museum were much more technologically advanced than the ones outside, which was surprising, because surely it would have been quite easy to recreate the pots of those days. I prowled around the ‘artesan’ shops at the base of the Cerro San Cristobal, and even the nicest ones were quite stolid.

This image is an animal effigy vessel

Then I remembered the art work of Nadin Ospina, which I’d seen a couple of months ago at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. They were holding an exhibition called The Hours, the largest exhibition of Latin American contemporary art in Australia. The story of Ospina’s work goes like this. He was once duped into buying fake pre-columbian pottery, and he apparently tracked down the guys behind the fakes and was struck by their apparent authenticity. The fakes were made in a way that mimicked the real process as faithfully as possible and then artificially aged to ensure that they fooled the casual buyer. Ospina then took this idea one step forward and made a series of art works in the pre-columbian style, but these depicted characters from popular culture such as Donald Duck and the Simpsons instead.


I saw this exhibition before I saw the original pieces, and at that time, I thought it was a very clever way of subverting the old artifacts into some sort of social commentary. But now, after spending so much time looking at the original pieces, my view of Ospina’s work has changed. I now think that the pottery produced by Ospina is in someway faithful to the spirit of the original potters and their fantastic imagination.


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