Faces of the Past: pre-Columbian Masks 2
The first masks likely evolved from face painting in the Neolithic period. Since then, various types of masks have been used in nearly every part of the world. Masks are worn for protection, disguise, performance, ritual and in burial practices. Others are not worn, but represent the faces of gods, saints or ancestors; sacred effigies to be revered or worshiped.
In the Americas, pre-Columbian cultures made masks using cloth, wood, stone, ceramic and soft metals. They are marvelously diverse, with unique expressions and personalities ranging from the anatomically accurate to the highly stylized. Across cultures ancient masks provide a glimpse into how early people saw themselves and how their perceptions and depictions of the face changed dramatically over time and distance.
The Power of Large Stone
It is difficult to define the term ‘presence’ in the context of a sculptural object. Some pieces seem to inhabit an area larger then their physical dimensions would suggest. They command their surroundings and draw attention as if magnetic.
The carved stone pieces below are all examples of such presence. Each is large and heavy as pre-Columbian objects go, but they also possess a gravity that cannot be measured; the power to hold a space. Unfortunately photography is inadequate to capture the dynamism of such works, but imagine any of these in the center of a broad empty table or atop a tall plinth in a light filled entry and you can begin to grasp their ability to expand and enliven the spaces they inhabit.
The Immortal Feline
The lords of the ancient world sought to connect themselves with symbols of physical, supernatural and visual power. So, it’s no surprise that predatory cats were a key motif in many artistic traditions of Pre-Columbian people across Central and South America.
As hunters, big cats embody strength and agility inspiring awe and fear. Their elusive nature and nocturnal stealth give them a ghost like mystique, while in daylight they sport some of the most vivid coats in the animal kingdom. To reinforce the connection between powerful felines and the shamanic ruling classes the ancients adorned ceremonial weavings, stone work, metal work and ceramics with depictions of Jaguar, Panther and Puma.
Great Small Textiles
Amidst the full Pre-Columbian Tunics and Mantles that we often feature in the gallery, it’s easy to forget that some of the oldest, finest and most colorful Peruvian weavings are quite small. Despite their size however, these amazing pieces retain the presence and potency of the great cultures that wove them.
Olmec Culture: Cradle of Civilization
Sometime after 3000 BC the people settling along the fertile southern coasts of the Gulf of Mexico began forming a society. The “Olmec” (as they would later be called by the Aztecs) are one of the earliest cultures in Mesoamerica. They evolved without outside influence, making them what archaeologists refer to as a “pristine” or “cradle” civilization, one of only six in the world.
The early Olmec were likely a network of farming and fishing communities, but by 1200 BC they began to build incredible stone cities. They created monumental pyramids, boulevards and temple complexes. These sites, such as the magnificent Tres Zapotes, were focal points for extensive trade networks and became primary models for the Teotihuacan, Aztec and Mayan cities that would come centuries later.