Colombia’s Portable Universe heads to Montreal Museum of Fine Arts 

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Bird Finial with beak ornaments, Early Zenú goldwork. Caribbean lowlands, 200BC-1000 CE. Banco de la República.

One of the most important collections of pre-Columbian artifacts will go on display at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) from June 3 to October 1, 2023. This major exhibition titled Portable Universe: Thought and Splendor of Indigenous Colombia was first shown to audiences in 2022 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and consists of some 400 remarkable works crafted by Colombian indigenous people between 1500 BC and the present day. The majority of pieces are from the Tayrona culture and have never been shown before in Canada.

The representative works include figurative ceramics, ceremonial and ritual items, featherworks, textiles, and metalworks, to offer viewers a comprehensive vision of the diversity and materiality of Colombia’s ancient culture. “Indigenous people and knowledge have things to teach us today, about how we view ourselves in relation to others, and to nature, and how we consider and categorize the world around us. lt can enrich our worldview and understanding of ancient artworks immensely,” said LACMA’s Julia Burtenshaw of the Arts of the Ancient Americas section.

Presenting the cosmology of cultures that inhabited the Atlantic and Pacific regions, Andean highlands and highest coastal mountain range in the world – Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta – Portable Universe was organized by LACMA, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and Bogotá Gold Museum – Museo del Oro –  of the country’s central bank Banco de la República. The Montreal version of Portable Universe is curated by Erell Hubert, and will be the only showing in Canada. The MMFA is the oldest art museum in the country and a leading museum in North America.

Organized in seven thematic sections with galleries that include visual projections, a musical score composed to be played with ancient Colombian ocarinas, and audio elements to envelop the pieces with proper context and meaning, the opening section is titled Conceiving the World.

This section invites visitors to appreciate indigenous traditions of thinking and storytelling as ways of creating and re-creating our world. The focal point is a traditional wooden stool that lndigenous elders use for conversation, meditation, and decision making. Similar stools will also be placed throughout the exhibition for visitors, encouraging them to sit, think, and connect with a world and knowledge opened to us by Colombia’s indigenous spiritual leaders.

The section Rethinking History transitions to the arrival of the Spanish in Colombia, which led to a loss of preserved knowledge and traditions. Historical documents on display are reinterpreted to consider how Colombian history was invented to meet Western expectations and values. Objects like colonial-era European gold coins displayed alongside ancient gold pieces also present fundamental contrasts between European and indigenous notions of value.

In People of Ancient Colombia representations of masks, figurines, and effigies, visitors offer a glimpse into the unique ways of subsistence, social organization and art developed by the peoples of ancient Colombia and that manifest themselves in contemporary society.

Our House, Our World, Our Cosmos presents the house as a metaphor for humanity’s place in the world, an image central to the exhibition’s wider theme of humans as the world’s caretakers. Two extraordinary ancient house models from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston made of tumbaga (gold-copper alloy) will be on view for the first time, and a set of ear ornaments with monkeys are interpreted, thanks to an lndigenous myth, to represent the Orion constellation and associated astronomical information – another first.

The Extended Family explores lndigenous concepts of nature, and the role of humans within an extensive network of life. Confucio Hernández Makuritofe, a member of the k’ig’ipe muina indigenous peoples from the Colombian Amazon contributes to this exhibition with 14 contemporary paintings on paper of a single caimo tree, and its roles for tribes in every season.

Materials: Technology & Concepts of Value explores uses, values, and meanings of materials like metals, textiles, and stone. Aside from showcasing sophisticated scientific metalworking techniques developed by ancient Colombians, this section challenges visitors to consider the value of gold and other materials from an lndigenous perspective fundamentally different from that of the West.

The final section, Caring for the World, explores the roles of leaders and shamans as protectors  of the world, a practice which relies on sophisticated philosophical and botanical knowledge rooted in an intimate understanding of the natural world.

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue that captures the works with life and meaning and provides audiences with different ways of understanding the role of indigenous Colombians, historians, ethnographers, archeologists, and art historians in shaping one of the most culturally diverse nations in the Americas.

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts / 1380 Sherbrooke Street West

Sculpture of Being with Feline and Human Features. Upper Magdalena Valley – San Agustín. 100-900 CE. Banco de la República.