LACMA hosts The Portable Universe of Colombia’s indigenous cultures

The Portable Universe/LACMA

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art – LACMA – is hosting a groundbreaking exhibition of works showcasing the diversity and materiality of ancient Colombian cultures. The exhibition titled The Portable Universe/El Universo en tus manos: Thought and Splendor of Indigenous Colombia, consists of some 400 objects that invite audiences to engage in a cultural dialogue that spans both space and time.

The many representative works of Colombia’s pre-Hispanic cultures, and which include figurative ceramics, ceremonial and ritual items, featherworks, textiles, metalworks and historic documents, among others – are joined by an unprecedented number of loans from Bogotá’s Museo del Oro, carefully chosen by the museum’s director María Alicia Uribe; as well as unique pieces belonging to LACMA’s permanent collection, many of which have never been shown before a public.

The exhibition is co-curated by Diana Magaloni, LACMA’s deputy director, and Julia Burtenshaw of the Arts of the Ancient Americas section. The Museo del Oro of the country’s Central Bank – Banco de la República – is the co-curating partner. The curatorial teams worked in close collaboration with the Arhuaco indigenous peoples of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta to foster cross cultural dialogue and exchange of knowledge.

“The narrative is designed to be compatible with indigenous concepts rather than Western cultural-historical narratives,” claims Burtenshaw. “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.”

“The works are considered to have a spirit, and are subjects more than objects,” said Diana Magaloni. “They are ‘messengers,’ as the Arahuaco have said, and as such, they are also not of the past, but continue to be relevant in the present.”

The Portable Universe is 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.

Circular House Model, Colombia, Calima, 200 BC–800 AD (Yotoco Goldwork Style), Museum Of Fine Arts, Houston, Gift of Alfred C. Glassell, Jr., photograph © The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The opening section, Conceiving the World, invites visitors to appreciate lndigenous traditions of thinking and storytelling as ways of creating and re-creating our world. The focal point is a traditional wooden stool (banquito) that lndigenous leaders and 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.

Rethinking History transitions to the arrival of Europeans in Colombia, which led to a loss of long-preserved knowledge and information. 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 lndigenous notions of value.

People of Ancient Colombia introduces the many different ancient societies of the diverse territories that encompass present-day Colombia. Through representations of themselves in items such as masks, figurines, and effigies, visitors get a glimpse into the unique ways of subsistence, social organization, cosmology, and art developed by the people of ancient Colombia.

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 this network of life. A key artwork is a set of 14 contemporary paintings on paper (2020) of a single caimo tree, and its roles and relationships through the seasons by Confucio Hernández Makuritofe, a member of the k’ig’ipe muina – gente de centro – indigenous peoples from the Colombian Amazon.

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 Portable Universe/El universo en tu manos is a long-term exchange between LACMA and members of the Arahuaco community, who have profoundly influenced the layered narratives of this exhibition, as well as the way our institution relates to our own collections,” highlighted Michael Govan, LACMA’s Chief Executive. “Through years of thoughtful curatorial research and collaboration with the Arhuaco, this groundbreaking exhibition recontextualizes the artworks in order to emphasize an lndigenous perspective, and to give them a voice.”

The exhibition will travel from LACMA to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, where from November 6, 2022, through April16, 2023, audiences will also be able to appreciate this extensive collection. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts will host The Portable Universe from May 29, 2023 through October 8, 2023.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully-illustrated catalogue to envelop the works with life and meaning, and guide readers to different ways of understanding the world and our place in it. The catalogue includes insightful contributions by lndigenous Colombians, historians, ethnographers, archeologists, and art historians.

A three-part documentary series Unpacking the Universe, filmed at the “Heart of the World” in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, and with stunning visuals of Ciudad Perdida – The Lost City – covers the six-year-long investigations and field research by LACMA’s Magaloni and Burtenshaw. The series can be viewed by audiences on the museum’s official YouTube channel.

Female Figure Container (detail), Colombia, Calima Region (Ilama Period), Calima Ilama, 1500 BCE–100 CE, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. LACMA.