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Worlds of Art: South America Paper

Worlds of Art: South America

This week we’re looking at the art of South America, focusing on examples from modern-day Peru.

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Nazca (c. 200 BCE – 600 CE), Moche (c. 1-800 CE) and Inca (1438-1533)

 Machu Picchu, built 1450 CE

Coastal plain of southern Peru

Particularly noted for their elaborately painted ceramics, gold work, monumental constructions and irrigation systems.

I know it reduces an entire continent to just a few examples but the fascination with this particular region stems from the fact that this was the location of the powerful Inca civilization. It’s the home of Machu Picchu and Cuzco. The people of the coastal plain of Southern Peru were particularly noted for their painted ceramics, gold work, monumental constructions (like Machu Picchu), and irrigation systems.



EARTH DRAWING (GEOGLYPH) OF A HUMMINGBIRD, NAZCA PLAIN Southwest Peru. Nazca culture, c. 1–700 CE. Length approx. 450′ (137 m); wingspan approx. 220′ (60.9 m).

Geoglyph: (lit. “earth carving”) Earthen design on a colossal scale, as if to be seen from high above

The Nazca are known for the Nazca lines, which are these giant geoglyphs, a term that literally means ‘earth carving,’ and these are designs carved out of earth on a colossal scale, as if to be seen from above. The example we’re looking at here is supposed to be a hummingbird, if you can see that. There are a number of geoglyphs in the region and they depict a lizard, a flower, a spider, a dog, a monkey, two whales, a tree, hands, and a number of trapezoids. These images are so large that they can only be seen in their entirety from high above. So the question is, who were these meant for, if the person on the ground couldn’t see it and there were no such things as airplanes or drones?



This is another example of one of the Nazca lines – a monkey. You can see how the lines don’t overlap or intersection at any point.



And here is a spider…



Parts of the Nazca lines were destroyed recently when a truck went off-road and drove over the lines

In 2018, someone accidentally drove over the Nazca lines – they are more than a thousand years old, and here someone goes and ruins them by driving off the path and across the lines. Whoops! So now they are working on fixing it without disturbing the image too much.




MOCHE PORTRAIT VESSEL Peru. Moche culture, c. 100–700 CE. Clay, height 11″ (28 cm).

The round handle on the back of his head doubles as a spout; could have been used for storing liquids to provide sustenance to the deceased in the afterlife

Unsurpassed naturalism – emphasizing specific likeness of elite (usually male) individuals

Here’s an example of a vessel made by the Moche people, who were known for their ceramics. This is a common type of Moche vessel called a portrait vessel. These are supposed to look like an actual person, a specific likeness of an elite, usually male, individual.  We can tell he is elite because he wears large ear spools. You see there’s a round handle on the back of his head, with a spout coming up from it? The handle would make it easy to carry, indicating that the pot would have been used for storing liquids. It could also have been used to provide sustenance to the deceased in the afterlife – we know this because a bunch of these vessels were found at burial sites. So you imagine it would be a depiction of the person who passed away, made to commemorate and sustain them in the afterlife. Remind you of anything?



MOCHE PORTRAIT VESSEL, part of exhibition on Pre-Columbian art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2018

There was an important exhibition of Pre-Columbian art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in spring 2018, and they had many examples of these Moche portrait vessels. Here’s one, so you can compare to the previous example and see how similar they are, despite being unique and individualized.



Inca Empire, 1438-1572

Machu Picchu, Peru, c. 1450–1540

Now let’s take a quick look at the Inca civilization, which was the largest empire that ever existed in the Americas, and at its height, it was the largest empire in the world. The Inca developed along the coast of Peru in South America, and by its height encompassed parts of Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador, and Columbia.


It was also responsible for creating this world-famous site, Machu Picchu, which ”old mountain” and indeed seems to grow right out of the earth on a steep ridge. It was a royal estate and home to about 750 people at its height. It was, however, abandoned after the Spanish arrival and then wasn’t rediscovered until 1911. The site has is made out of polished stone and has been undergoing restoration for some time now since the number of yearly visitors has caused a number of conservation issues over time.




Machu Picchu, Peru, c. 1450–1540

Stone channel drain

During the time it was occupied by the Inca, it was used as a massive royal estate, housing not only royalty but also their support staff, workers, and religious specialists. Machu Picchu shows signs of a highly developed civilization – made of stone but with stones cut so precisely that they did not require mortar, they had constructed a drainage system as well as a number of terraces that were used for farming/agriculture. Human and animal remains were also found, which suggests the site served as a place for sacrifices and/or burial/funerary rituals.


Machu Picchu, 1450 CE, Cuzco, Peru


Complex that included residences, temples, gravesites, observatories, terraces, – even fountains!



Machu Picchu was a huge complex that included residences, temples, gravesites, observatories, terraces, and even fountains. It has become such a popular tourist attraction that conservation has become an issue – how do we protect the site considering all of the foot traffic day in and day out?


Over a hundred years ago, and with the official consent of the Peruvian government, Yale University explorer Hiram Bingham III excavated and took thousands of artifacts (including human remains) from Machu Picchu and brought them back to the U.S. where they went on display in the Peabody Museum at Yale. Only in 2011 did Yale finally return the artifacts to Peru, after much protesting and a federal court case. So there’s also the issue of repatriation – of returning artifacts that were taken from the site by a professor at Yale University back in the early 20th century. It took a federal court order to get Yale to finally agree to return the artifacts to Peru. So even though the examples we’re looking at in this class might be several centuries old, this is a history that continues to evolve.



Lygia Clark, Arquitetura fantástica bichos (Fantastic architecture critters), 1963 (left); and her sensorial masks, 1967 (right)

Video showing some of Clark’s Bichos works

Brazilian artist Lygia Clark created innovative work, some which were actually connected by hinges that were movable by visitors, with sharp, angular, geometric planes. This dynamic large-scale sculpture appears as if it is not sitting securely on the gallery floor, as if it could suddenly fold over or topple down on the viewer below. On the right is an image of her participatory artwork which involved participants wearing sensorial masks – the masks were meant to intensify the wearer’s senses by including sachets of aromatic herbs, or mirrors placed directly in front of the eyes. Check out the video showing some of Clark’s other Bichos works.

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