The golden wonders of Peru

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LLAMAS, mystical birds, jaguars, crowns, daggers, power-invested garments – it’s surely the rarest line-up of priceless artefacts we’ve ever seen at the National Gallery and it’s here now.

Tumi [Sacrificial knife] in gold, silver, chrysocolla, turquoise, lapis lazuli and spondylus. Photo: Daniel Giannoni
Tumi [Sacrificial knife] in
gold, silver, chrysocolla, turquoise, lapis lazuli and spondylus. All photos by Daniel Giannoni
Conceived from and coming to Canberra only, “Gold and the Incas: Lost Worlds of Peru,” looks at worlds many of us have never heard of, items from long lost cultures of the Andes that are turning up daily in bustling, modern Peru where, because of haste in excavating archaeological sites with bulldozers, priceless treasures are being unearthed even as I write.

Curator and conceiver of “Lost Worlds”, the NGA’s Christine Dixon, can hardly suppress her excitement as she tells “CityNews” how, during her ongoing search for “different” art, she travelled to Peru in 2010, courtesy of DFAT’s Council on Australia Latin America Relations.

“I was looking for works that were not flat, not oil, not paper,” she says.

A Huari culture ceramic vessel in the form of a llama, from central, south and north Peru 600-1000AD.
She’s certainly achieved that, for in the exhibition there are more than 200 artefacts, in ceramics, textiles, silver and, of course, in gold.

Dixon hastens to explain that despite its inclusion in the title, the Incas (the word means the nobility of the Incan empire) are not central to this exhibition, which reaches much further back in history.

“Peru,” she says, “is thought of as being Inca, but the Inca empire only lasted about 100 years”. We know it because of the excavations of American archaeologist Hiram Bingham and the so-called “discovery” of Machu Picchu, and because the city of Cuzco still largely remains as it was.

But after visiting several Liman museums – the National, the Amano, the Larco and the “Oro” (Gold) – and some provincial ones, she concluded that while many Inca artefacts were spirited away to Spain long ago, what was left behind is fabulous, stretching back to at least 1000 BC.

Gold and platinum female figure, known as “The Venus of Frías”, 200-600AD. Photo by Daniel Giannoni
Gold and platinum female figure, known as “The Venus of Frías”, 200-600AD.
Dixon tells me of the sophisticated irrigation of the Moche civilization, of architecture, of the Chimu empire whose metallurgists and weavers the Incas kidnapped, of the social hierarchy and trade networks that made possible Peru’s remarkable stone-laying technology, and the ceremonial textiles held in higher esteem by locals than the gold for which the Spaniards so lusted.

Behind it all, Dixon explains, there is a distinctly Andean philosophy, a dualistic viewpoint that balances light and dark, sun and moon, male and female. She shows me the light and dark patterning on a Tumi sacrificial knife from the north coast Sicán-Lambayeque culture.

In keeping with this is the cosmology, the simultaneous balance between the three worlds of sky, earth and underworld. Fishing birds – look out for them in the exhibition – are able to inhabit all three, since by diving beneath the water they have a conduit to the afterlife.

A gold llama from the Inca culture, 1400–1533 AD.
A gold llama from the Inca culture, 1400–1533 AD.
So what will we see? At least 100 objects are gold, although with the moon-worshipping Chimus, silver holds its own, too. There are rare woven Paracas mantles, where the number of threads per centimetre would not be credited by weavers today. There are ceremonial objects such as bowls and knives, garments and crowns to be taken into the afterlife.

The exhibition is roughly arranged in chronological order going back to around 1200 BC, with a central section focusing on Sicán gold and a spectacular final room of grave objects, including crowns and necklaces.

Don’t expect huge artefacts – Dixon stretches her hand to give me an idea of maximum sizes – but do expect to be gobsmacked.

“Gold and the Incas: Lost Worlds of Peru,” National Gallery of Australia only, until April 21. Bookings to or 132849.

Top image: A mask of gold, chrysocolla and cinnabar from the SICÁN-LAMBAYEQUE culture, 750–1375 AD. All photos by Daniel Giannoni

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