A Show of Colombian Treasures Is Timeless (Literally)

Basket Carrier with Fangs and Serpents, 1500 BCE—100 CE. LACMA

LACMA's "The Portable Universe/El Universe en tus Manos: Thought and Splendor of Indigenous Colombia" opens with a text panel declaring,

"Arhuaco wisdom teaches that the works in this exhibition were made in conjunction with the principles of creation, and therefore have no beginning or ending. We respect this by not including dates on the labels for these items, focusing on their role as participants in the networks of life."

The exhibition is notable for the close collaboration of the Arhuaco community of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia, with curators from LACMA and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. The show presents elements of Arhuaco philosophy along with the objects.

But seriously: No dates?

The Catholic church also sees itself as eternal. We would still think it odd to have a Caravaggio show without dates. There is however an unstated reason for omitting dates in this exhibition. It's that nobody knows when these objects were created.

Take the Basket-Carrier ("Canastero") with Fangs and Serpents, an appealing ceramic with a Matt Groening vibe. LACMA's collection website assigns the Basket-Carrier to "1500 BCE–100 CE." That's one hell of an error bar—1600 years of uncertainty. 

Circular House Model, 200 BC–1300 AD. Houston Museum of Fine Arts

A key loan, the gold Circular House Model from Houston, is dated 200 BC–1300 AD on the Houston MFA website. That's like not knowing whether a European sculpture was Hellenistic or Gothic.

Shark, 1st–5th century AD. Metropolitan Museum

From the Metropolitan Museum is Shark of the Tumaco-La Tolita cultures. The Met has narrowed it down to "1st–5th century." But two related Sharks from LACMA's collection are dated 500 BCE-500 CE, a full thousands years' range. 

Colonialism was a destroyer of history. Outside the major urban centers, few Indigenous art objects were documented, making it difficult to establish a chronology of styles, subjects, and techniques. The ceramics and gold of this show can last millennia. Absent a timeline, they are all but impossible to date.

Pendant in the Form of a Bat-Human with Bird Headdress, n.d. Museo del Oro, Banco de la República, Bogatá


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