February 09, 2006

MThe National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) will host the exclusive U.S. showing of Divine and Human: Women in Ancient Mexico and Peru (March 3-May 28, 2006), a major international loan exhibition focusing on women in pre-Columbian and early post-contact Mexico and Peru.

Organized under the auspices of the First Lady of Peru, Dr. Eliane Karp de Toledo, and the wife of the president of Mexico, Mrs. Marta Sahagún de Fox, Divine and Human is the first exhibition to examine the important and varied roles played by women from a “Who’s Who” of the major civilizations of ancient Mesoamerica and the Andes, including the Aztec, Mayan, Olmec, Inca, Mixtec, and Moche cultures.

Organized into six sections—Society, Politics and Religion; Sacred Origins of Food; Textiles and Body Ornament; Life & Death/Religion and Magic; Goddesses; and Grave Goods and Tombs—this groundbreaking exhibition explores the “feminine sphere” in detail.

The almost 400 objects in the exhibition date from roughly 2000 BCE to the fall of the Aztec and Inca empires in the early 1500s CE. They include sculptures, pottery, jewelry, textiles and grave artifacts that testify to the powerful, but often overlooked roles women played in both the daily and spiritual life of their respective societies.

“Women were not only daughters, wives, mothers, and grandmothers, but also healers, midwives, scribes, artists, poets, priestesses, warriors, governors, and even goddesses in pre-Columbian society,” says Dr. Judy L. Larson, director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

For many years, archaeologists assumed that men monopolized the power in pre-Columbian civilizations.

The discovery of women’s tombs in Zapotal, Mexico, in 1971, and San José de Moro, Peru, in 1991, challenged that assumption. The tombs—re-created in part in this exhibition—give ample testimony to the importance of women in both societies and evidence of their high social status.

The Peruvian tombs, among the richest ever excavated in the Americas and part of a larger suite of elite burial chambers, contained the remains of Late- (750-800 AD) and Transitional-period (850-1000 AD) Moche priestesses.

Farther north, richly appointed tombs in the Mexican state of Veracruz, contained extraordinary terra-cotta figures that represent cihuateteo, deified women who served as guides to the next world.

Women were not only priestesses in ancient society; they were considered goddesses, as well, by virtue of their unique reproductive role. Feminine nature, with its mysterious ability to create life, was accorded divine status. Numerous objects in Divine and Human—sculptures of wide-hipped women; clay and stone vessels depicting sexual intercourse; figurines and carvings showing women holding and nursing children, cupping their breasts and touching their genitalia—are powerful evidence for the central, supernatural role accorded fertility and birth.

In fact, religion permeated all facets of pre-Hispanic life. It was believed that every natural occurrence was an expression of the will of the gods, and every human undertaking was an attempt to obey that will. Thus, even domestic tasks like cooking, planting, gathering, and weaving, reflected a divine plan.

Divine and Human contains many objects reflecting women’s day-to-day
roles: women grinding corn, carrying water jugs on their shoulders, and weaving. One of the most extraordinary objects in the exhibition depicts a woman wrapped in a shawl and seated on a cushion weaving cloth on a waist loom. The cushion, the woman, and the cloth being woven are actual fabric, a rarity given that cloth is one of the least durable materials in the archaeological record. Also included in the exhibition are several tapestries and two woven dolls neatly dressed in garments with geometric designs.

Pre-Columbian women practiced body adornment as a beauty and fashion aid, but also for religious and social purposes. Many objects in the exhibition, both Andean and Mesoamerican, show women with tattoos and body painting, scarification, as well as with intentional deformations of the cranium, lips, and ears.
Beyond the mortal sphere, beyond the notion of women as avatars of the divine, were the goddesses worshipped by these ancient peoples.

Some are more fearsome than feminine, such as the Moche moon goddess with skull visage, presiding over capture and sacrifice of helpless human prisoners.

A second Andean goddess clearly associated with land, fecundity, procreation, and agricultural production, is shown seated, with flowing hair, small children (or possibly lice!), but also with an impressive set of fangs. Yet another is associated not only with the moon, but the sea, and textile production, as well—attributes that are always connected with women.

For more information at http://www.nmwa.org

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