Update: this article just won a Latin American Travel Association Award at the RSA House in London. I’m pretty chuffed about that and over on Facebook, some of you have been asking what the award was for: Well, here you go!
Pre-Columbian Art in Ecuador and the Surprising Question It Asks
Christopher Colombus. One nation’s hero, one continent’s despair. Endless generations of schoolyard amusement when English speakers realised that his real name was Colon.
But I want to move past him for now, and focus instead on the art scene in Ecuador, the one that flourished at around 2850 metres before the Spaniards arrived.
Because as it turns out, there is a lot of it. Punchy, pithy, puerile and pretty – and absolutely plenty of it.
Inside the Casa del Alabado
Oddly, though, at least through my newcomer’s eyes, the museum that houses it near defines itself by what it is not: its tagline is pre-Columbian art and it lives in a colonial era mansion, all lush and beautiful and spilling over with tumbling green leaves and atmospheric terracotta light. Which is why I was reminded of the tight-wearing gentleman funded by Spain to begin with.
In the Casa del Alabado, the contents are plentiful, my time here short. My knowledge shamefully slight.
Yet something is better than nothing, and so I look and photograph and read and do my best to translate.
I’m reminded, of course, that the nation states we know today did not exist “back then.” In the grand scale of human activity, they’re a short-lived phenomenon with other tribes and societies and methods of organisation stretching into a fluid patchwork quilt of love and belonging and blood the world over.
Today’s Ecuador is no different.
Ecuador: A Country of Mixed Cultures
The Casa houses art from no fewer than 15 different societies: the chapo, puruha, jama coaque, cosanga pazuelo, carchi pasto and more. The only one I can honestly say I recognise is built from four small letters: inca. The people behind the jagged iconic peaks of Macchu Picchu.
Today’s Ecuador encompasses many different landscapes and its clear that people adapted to the conditions in which they lived.
I’ve walked around modern and colonial Quito, high in the Andes and at 9350 feet. I’ve cycled through the air in the cloudforest out in the Andean foothills, and driven over the equator in the road journey to get there. I’ve swum around the Galapagos, spotting turtles, seals and blue-footed boobies.
But there’s still so much left of the country, to explore, to find, to see.
South and Central American Similarities
Yet even to the (desperately) untrained eye, there are similarities here to see. Differences, yes, but also patterns, similarities, trends.
The first is the characterful clay character, smurf size and with various pieces added on, like several I’d found in Mexico.
The second was the preponderance of geometric lines, the simplistic style seen in the Nazca lines in Peru.
And thirdly, of course, was the gold – and with it the foibles of mankind laid bare.
The Meaning of Gold
I’d always been intrigued about the stories of cities of gold since watching cartoons as a child. When the Spanish arrived in Inca Peru, they found gardens filled with statues encrusted with gems and made of pure gold.
In the high city of Colombia’s Bogota, the Museo del Oro speaks of nothing but the stories of gold.
But what is gold really and what is its point? It’s decorative, clearly, and that’s about it.
Except, of course, to the conquistadores, it meant wealth as they stripped and shipped the metal back to Europe, making Spain the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world at the time.
That so many pre-Columbian cultures used it for decoration seems far more sensible than locking it in a vault and never letting it see the light.
Yet only a few centuries later, this strange substance set the world mad again as prospectors risked all they had to race into the bloodied rivers and plains of the American Wild West.
What do we value today?
And what do we value today?
Art? Gold? Numbers? Faith? A little bit of all of it, swirling around each other?
And, perhaps most intriguingly, what do you think the people of the future will line up to see to learn a little about our lives?