Tuesday, October 23, 2012

All that Glitters is Wonderful

The exhibit "Gold, Prehispanic Art of Colombia" is hands down the best of its kind.  The exhibit opened last week in Mexico City's National Museum of Cultures, adjacent to the National Palace, and will run through January. What makes the exhibit so good is that all the pieces are on loan from the Gold Museum in Bogotá Colombia.     

I’ve been fascinated with goldwork since I was a teenager living in Colombia. I visited the Gold Museum in the Bank of the Republic building in downtown Bogotá many times. My favorite room was the last, a round, darkened room on the top floor.  Once inside the lights gradually brightened until 6,000 pieces of gold crammed into the circular display case glittered intensely. Gold has a power to it that holds people in its grasp.

Legend has it that in prehispanic Colombia a new indigenous ruler (cacique) was rowed out on a crater lake standing on a raft, clothed only in gold dust.  At his feet were piles of gold ornaments and emeralds. His subjects stood along the rim of the lake, watching in respectful and absolute silence. Once in the center of the lake the cacique pushed the offering into the water.  His subjects erupted in cheers -- they had a new ruler.

There is no limit to the variations on this legend. Did this ritual happen only when the cacique took office, or was it once a year?  Did he jump into the frigid water and wash off the gold dust?  Was gold also thrown into the lake by the spectators? 

Spanish conquerors believed the legend. They searched for the land of El Dorado (the guilded one) in Nueva Granada, what is now present day Colombia. Most eyes have focused on Lake Guatavita, 75 kilometers north of Bogotá, as the legend's El Dorado Lake.  I remember Lake Guatavita fondly.  You could say it was there that I started my career leading trips. I’d organize high school friends to go with me in a long taxi ride followed by a two-hour horseback ride to the edge of the crater lake with a huge gash in one side. In colonial times entrepreneurs had tried to drain the lake by cutting a giant "V" into the crater.  Miscalculating the depth of the lake, the sides of the "V" converged before getting to the bottom. Nevertheless, gold ornaments were found in the drained portion of the crater, giving early credibility to the legend.  

The legend gained more credibility with the discovery of the Muisca Raft in 1968. This 20 centimeter-long work in gold portrayed a cacique and nine other people on a raft. It’s made of a single piece of gold using the lost wax process.

Many pieces in the exhibit in Mexico City are made the same way. In the lost wax process the goldsmith shaped the piece using beeswax. He squeezed clay tightly around the beeswax, then fired it to become a mold.  In the firing, the wax melted and flowed out a drain. Through that same drain the goldsmith poured in molten gold or an alloy called tumbaga -- a mixture of gold and copper or gold and silver--to take the place of the wax.  Once the metal cooled the mold was shattered, revealing the artwork. 

Other pieces in the exhibit are hammered. Hammering isn't as simple as it might seem. Gold becomes brittle and cracks when hammered. It has to be repeatedly heated and quickly cooled to maintain its resiliency.  Skilled goldsmiths knew its limits. 

The pieces on display in the Mexico City exhibit are grouped by design and function.  Most were to be worn.  In fact the first display is a gold outfit -- headband, earrings, necklace, chest plate, and loin cloth.  You’ll also see containers and long knitting-needle-length "palillos" used in coca rituals.  Ornaments in the shape of animals, some easily identifiable and others stylized, would be just as comfortable in a museum of modern art as in this exhibit. 

This is not the first time there has been gold exhibited at Calle de la Moneda 13.  When it was Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, the Emporer Moctezuma showed off gold in a temple there where he would go to dialog with the gods on that same piece of real estate. The Spanish conqueror Hernan Cortes must have been overjoyed when he saw the amount of gold in the Aztec palaces. Cortez is quoted as having told Emperor Moctezuma's messenger that he suffered "a disease of the heart which only gold can cure."

I encourage you to go see what glitters in "Gold, Prehispanic Art of Colombia". It runs through January, 10am-5pm, free admission, closed on Mondays.  Informative panels are in Spanish and English, as are three excellent videos.  Captions describing the displays are in Spanish only.  The exhibit's website is <mnculturas.worpress.com>.   

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