Art history is no ivory-tower pursuit. In researching the art of the ancient Americas, Emory University professor Rebecca Stone spent time observing ocelots in a Costa Rican zoo and discussing deer glands with a ranger at Stone Mountain’s Yellow River Ranch.
The resulting insights altered her interpretation of objects in the Michael C. Carlos Museum collection, and she shares those and other discoveries in the recently completed revamping of the museum’s Americas galleries, the first in a decade.
Now painted in shades of chocolate and tobacco — both products that originated in the Americas — the galleries, which are arranged largely by region, sweep the visitor through South and Central America and the U.S. Southwest, telling the story of the ancient Americans through their material culture: pottery, textiles, jewelry and implements.
Stone has introduced new techniques to enhance visitors’ understanding of the materials. For example, an actual imprint of a stamp roller accompanies the roller itself to illustrate an intricate design that would otherwise be difficult to see. Contemporary moles (textiles) share display cases with ancient pottery to suggest the continuity of motifs through the ages.
So does the new gallery devoted to modern Native North American pottery from the collection of Walter Melion, the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Art History at Emory, and writer John Clum. A promised gift to the Carlos, the collection encompasses work from various pueblos in the Southwest as well as Mexico. These dazzling vessels are modern interpretations of ancient traditions, influenced by modern art and culture but also — because they are made with local clay and pigments, often by pottery families — rooted in their locales.
Though each region had its own artistic traditions, the people and these objects were linked by shared beliefs. Existence and identity were seen as fluid conditions. This world and the spirit realm constituted a continuum, and shamans, specially endowed humans who could navigate between them, were the intercessors and healers. (Stone’s recent exhibit “For I Am the Black Jaguar” explored shamanism in depth.)
Shamans could be male or female. Those who were outside the norm in some way were thought to have a special purchase on the visionary. One display case is devoted to sculptural depictions of figures with conditions such as scoliosis and hermaphroditism.
The depictions of those conditions are descriptive enough that they could be identified, but in general, because the emphasis was on essences rather than appearances, figurative imagery was rarely specific and individuated. That’s one reason why the Peruvian moche (below), one of the objects that is new to the galleries, is so important.
“It’s a rare — one of 750 extant pieces — example of naturalistic portraiture,” Stone explains. “Signs of age — the drooping eyes and jowls — unlike today were something to be proud of. Life spans were so short that if one was old enough to have wrinkles, it was celebrated as a sign of survival.”
The ancient Americans believed that individuals shared affinities with animals, which endowed them with specific powers and characteristics. Artists fused animal and human aspects in their depictions of shamans such as the Costa Rican figure below.
Until Stone visited the Yellow River Ranch, she didn’t realize that her animal aspect was a deer. The “aha” moment came when the guide explained that a female deer’s scent glands darken when she is in heat. Stone remembered that dark spots are a prominent feature of the sculpture.
The symbolization of fertility and the figure’s posture of meditation enabled her to deduce that it represented a powerful shaman. The deer aspect cemented her conclusion: a deer is fleet — it can run 35 mph — and can “fly” — that is, jump 20 feet — a suggestion that the shaman’s visions also moved very quickly.
Stone and her students applied the same scientific research principles to the paccha, a ritual watering vessel and one of the rarest objects in the Carlos collection. By analyzing the residue in the vessel, graduate student Andi McKenzie determined that it held maize beer. She hopes to test the residue for vilca, a psychotropic plant used as a stimulant during shamanic rituals. If so, it will confirm her hunch that the flora decorating the little piggyback container is an abstraction of that plant.
Botany, zoology, genetics. “In another life,” says Stone, “I would have been a naturalist.”
Or maybe a shaman.
Gallery talk by Walter Melion and John Clum about their collection of Southwestern pottery. 7:30 p.m. April 11. Space is limited; reservations suggested. 404-727-6118.
All photos by Bruce M. White. © Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University.