J. Paul Getty Museum – Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas

September 16, 2017–January 28, 2018


Part—perhaps even the high point—of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas, is a spectacular exhibition created by Metropolitan Museum curator Joanne Pillsbury, Getty Museum director Timothy Potts and Getty Center researcher Kim Richter. It’s almost impossible to be unaware of the exhibit, given the banners promoting it all over Los Angeles, and certainly once at the Museum, where the stairs leading up to the Getty’s pavilion are painted with the image of The Serpent Labret with Articulated Tongue. Yet the show, presenting more than 300 objects in a small space, can be challenging. Golden Kingdoms crowds in 2,800 years of Latin American history including various civilizations, such as the Aztec, Chimu, Inca, Olmec, Maya, Moche, Nazca and Wari. Furthermore, rather than following a chronological order, the exhibit is organized geographically.

Nevertheless, the collection is enthralling—not so much because of the dazzling materials which comprise the artifacts (principally gold and jade, with shells, textiles and feathers), but because of what they represented in ancient American cultures and how they were valued and passed on from one generation, or even civilization, to the next. For instance, gold was used more for mortuary rituals, as a symbol of connectedness to the supernatural world and as an indication of status and power, rather than for weapons or currency. The Olmecs and Mayans valued jade more than gold because it was laborious to carve. The Incas favored Spondylus shells because they were difficult to find and detach from rocks deep on the ocean floor.


Culture: Cupisnique/ChavínMedium: GoldObject: H: 14.6 x W: 21.3 x D: 0.3 cm (5 3/4 x 8 3/8 x 1/8 in.)Museo Kuntur Wasi, Ministerio de Cultura del PerúImage © Kuntur Wasi Museum


The exhibit’s appeal also derives from the rare opportunity to see such a huge collection of indigenous Latin American art all at once due to the collaboration of about 50 institutes from the Americas and Europe. Works were lent by the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, the British Museum in London, the Museo Kuntur Wasi in Peru, the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica, Museo del Oro in Colombia, the Peabody Museum at Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institution, among others. 

The highlights are numerous: Golden Kingdoms opens with Stela, a more than 2000-year-old stone monument from the Pacopampa archeological site in the northern highlands of Peru. Displayed nearby is a golden mouth mask and crown that belonged to a 60-year old man whose remains were found in the tomb of the temple complex Kuntur Wasi in the Andean highlands of Peru. Both ornaments present panthera creatures, suggesting the characteristics of a powerful human being or his transformation into an animal or god. Also on view is a yellow tabard made of tropical bird feathers that belonged to an eminent person of the Nazca civilization with the motif of lizards in light blue and orange.  Particularly intriguing are jewelry and personal objects that belonged to high-ranking females from various regions. Among them are the ear ornaments and necklaces of a middle-aged priestess, discovered at the Chotuna-Chornancap archeological site in Peru, and the funeral assemblage—a jadeite and limestone mask, a Spondylus shell with a limestone figure and a green-stoned collar—of Lady Tz’akbu Ajaw, or “the Red Queen,” a Mayan ruler. Many of these objects provide a glimpse into the intimate lives of the people who wore them, as with numerous objects recovered at the Sacred Cenote in Chichen Itza, or in the headdress and nose ornaments of the Lady of Cao, a Moche ruler who died in her twenties due to childbirth complications. Leaping forward in history, the exhibit closes with a stunning 16th century oil painting by Andrés Sánchez Gallque, painted in Quito, Ecuador. The work portrays Don Francisco de Arobe, a political leader from the Esmeraldas coast and his sons Pedro and Domingo, dressed in fine Spanish attire with personal Andean ornaments. 

After its run at the Getty, the exhibition will travel to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, where it will be on view from February 27 through May 28, 2018.

About Post Author