Art In Unusual Places - The Gold Rush of Bogotá

Recently I've been delving deep into the cross-cultural practice of sculpture and ceramics. 

I recently bought a book on Barbara Hepworth, and fell in love with her biomorphic and oddly-shaped sculptures. Somehow, that lead to a Google deep dive into the sculpture of ancient cultures, specifically those of Central and South America.

After a bit of research, I learned that both Central and South America are bubbling melting pots of ancient sculpture - ranging from jewellery and trinkets to bowls and pots - but what stood out the most was a particular fascination with one material. Gold.

In Columbia, gold is more than just a metal coveted by jewellery makers - it's a cultural institution. 

Early Quimbaya Bird Pendant, 300 B.C - A.D 700, Gold Alloy | © The Met Museum Creative Commons Licence CC0 1.0

Quimbaya Poporo (Lime Container), 1-7th Century, Gold  | ©   The Met Museum   |   Creative Commons Licence CC0 1.0

Quimbaya Poporo (Lime Container), 1-7th Century, Gold | © The Met Museum | Creative Commons Licence CC0 1.0

'The Museum of Gold' ('Museo del Oro') in Bogotá, Colombia, boasts a vast array of gold objects that the museum has been painstakingly collecting since 1939 - pooling together 55,000 pieces, 6,000 of which are on display. The size of the collection certainly succeeds in putting forward how immensely precious this craft was to indigenous communities.

Many pre-Hispanic civilizations created ornate gold sculptures and artifacts, but the work that immediately jumped out at me was that of the Quimbaya, specifically their ritual production of 'Poporo' (exquisitely decorated pots that were used to store powdered lime - a common ingredient used in religious ceremonies where the chewing of coca leaves was involved). Historians have since deduced that the Poporo were cast from moulds, attributing to their smooth surface and allowing for the addition of ornate details. 

The Quimbaya originated in Columbia and were a highly sophisticated civilization, with separate groups dedicated to pottery, trade, war and of course, gold work. Whilst we don't know the exact dates, it's estimated that the Quimbaya established themselves around 1st Century BCE, and met their end around the 10th Century. 

Another civilization whose gold-crafting work ran parallel to the Quimbaya are the Muisca. Perhaps the slightly lesser-known of the four 'advanced' indigenous civilizations of the Americas (alongside the Aztec, Maya and Inca ), the Muisca originated from the central Andean highlands of Columbia and established deep-rooted significance in the country's cultural heritage.

The golden artifacts of the Muisca were typically less shiny, and more rustic-looking, distinguishing them from the crafts of the Quimbaya. Also setting them apart was their creation of small votive figures (called 'Tunjos'), made specifically as offerings to the Gods.

Muisca Male Figure (Tunjo), 10th - mid-16th Century, Gold | © The Met MuseumCreative Commons Licence CC0 1.0

Muisca Male Figure (Tunjo), 10th - mid-16th Century, Gold | © The Met Museum Creative Commons Licence CC0 1.0

Muisca Mould-Statue, 10th - 16th Century, Stone (could this have been used as a mould for Tunjo?) | © The Met Museum | Creative Commons Licence CC0 1.0

The slightly less dazzling appearance of the Tunjos is thought to be down to the fact that they were not created with the intention of being on public display - or even seen by humans, for that matter. These little totems were often thrown into lakes and rivers that were of great importance to the community, as a way of showing appreciation to the Gods, and asking for prosperity. 

The Muisca didn't mine their own gold - instead they bargained with other communities to get their supply. They formed a formidable economy, with control over the mining of emeralds, salt and coal - so it's safe to say they had plenty of bargaining power. 

What fascinated me the most when researching these astounding creations was the sheer artistry. A great deal of the gold objects served a functional purpose, rather than being purely for decoration, yet evidently each was crafted with a great deal of pride and care. 


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