Art In Unusual Places - Visualising The Inca Empire

Before we begin - a wee disclaimer. 

There's absolutely no way I can summarise the art of the Inca empire in a 10-15 minute read. As a civilization that spanned over 400 years and at one point occupied 6 countries, their visual language is as diverse as it is complex.

Perhaps their most famous and adored construction is Machu Picchu - a trademark of Inca architecture - but for this post I'm going to scale things down, focusing on smaller works of art, from ceramics to gold effigies.

The Inca empire actually only lasted just shy of 100 years, meeting its end when the Spanish conquered its territory in the 1500's, but the civilization itself is thought to have originated in the 1200's.

The Incas were the largest empire in pre-Columbian America - at the height of their success they occupied a huge portion of South America, including Peru, Ecuador, West & South Bolivia, Northwest Argentina, North & Central Chile and a small portion of Southwest Columbia (their location mainly centered around the Andean mountains).

It's thought the Incas rose to this level of success through their sophisticated developments in agriculture, administration, diplomacy and politics - they encouraged Andean communities to band together and contribute to an all-encompassing, cooperative empire. 

Considering their well-adapted and developed society, it's perhaps surprising to hear that the Incas had no form of written communication, instead choosing to construct methods of visual language and story telling through painting images on frequently-used vases and cups (called 'qirus'). These images were usually narrative scenes of everyday life, relationships, gender roles and scenes of tribal warfare, adorned with stunning multi-coloured paint work. Frequent motifs also included animals, birds and geometric patterns. 

Below is an example of a 'double bowl' - a large bowl with a smaller bowl nesting inside, which was probably used during ritual ceremonies to pour liquid like maize beer onto the earth, as a way of wishing for fertile soil and plentiful growth. 

Cuzco-Inca Double Bowl, 15th - Early 16th Century, Ceramic | © The Met Museum | Creative Commons License CC0 1.0

The ceramic bowl depicts 3 animals - a bird, llama, and jaguar-like-feline, each nestled into designated spots. Historians at The Met Museum suggest that the organisation of the animals may refer to their true-to-life positions in the locations of the empire - 'the long-necked seabird may symbolize the ocean in the west, the llama the high Andes mountains in the center, and the feline the rainforest in the east'.

I really hope this is true, as I don't think I've ever heard such a magical explanation for the decoration of a bowl. It certainly would make sense, since the Incas didn't use written languages, to cultivate an understanding of the animals that shared Inca territory.

This bowl is thought to have been produced in Cuzco - the capital of the Inca empire and a hub of outstanding craftsmanship.

What's abundantly clear when delving into Inca culture is their affinity with nature and animals - especially llamas. Llamas were highly valued animals, used for their wool and meat, as well as for llama caravans (where can I get one of these?!) that transported goods cross-country. As a result, llamas were often a feature of Inca art and ceramics - perhaps they came to symbolize economic and ecological prosperity. The llama (camelid) figurine, pictured below, is an example of this practice.  

Inca Camelid Figurine, 1400-1533, Alloys of Silver, Copper & Gold | © The Met Museum | Creative Commons License CC0 1.0

What I love most about this tiny sculpture (it's 2 inches tall), is how stylized it is. I love looking at stylized and reductive art as I find it somehow sheds light on the thought process of the person who created it. When certain features are accentuated, in this case the eyes and ears, it's like seeing a llama from another person's perception.

Despite the incredibly artistry, it seems these objects have a complicated history. It may have been considered a 'huaca' (an ancient Andean word that can be translated to 'sacred being'), transforming the simple object into a spiritual or religious effigy. The term 'huaca' could refer to the mythical powers of rivers and mountains, or could be used to describe the figurine itself. Some huacas took the form of Inca royalty and were thought to carry their own energy and power. Perhaps a llama huaca could symbolise the sustenance provided by llama wool and meat. 

It's thought that these figurines could have been used during the Inca ritual 'capac huaca' - involving the sacrifice of llamas and children. However, their history may not have always been so brutal, as some llama huaca have been found strategically-placed in locations of spiritual and ecological importance, perhaps as a way of channeling positive energies - an equivalent of a modern day good luck charm.

Many of these tiny sculptures were made using the lost-wax method - a complex process that creates a fire-proof mould from an original sculpture. The original sculpture would have been made from a malleable material like clay or wax, allowing for the fashioning of intricate and highly-detailed forms. By my understanding, the chosen metal is then cast from the fire-proof mould. 

My first thought when reading about this was - how would ancient communities ever have learned to do that?! Maybe it's all down to an understanding of natural materials that I will just never be able to grasp.   

Female Figurine (Huaca), 1400-1533, Sheet Metal and Gold | © The Met Museum | Creative Commons License CC0 1.0

I'd like to round off this llama-centric post by giving honourable mention to the 'canopa' - small figurines or votives used in the highlands of Bolivia and Peru. These seem to have been really common (searching museum databases generates tonnes of results), and they're certainly memorable works of craft.

The dips in their backs were filled with offerings to the Gods, including animal fat, coca leaves, maize kernels and seashells. 

Votive Container (Canopa), 15th - 16th Century, Stone | © The Met Museum | Creative Commons License CC0 1.0

Votive Container (Canopa), 15th - 16th Century, Stone | © The Met Museum | Creative Commons License CC0 1.0