Art review

Gold of the Incas exhibition review: Treasures of an empire

National Gallery of Australia
Closes April 21

The National Gallery has had a long history of staging huge exhibitions of ancient cultures, such as Civilisation: Ancient treasures from the British Museum (1990) and Egyptian Antiquities from the Louvre (2007).

This major exhibition is devoted to the ancient cultures of Peru.

The 200 objects, from the 17 ancient cultures that dominated Peru leading up to the Inca Empire (1400s-1530s), are drawn almost exclusively from Peruvian collections, namely the Museo Nacional de Arqueologia, Antropologia e Historia del Peru and its fraternal collections, the Museo Larco, the Amano Museum and the Museo Oro del Peru. It is also supplemented by objects from the National Gallery's own collection. The exhibition is the National Gallery's contribution to the Australia-Latin America year of cultural exchange, and is organised in co-operation with the Peruvian Ministry of Culture.

The exhibition covers a range of mediums, including gold, silver, turquoise, shell, textiles and ceramics. The earliest object on display is a granite relief carving of a winged deity, holding a severed head from c. 1000BC. The carving is from Chavin culture, and from the northern highlands of Peru.

Llamas were important in the life, mythology and ceremonies of ancient Peru and they are prominent in this exhibition, and are made from textiles and gold, or feature as ceramics. An impressive example is a six-centimetre-high gold llama.


One is reminded of a story from Inca mythology of how the boastful Ayar Cachi, one of the four founding brothers, was tricked by his siblings by the promise of a sacred llama in a cave. This is a beautiful llama. There is also a playful ceramic vessel in the form of a llama, from Huari culture AD600-1000 , where the 67-centimetre-high figurine has a brilliant expressiveness and a polychromatic exuberance.

Jewellery, in the form of gold and silver facial ornaments, was worn by the Peruvian elite and these ornaments were generally termed ''parure'', and ranged from elaborate crowns to ornaments for the ears, nose and pectorals.

There is a golden crown from Chiribaya culture, from the south coast of Peru, almost 40 centimetres high and 18 centimetres wide. Elaborate low-relief work adorns the crown.

Golden and copper ear ornaments, from Chimu culture in north Peru, from AD1100-1450, extend to a length of 22 centimetres and belong to a tradition of objects that later caught the European imagination and found expression in the various Inca revivals.

Intricate nose ornaments, golden pectorals and a quartz necklace make this into a dazzling exhibition celebrating the forgotten world of the Incas.

While gold may provide the sparkle in this exhibition, it is the ceramics that form the backbone of the show, especially the sexually explicit fertility vessels, some of which should have an R-rating.

A gorgeous ceramic vessel, from Chimu culture, is in the form of three interlinked bats. Other highlights are the large textiles consisting of brilliant colours.

The archaeological objects from this ancient civilisation were almost exclusively found in tombs as objects rich in ceremonial significance were intended to look after the deceased in the afterlife.

Ceremonial and funerary objects abound in this exhibition and include a ''tumi'', or sacrificial knife, made of gold and silver, decorated with chrysocolla, turquoise and lapis lazuli. It comes from Sican-Lambayeque culture, from the north coast of Peru, and is from AD750-1375.

There is also a fantastic golden mask, from the same area, culture and period, with chrysocolla and cinnabar decoration. A personal favourite is a gold and platinum weasel in the Frias style, quite a cheeky and mischievous creation. It is almost 40 centimetres long, which I suggest could be one of the most valuable weasels on the planet.

It is a beautiful spicy and erotic show, one where all that glitters is gold.

It is a comment on the rich cultures that existed in Peru before the Spanish conquest. In July 1529, the Queen of Spain signed a charter allowing the Spanish conquistadors, led by Francisco Pizarro and his brothers, to conquer the Incas. Pizarro was governor and captain of all conquests in Peru.

Pizarro and his gang returned to Peru in 1532 to conquer an empire already weakened by civil war, smallpox and internal dissent. The empire collapsed and a brutal colonial regime was installed, which dismantled the mechanisms of government, the elaborate system of farming and forced the population to work in virtual slavery for the Spanish.

Many of the looted art treasures were melted down for their precious metal content. Much of what we see in this exhibition is loot that the colonialists missed, and which was excavated mainly in the 20th century, some of it by the Americans who repatriated these treasures only a couple of years ago.