Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 2, 2021
Marco Curatola Petrocchi, Cécile Michaud, Joanne Pillsbury, and Lisa Trever, eds. El arte antes de la historia: Para una historia del arte andino antiguo Colección Estudios Andinos 29. Lima: Fondo Editorial de la PUCP, 2020. 554 pp. S/120.00 (9786123176136)

El arte antes de la historia: Para una historia del arte andino antiguo (Art before history: For a history of ancient Andean art) is an ambitious edited volume emerging out of an equally ambitious 2016 conference. The conference, co-organized by the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú and University of California, Berkeley, brought together a diverse group of international scholars in Lima for three days. The book features essays that emerged from talks presented at the conference, and also integrates additional essays by a few authors who did not participate in the 2016 events. The goal of the volume is to present a “critical panorama, albeit necessarily limited and partial, of the state of the field of study of ancient Andean art and visual culture” (28; all translations are mine). Explicitly avoiding a chronological or mediacentric framing, the editors instead organized the essays thematically. A thoughtful introduction by the volume editors is followed by a first section consisting of theoretical reflections on the challenge of writing art history without texts, with subsequent sections dedicated to historiography, methodology, iconographic analysis, and consideration of the resonances of the precontact past into the colonial era. The resulting twenty chapters are well illustrated with color reproductions, maps, diagrams, and plans and include scholars from across a range of disciplinary backgrounds.

The editors address their chosen terminology at some length: as the title tells us, this is a volume about art and, more specifically, about ancient art of the Andes. The use of the term “art” in the context of the precontact Americas has been extensively debated, but the editors suggest challenges to the appropriateness of this term in fact miss the point, assuming a “fundamentally mistaken conception of the history of art itself” (26). As they point out, for most of world history, “art for art’s sake” did not exist as a concept: utilitarian function and physical beauty were not separate from one another. That the same is true in the precontact Americas should not surprise us. This is a topic that Tom Cummins explores at greater length in his essay in the volume, arguing that, while ideas of beauty may vary across cultures, the idea of valuing an object for its beauty is universal (48–49). The editors also use the word “ancient” to refer to Andean art made prior to the arrival of Europeans, a choice that avoids terms like “pre-Columbian” and “pre-Hispanic,” which center Christopher Columbus and Spain. While “ancient” feels appropriate for earlier cultures like Chavín (900–250 BCE) or the Moche (roughly 200–900 CE), it is a more awkward term for the Inca state, which emerged around the thirteenth century and was at the height of its power in the late fifteenth to early sixteenth centuries.

The volume’s title suggests the central theme around which the conference and subsequent book were structured. Art history as a discipline, despite focusing on objects, typically relies on written sources in order to elucidate those objects. Written sources for the precontact Andes, however, are notoriously absent, unreliable, or, in the case of the knotted-cord recording system known as quipu or khipu, difficult to decipher. As the editors explain eloquently in their introduction, one impact of the lack of written sources for interpreting precontact Andean art, particularly works associated with earlier cultures undocumented in Spanish sources, is the researcher’s attention being forced back to the art object itself. As the authors write, this focus on the object can serve as a “refreshing tonic” in the face of an often obfuscating enthusiasm in the discipline for critical theory, which can have the effect of “relegating the artwork itself to a secondary plane” (27). An essay like Joanne Pillsbury’s meditation on the textile-like adobe relief murals of the coastal city of Chan Chan illustrates the kind of nuanced and innovative argument that can be constructed in the absence of texts via close looking and detailed attention to visual and material contexts.

In writing a history of art without texts, the material record—in many cases the archaeological material record—becomes one of the primary sources for interpretation. However, the relationship between art history and archaeology, between art historians and archaeologists, has not always been smooth. In their introductory essay, the editors describe this relationship as one simultaneously of “young love” (because “they are curious about one another but don’t know each other well, and as such there is a certain lack of trust”) and of an “old married couple” (because “although they can’t always stand each other, they can’t live apart”) (27). As the editors write, “one of the principal theses of this volume . . . [is that] the history of art of the ancient Andes and archaeology shouldn’t exist separately” (43). Lisa Trever’s essay demonstrates the rich layers of meaning that a careful, interdisciplinary project employing what she calls an “arqueohistory of art” can uncover about the “dynamic ways in which people made and saw painted and sculpted images” (104). As Trever points out, her methodology has potential implications beyond the specific Moche context of her analysis: “the writing of marginalized histories cannot depend on textual archives, but they can be rescued from historical neglect, at least partially, through fragmentary material, spatial, or visual sources” (106).

Although the editors center archaeology and art history as the two primary disciplines for interpreting Andean pasts, and most of the essays are indeed written by scholars who primarily engage with those methodologies, several essays also draw extensively on ethnographic sources. This is a common methodology (often termed “lo andino”) that, in its most extreme form, assumes a shared culture that can be traced from modern-day Andean Indigenous peoples back to much earlier cultures like Chavín and the Moche or the more recent Incas. Scholars employing this approach draw on insights from ethnographic research to interpret material culture from hundreds or even thousands of years earlier. In the early 1990s this approach was heavily criticized in the wake of the upheaval of the Peruvian Internal Conflict. In “Missing the Revolution: Anthropologists and the War in Peru,” Orin Starn paralleled what he called “Andeanism” to Edward Said’s Orientalism, arguing that Andeanism relied on the paternalistic idea of a contemporary Andean peasantry outside the flow of history (Cultural Anthropology 6, no. 1, 1991: 64, 66). More recently, Bill Sillar and Gabriel Ramón Joffré have presented a nuanced argument for how scholars might use “ethnoarchaeology,” avoiding some of the pitfalls pointed out by Starn and others (“Using the Present to Interpret the Past,” World Archaeology 48, no. 5, 2016: 656–73). In her excellent essay for this volume (previously published in English in RES), Ananda Cohen-Aponte traces the impact of the Indigenista movements of the 1920s and 1930s on writing the history of colonial art of the Andes. But Indigenismo also helped shape the lo andino approach commonly taken by art historians and archaeologists considering the precontact Andes. To my knowledge, although there is ample scholarship by historians and anthropologists challenging, problematizing, or nuancing the lo andino framework, such a challenge is lacking from an art historical perspective. Julio Rucabado-Yong’s essay in the book, on Moche identity formation in relation to non-Moche “others,” explores division and complexity within the Andes that would seem to belie attempts to locate a single, unchanging shared “Andean” culture. The presence of essays within the volume employing an ethnographic lens and seeking to identify shared cultural threads across centuries of Andean art, taking the lo andino approach, could have supplied the editors an opportunity to directly address art history and archaeology’s intersections with ethnography.

Overall, the organization of the volume and the clarity of the introduction admirably forge links between an at times disparate group of essays, which vary significantly in their methodological and disciplinary approaches and in the stakes around which they structure their arguments. There are some imbalances here—the Moche and Inca are substantially represented whereas there is less sustained engagement with other cultures. There are minor issues with translation throughout, which may result in confusion for some readers. Nonetheless, one of the strengths of this volume is that it presents a state of the field for precontact art history of the Andes in Spanish. As the authors establish, art history as a discipline is a nascent one in Peru, with most scholars who are trained as art historians and who work on the precontact Andes hailing from the English-speaking world and publishing predominantly in English (23). Indeed, the “art history of the ancient Andes” is a relatively young field. It is thus valuable to have a volume of this nature, published in Spanish, that demonstrates a diversity of potential approaches. It is to be hoped that this volume, and the conference it emerged out of, will draw future generations of scholars to the field and stimulate further research in new and exciting directions.

[Editorial Note: One of the editors of the book under review, Lisa Trever, began her term as Field Editor for Precolumbian Art after the commissioning of this review. She was not involved in its editorial process.]

Emily C. Floyd
Lecturer of Visual Culture and Art History before 1700, History of Art Department, University College London