Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 8, 2022
Mary Weismantel Playing with Things: Engaging the Moche Sex Pots Austin: University of Texas Press, 2021. 288 pp.; 66 b/w ills. Paper $29.95 (9781477323212)

The visual culture of sex is a fundamental tool for studying sexuality among ancient societies. The study of sexuality is, in fact, also the study of social structure as it relates to the culture, history, and ideology of a society. The sexualized image is a primary source equal to text or oral tradition, and it should be analyzed carefully. Studying sexuality can reveal social features that could not be otherwise revealed, as demonstrated in the Barbara L. Voss and Robert A. Schmidt-edited volume Archaeologies of Sexualities (2000). Mary Weismantel’s Playing with Things: Engaging the Moche Sex Pots shows readers both how Moche ceramics of ancient Peru transmitted messages and knowledge about Moche sexuality and how sexuality was intertwined with other spheres of Moche life.

Between 100–800 CE, Moche artists of Peru’s north coast crafted ceramic vessels bearing artistic representations of sexual activities that have aroused the curiosity of specialists and the public since the mid-twentieth century. Weismantel’s book is a revolutionary piece of scholarship that builds upon ideas from previous studies and offers a new way to examine, read, and interpret what she calls the “Moche Sex Pots.” The author bases her research on unprovenienced ceramic objects housed in four museums and uses archaeological data on Moche culture to contextualize and interpret the pieces. She also employs photographs of Moche ceramics from the Kinsey Archive and Christopher Donnan’s Moche Archive held at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. Ethnographic data and information regarding the ecology of the northern Peruvian coast interweave throughout the book, as the author engages with these unique creations through lenses of sexuality, queerness, feminism, and transfeminism, as well as psychoanalysis and modern philosophy.

In the introduction, Weismantel unpacks each of the title’s components—“Moche,” “Sex,” and “Pots”—and explains her use of the phrase “Playing with Things.” Since this is a study of artifacts with no related texts and of unknown archaeological context, the ceramics themselves provide answers to the research questions. The author uses a “multimodal approach” (19) and interacts with the ceramics by turning them, blowing into them, and reacting to them with laughter or surprise. With a youthful zeal, the author plays with the pots themselves and allows their makers to become her teachers.

The first chapter, “Modern Moche,” deals with the modern history of the Moche sex pots, critically reviewing previous research and considering the intellectual baggage, political drive, and gender-social identities of the researchers. The key issue in this chapter is the gap between past and present and between the ways scholars comprehend these ceramics using contemporary gender and sexuality practices and thought, and the pieces themselves. Weismantel insists that use of latter-day gender and sexuality-related perceptions is not necessarily negative. Each scholar raises questions in response to their zeitgeist, creating a new perspective and basis for expansion of the discussion. However, Weismantel simultaneously illustrates how Western backgrounds can prevent scholars from seeing clearly marked details of Moche art, such as erect clitorises appearing with images of vulvas. The author demonstrates how the invisibility of the erect clitoris in previous research on Moche sex pots reflects modern taboos regarding female sexuality.

“Pots Play Jokes” is a chapter dedicated to Moche sex pots as objects that encourage human action and as actors in their own right. Bodily responses such as movement, listening, smelling, tasting, and laughing activate some Moche ceramics. Others convey witty puns or humorous metaphors. Here, the representational nature of the pieces is more present than the performative. The more performative pieces include mainly ceramic containers bearing female or male images with exaggerated genitals; through contact between the genitals of the figures represented and the drinker’s mouth one executes fellatio or cunnilingus. Performative ceramics thus sexualize users and obligate them to participate in the scene. The author clears a path to explore how using an artifact activates its imagery and initiates a performance between the person, the piece, and an audience consisting of human and other-than-human beings.

The third chapter, “Pots Make Babies,” explores the ways Moche sex pots display reproductive acts and highlights what is present and absent from these representations. One of the issues debated repeatedly among scholars is the absence of vaginal intercourse between men and women. Here, Weismantel confronts two previous assumptions: that the non-vaginal sexual relations in Moche art represent non-reproductive acts; and that Moche artists ignored the “facts of life” since they depicted women giving birth or breastfeeding babies—the results of the reproductive process.

Weismantel beautifully evaluates two theories of reproduction to resolve this apparent discrepancy. A Western, Euro-American view narrowly perceives reproduction as a single sexual act of vaginal intercourse involving only two participants. An alternative view approaches reproduction through a web of relations involving human and non-human persons engaged in acts occurring at different temporalities. Weismantel derives the latter framework from ethnographic materials from Amazonian and Melanesians societies and reads Moche sex pots as representations and tools for the circulation of vital fluids between different bodies. When studying these themes as social outsiders, we are obligated to leave aside our understanding of the facts of life, allow the pieces or alternative sources to guide the research, and remain open to perspectives that differ greatly from our own.

The generative force of sex meets death in the chapter “Pots Give Power,” which focuses on the ancestors and their sexualization. Moche art represents the ancestors as lively skeletal bodies with erect, fleshy penises. This reflects the Andean beliefs that persons enter a new stage of life upon death. The ancestors maintain their social roles and care for the wellbeing of the community by providing life’s necessities: water, agriculture, and animal fertility.

The author refers to the circulation of fluids between humans, ancestors, divinities, animals, and plants as the “Charmed Circuit.” This circuit revolves around the ancestors inviting users to drink from their penis, or by vessels displaying a living woman masturbating a skeletonized man, thus extracting fluid from the dead. Weismantel reaches the conclusion that the phallus of the dead is not only about gender or masculine power, rather it is mainly about the power of the ancestor, with the penis as an emblem of authority. This insight undermines the assumption that genitalia provide the basis for gender assignment. This finding complements my own work, which argues that ancient Andean representations of vulva do not necessarily designate women. For example, some Wari pieces (600–1000 CE) display a personage who exhibits masculine features on their back side and female attributes—including a vulva—on their front side. Thus, Weismantel’s reading of ancestral phalli obliges us to explore how genitalia intersect with other aspects of culture and society beyond gender.

The final chapter, “Pots Hold Water,” opens a wider perspective on Moche sex pots that connects them with other types of Moche ceramics, the typical Moche stirrup-spout bottle shape, the environment, and Moche society, economy, and ontology. Moche iconography reflects relations between water and three substances—hair, chicha (maize beer), and blood—all flowing materials and conduits of vital force. Weismantel explores each of these substances: their similarities and their relations to sex. This chapter illustrates the importance of sexuality—or, as Weismantel prefers to describe it: an archaeology of sex—as a tool for understanding ancient societies. The book clearly demonstrates the intertwining of sex with death, divinities, animals, plants, topography, water, chicha, and blood, and of sexuality with political, social, economic, and religious structures. Weismantel demonstrates that studying sex in a specific society can change our definition of what sex is. In her journey, she discovers that the boundaries between the Moche sex pots and other types of Moche ceramics were blurred to such a degree that her definition of sex changed and became more diffuse.

Playing with Things provides groundbreaking interpretations of the Moche sex pots and presents frameworks important for material and visual culture studies. Yet the quality of images and their associated information prevents readers from visually playing with the pots themselves. The lack of color photography masks the prominent use of two colors in Moche art: red-brown and white-cream. In Sex, Death, and Sacrifice in Moche Religion and Visual Culture (2006, 107–108), Steve Bourget notes how the interplay of these two colors symbolizes life (red) and death (white). In some pieces depicting skeletal beings, the white-cream body contrasts significantly with the red-brown penis head. Bourget interprets this as an indication of the penis tip as a source of vitality, an interpretation that would reinforce Weismantel’s reading of ancestor phalli. Several of the book’s black-and-white photographs come from Donnan’s Moche Archive, which consists of pieces from many different collections and museums. Weismantel provides no information regarding the whereabouts of the photographed objects, even though the archive often contains this information. Their current locations not only constitute aspects central to the objects’ biographies, but they also give researchers the agency to explore the objects for themselves. Photographs from online museum databases typically provide photographs of objects from different angles, but their omission here limits readers to the two-dimensional gaze, which the author herself criticizes for making the pieces more representational and less performative (57). In a Note to the Reader (xv), the author explains that due to the COVID-19 pandemic she was unable to access many photographs of pieces conserved in museums and archives. A website presenting these photographs is planned to accompany the book and should counteract this limitation, add significantly to the reader’s understanding of the Moche sex pots, and afford them an experience closer to “playing with things.”

Bat-ami Artzi
Fellow, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection