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The pre-Columbian art of Panama at the Bowers Museum.

PANAMA IS BEST KNOWN IN THE UNITED STATES for the events of recent history, such as the building of the Panama Canal in the early twentieth century, and the invasion by U.S. forces to capture de facto head of state General Manuel Noriega in 1989. Few recognize Panama's rich pre-Columbian cultural tradition. To heighten public awareness of Panama's intriguing pre-Columbian past, the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana, California, is mounting two major exhibits--"River of Gold: Precolumbian Treasures from Sitio Conte," organized by the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, and "Between Empires: The Artistic Legacy of Prehistoric Panama," organized by the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art.1

The "River of Gold" exhibit focuses on the spectacular artworks in gold, bone, stone, and ceramics uncovered from a single burial site at Sitio Conte, in the province of Code, during controlled excavations conducted by J. Alden Mason in the early 1940s. The Bowers show comprises pieces gleaned from private collections across the United States and the Museo Antropologico Reina Torres de Arauz in Panama City. The exhibit focuses primarily on the ceramic arts, although works in gold are also included.

The Bowers exhibit offers the first comprehensive interpretive insights into the meaning and significance of the designs and iconography found in these ancient artworks, which until now have been enjoyed purely for their superb aesthetic merits. "Between Empires" reveals an art rich in neotropical forest shamanic imagery, portraying the shaman in his role as healer, seer, guardian of fertility, and sometime astronomer. The exhibit challenges our assumptions about pre-Columbian art and increases our understanding of Panama's rich prehispanic past. The imagery depicted on this ceramic vessel, fashioned about one thousand years ago in central Panama, portrays a shaman who has been transformed into an anthropomorphic saurian (a lizard-like being) and empowered. This composition is exemplary of a genre theme called "shaman-in-combat," which is a reference to the shaman's role in combating sickness and malevolent spirits. Stingray spines protrude from the sides of the shaman's body, indicating the penetrating power of his energy. The pre-Columbian art of Panama is sometimes highly abstract. The panel on the upper portion of this pedestaled ceramic bowl, dating to around A.D. 900, represents a shaman with the head of a saurian and the stylized body of a bird. This composition represents the shaman as transformed and empowered. The bird body may be a reference to the "shaman-in-flight" theme, which is based on the belief that the shaman is capable of flying in his spirit body. The shamanic world is peopled with numerous fantastic beings, who incorporate within themselves anatomical traits found only in separate species in the ordinary world. The creature portrayed on this pedestaled bowl from the southern portion of the Azuero Peninsula, Panama, has two clawed arms, claws around its unnaturally huge eyes, and a long sinuous body. The mouth is lined with stingray spines or spurs, and is characterized by a long split tongue. Sculpture is relatively rare in the art of ancient Panama. This superb example in the Conte Style, dating to between 600 and 800 A.D., depicts a homed personage. The figure may be wearing a costume or garment with painted designs. Only the contours of the personage's arms are indicated. The design shows spiral emanations terminating in fiery birds' heads. In neotropical shamanic lore the shaman is said to be able to radiate powerful streams of energy from his body in the form of animal allies. Astronomical references are sometimes found in the art of prehistoric Panama. Cross-shaped design elements were used to represent stars over wide areas of the Americas. The Milky Way, which appears to be the subject of this composition, is often described as a huge serpent or dragon winding its way through the stars by tropical forest Indians. This pendant of pure gold dates to around 500 A.D. The piece shows a frog, often a symbol of transformation and fertility in the art of prehistoric Panama, with saurian emanations proceeding from the head and body. A gold pendant, dating to between 700 and 1520 A.D., depicts a shamanic mythic personage giving birth to a double-headed saurian. Another example of the shaman empowered' theme, the piece may have carried connotations of cosmic duality. (1) Both the "Between Empires" and "River of Gold" exhibits will open early in 1995. In conjunction with the first exhibit, the University of Washington Press is distributing the monograph Guardians of the Life Stream: Shaman's Art and Power in Prehispanic Central Panama, published by Cultural Arts Press in 1995. For more information about the exhibits, contact the Bowers Museum at (714)567-3642. Armand J. Labbe is Director of Research and Collections at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, and curator of the exhibit "Between Empires."
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Author:Labbe, Armand J.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Illustration
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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