One way to see "Colombia Before Columbus," the Bowers Museum's exhibition of pre-Columbian ceramic art from as far back as 2000 BC, is simply to look, untutored, at the images. There's a small ape that has jagged teeth and snakes for arms. Wings sprout from a man's square head. There's a simple frog. An oddly bloated dog. A woman's legs look like breasts, her head like the moon.
It's possible to wander through the exhibit, which opens Saturday, fascinated by oblique impressions prompted by 250 objects whose Indian makers predate us by centuries. But Armand J. Labbe, chief curator of the Santa Ana museum, the exhibition's architect, issues a warning:
"What you're looking at is not what you're looking at because what the object appears to represent to the Euro-American Westerner is not what it is. It is a piece of philosophy. See how those jagged teeth are spaced apart? That is a zigzag pattern, and that pattern is also lightning. And lightning is lightning, but it is also the life force. See, down there? The zigzag pattern again."
Labbe can talk for hours in this vein, reconstructing a culture with words. And he talks with authority, it seems. Rizzoli International Publications has just put out a glossy book he wrote, based mostly on the exhibition, which runs through March 1. Virginia Varela, cultural attache to the Colombian Embassy in Washington, confirms that this is the most extensive North American exhibition to date of pre-Columbian Indian art from Colombia.
"Pre-Columbian art in the United States in the past has been associated with Mexico and Peru," Varela said. "This is the very first time that an exhibition has been uniquely concentrated on pre-Columbian art from Colombia. Each civilization is different, according to the region. . . ." None of the show's works come from Colombia, however. Labbe decided insurance and shipment costs would be prohibitive and said he gathered works from 20 private collectors throughout the United States. He added that the works have never been publicly shown and that he feels he sacrificed no degree of quality by forgoing museum holdings.
Varela said the show has generated enough interest in her native country that Roberto Pineda Duque, director of the Colombian government's museum of archeology, is coming to see it.
He is crossing borders to see artifacts that have their origins in his country before Cortez conquered Mexico. Mostly, these are burial objects, fashioned by craftsmen, probably shamans, who belonged to dozens of different agrarian tribes in the coastal and river-laced jungle regions. The pieces were often found in deep burial shafts, with urns in which the Indians had placed the cremated remains of their dead.
"Why did they put them with the dead?" asks Labbe, repeating a visitor's question. "To say something about who they were. Why do we put a crucifix in a casket? Why do we dress a corpse in a suit? We want to say something about the person that will pass beyond this life."
With the conquistadors came the slaughter of the people whose visual "language" consisted of these pieces. By countless numbers, they disappeared. But deep in the ground, in shafts, were these embodiments of how they saw the universe. "They saw two universal forces, and they interact to create reality," Labbe said. "The two forces are a feminine force and a masculine force. All you have to understand is. . . ."
Sex. The burial shafts--there is a Styrofoam model of one in the exhibition--were not just holes in the ground. A contemporary fundamentalist would not be altogether happy in the pre-Columbian Colombian cosmos, which was ethereal, earthy and erotic, sometimes simultaneously in one image. If, somewhere, Picasso is still at work, he may well swoop down one night and tour this exhibit, ransacking its images for their layers of sensual and cultural suggestion to the modern eye.
To listen to Labbe is to be impressed by how much light scholars can throw on these people and their art. The displays will include written details about the works. But ultimately, what emerges from Labbe's explanations is a chiaroscuro of knowledge, enlightened guesswork and dark spaces of mystery. We do not know exactly what names these Indians used for their tribes. We can only speculate about why one figure puts his hands on his hips and another reaches out to the viewer. Nor can Labbe offer a complete explanation of all the small holes in the heads of other figures.
Such gaps aside, Labbe said many people visiting the exhibition will walk away with an education: "It is a very common misconception that Indians were deficient in culture, or naive, or primitive," he said. "I don't think you can see these pieces and still believe that."
The museum, at 2002 N . Main St ., Santa Ana, is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays, noon to 5 p.m.. The show is sponsored jointly by the Bowers Museum and the Americas Foundation of Greenfield, Mass.