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Discovering Colombia Pre-columbus

January 11, 1987|WILLIAM WILSON

"Colombia Before Columbus" is one of those exhibitions of ancient ethnic art that causes the visitor a slightly queasy stomach and an urge to utter, "uh- OOHH. "

The exercise--on view to March 1--is an ambitious one for the little Bowers Museum in Santa Ana and its curator Armand J. Labbe, who has not only organized the whole enchilada but written a careful--even cautious--book-catalogue backed by the Americas Foundation and published by Rizzoli. It is copiously illustrated and crammed with so many facts on a fairly obscure subject that it could scarcely help being a contribution to scholarship.

The matter at hand is the art and artifacts produced by ancient inhabitants of that land now known for cocaine exports but always in the same geographical spot where the skinniest part of Central American fans out into the vastness of South America.

One paces bravely into the exhibition marshaling previous impressions that might illuminate approaching delights. Lessee: We know about the Inca down in Peru and the Olmec, Toltec, Incas and Maya dribbling down from Mexico into Yucatan and Central America. Vast and courtly cultures all with massive ceremonial precincts erupting from jungle and perched upon dizzy precipice. Palenque and all that. Snarling feathered jaguars chipped in hard stone and ball games where they played for keeps. Losers got to join their ancestors on the blood-spattered sun.

Then there's the ancient West Mexican tradition--Colima, Nayarit, Jalisco--that lot with their wonderful toy-like ceramic genre figures that seems like a pop tradition compared to the dynastic palace-builders.

But Colombia?

By now the pilgrim is pacing a gray museum corridor repeatedly lettered with the motto, "Colombia BC, Colombia BC, Colombia BC." Evidently an attempt to emulate jazzy new installation design, the motif fuddles the votary into thinking about a place called "Colombia British Columbia" in a time called "Colombia Before Christ."

Gimme a break. There is going to be quite enough to be confused about around here.

Ugh. Here's the exhibition. It's one of those whose praiseworthy determination to be clear takes the form of feeding you so much information the scaffolding of the mind totters. Ancient Colombia is divided into nine regions such as the Tumaco-La Tolita, Calima and Quimbaya. OK, we can probably handle nine categories of anything. What? Most regions are subdivided into four or five epochs or stylistic phases or other pigeonholes increasing the information bits geometrically so we feel sated before looking at a single object.

The experience hovers somewhere between trying to read a miniature encyclopedia in a tunnel and having the itchy feeling somebody cackling in the museum storeroom is sticking pins in your effigy doll.

Ingrate. There is a lot of good information here. The earliest known ceramics in the New World come from Colombia. It is now believed that Ecuador had more influence on Colombia than previously recognized. It is important to keep in mind that ancient art was not made primarily for aesthetic purposes but had crucial social and ritualistic functions. Proper study will reveal the workings of the Pre-Columbian Colombian mind which operated in Castaneda's "separate reality."

Like what? Basically, the catalogue is not talking. Scholarly writing is limited by what is known and this example is particularly guarded and unwilling to formulate either hypothesis or metaphor. The facts float with a curious lack of context, like shards of truth lost in space.

That is probably good science, but it leaves the amateur with nothing much to do but look at the exhibition.

At last. What a good idea.

Whatever may really be going on, it looks like "Colombia Before Columbus" was a place where courtly convention mixed with popular tradition. Colombia was, one gathers, something of a crossroads culture where passing peoples left cultural residue that fertilized the local soil into sprouting hybrid products that are now provincial-pastiche, now funky-original.

Naturally, our culture finds their culture's offbeat expressiveness most compelling.

The Magdalena River region, for example, bequeathed extraordinary large burial urns. Some have lids topped with little nude figures. The convention recalls ancient European sarcophagi topped with reclining images of notables interred therein. But these are more like modern Art Brut, expressionistic and mordantly funny. On one a paunchy little chap tipples a brew and looks a bit crocked. The most original use the whole bulbous urn shape for the figure. One looks like a person suddenly filled with helium causing his head and body to balloon while features and extremities stay tiny. Alice in Blimpland. There's an unsettling visceral truth here that makes you wonder if it's not based on a "real" experience such as a sacred drug ritual might produce.

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