While all the early Europeans appeared to care about upon arrival in South America was gold for gold’s sake resulting in ever more elaborate myths about ‘El Dorado’, the British Museum’s exhibition allows the context, as well as the gold, to shine through.
I loved the introduction to the El Dorado myth and how an initiation rite for a new chief turned into stories of a ‘lost city of gold’ and repeated failed attempts to drain Lake Guatavita to reveal its riches. In deed, during one such attempt in 1909 ritual ceramic pieces were ‘recovered’ and subsequently bought by the British Museum in 1910 and are now on display in the exhibition.
The star of the show is the gold, but firmly in the context of its role in ritual and society, rather than its monetary value that is so difficult to shake off in our European mindset. The pieces are often fun, stylised images of people and animals such as the early Tolima body decorations or the Tunjo fugures made by the Musicaa people.
The Tunjo are wonderful pieces, flattened sheets of gold shaped into human figures, each with their own character, telling you about the culture they came from – including women, warriors and the eilte. One memorable Tunjo shows a headhunter complete with weapons and a decapitated head.
The shimmery, sun reflecting qualities of gold were prized above all else – with gold helmets on display that would have been practically useless in terms of physical protection, but instead marked the status of the wearer and strengthened him symbolically with the power of the sun. The pieces are often so delicately worked that moving parts shook with the slight vibrations made by footsteps in the museum and you can imagine the dancing, shimmery effect in the Colombian sunlight.
It’s not just gold on show, with ceramics, shells, beads and textiles also included in the exhibition. I loved the ceramic rattles, getting a little spooked when a rattling sound started echoing in the exhibition room. And in the next room, came the sound of animals and nature as the focus turned to the relationship between animals and ritual with crocodile shaped pendants, lizards, birds, bats, and humans transformed into animals through ritual on display.
Considering these pieces were created because of their interaction with sunlight it may be a little strange they were displayed in a darkened, black painted room. But presumably this was the best way to showcase the nature of the material in the given space. I certainly came out of the exhibition with a new appreciation of the Colombian gold and really enjoyed learning all about it.
Beyond El Dorado at British Museum
Until 23 March 2014