Six years ago, curators at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma) were tasked with studying 914 indigenous Colombian ceramics that had entered the museum’s collection in 2007. Very little was known about them. But before they found answers, they were met with an important question: did they know how to nourish these objects? The query came from Mamo Camilo Izquierdo, a spiritual leader of the Arhuaco people in northern Colombia. The curators had flown there and sought him out as part of a research trip, though this was not quite the response they were expecting.
Mamo Camilo’s question (among other critical information) helped the curators shift their mindset from categorising works strictly just by period and location to, instead, also providing multisensory context by enveloping them in videos and sound pieces. “That, and the building of relationships with [indigenous] descendant communities, is the form of [nourishing] that we believe is both possible and desirable for museums,” write the curators of a new largescale exhibition born of this dialogue.
[Objects] establish connections. Where the connection is broken, sickness happensMamo Camilo Izquierdo, spiritual leader
The exhibition, titled The Portable Universe / El Universo en Tus Manos, will include around 400 ritual objects, figurative ceramics, textiles, metal objects, feather works and historic documents created by ancient cultures in present-day Colombia. “Knowing how to ‘nourish’ the items in our collections reminds us of our responsibilities in this world,” the curators add.
While the impetus for the show was the extensive ceramic collection that Lacma acquired in 2007 (a gift known as the Muñoz Kramer Collection), it soon evolved into a collaborative project that incorporates concepts learned through cooperation with members of the Arhuaco community—one of 90 recognised indigenous cultures currently living in Colombia. It also includes object loans and curatorial expertise from the Museo del Oro in Bogotá and the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Houston—where the exhibition will travel to next before ending its run at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. “Objects are messengers,” Mamo Camilo told the Lacma curators. “They establish connections. Where the connection is broken, sickness happens.”
Of the exhibition’s seven thematic sections, one emphasises the traditional importance of storytelling and another addresses the arrival of Europeans to Colombia (displaying, for example, colonial gold coins alongside golden indigenous objects to point out how the material was valued differently). A separate section focuses on houses as a metaphor for humankind’s place in the world, and exhibits for the first time two ancient models of homes made from gold-copper alloy (on loan from the MFA).
“It is crucial to say that the works in The Portable Universe are not of the past: they are being studied, exhibited, questioned, and admired in ways that are entirely of the present,” say the curators in the catalogue, which overlays images of ancient objects onto contemporary photographs of the places where they originated. “The conceptual principles, technology, and designs chosen by the original artists inevitably built on what had come before them, which in turn built on their own antecedents, going all the way back to the time of creation. In this way, each piece collapses time, from creation to today, into itself.”
• The Portable Universe / El Universo en Tus Manos: Thought and Splendour of Indigenous Colombia, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 29 May-2 October; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 6 November-16 April 2023; Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 29 May 2023-8 October 2023