Vanishing Worlds

Art and Ritual in Amazonia

March 30, 2008 - July 27, 2008 - Jemison Galleries

For thousands of years, the indigenous people of the Amazon Basin of South America have depended on the vast rainforests surrounding them. Today, some 300 tribes continue to rely on the land’s natural resources for their survival, and to maintain age-old ceremonial and ritual traditions central to their cultures.

From March 30 to July 27, The Birmingham Museum of Art presents Vanishing Worlds: Art and Ritual in Amazonia, an exhibition showcasing spectacular and rare works of Amazonian material culture, including full body costumes, masks, feather headdresses, body ornaments, baskets, weapons, pottery, and textiles.

The carefully crafted and vibrantly colored objects were made for use in rituals and ceremonies central to the life of Amazonian peoples, and range in age from 30 to 100 years. Many were worn by shamans and other community members during rituals such as name-giving ceremonies for the young, initiation into adulthood, and rituals surrounding death and bereavement, harvest, and healing.

“The incredible art and material culture of the Amazon has not been widely shown or published – it is not well known. These masterful works are compelling not only for their brilliant forms, but for their profound significance within the culture,” says Emily Hanna, Curator of the Arts of Africa and the Americas at the Birmingham Museum of Art. “We are very pleased to be able to bring these works to Birmingham.”

The objects in Vanishing Worlds exhibit exquisite artistry and, although they are utilitarian, are masterpieces of color and design. They are made from materials gathered from the forest, including wood and bark, beetle wings, grasses, shells, seeds, clay, and beeswax. Perhaps the most visually stunning objects are made with brilliantly colored feathers of some 40 species of birds, including parrots, macaws, and herons. These artworks give shape to belief, and embody tightly woven relationships between the human community and natural environment, and between the visible and invisible worlds.

The exhibition highlights eight tribal groups, including people of the Ka’apor, Karajá, Tapirapé, Ticuna, Shipibo-Conibo, Shuar, Kayapó, and Xingu River regions. These groups inhabit a vast area that ranges from the Atlantic coast of Brazil to the foothills of the Andes in Peru and Ecuador. Prior to European exploration in 1500, some three to five million people lived in the Amazon River basin. Today fewer than 100,000 Amazonian tribal people survive in an area that covers 2.5 million square miles. While most of the cultures represented by artifacts in this exhibition are still in existence, the vast majority of the tribes of the Amazon have disappeared. The unique and fragile works in Vanishing Worlds reflect the threatened existence of their creators, as well as the crisis of the rainforest environment in which they were made.

This exhibition was organized by the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and has been shown at the Cantor Art Center of Stanford University, the Mayborn Museum at Baylor University, and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Art and Archaeology. The Birmingham Museum of Art is the final venue for the exhibition.

Children, Let’s Protect Our Forests

A companion exhibition never before shown outside of Peru, Children, Let’s Protect Our Forests, features paintings by Peruvian children of the Amazon. The art project was organized by the Federation of Indigenous Organizations of the Peruvian Amazon and supported by the Swiss aid organization Nouvelle Planète. The children produced hundreds of paintings about changes and damage to the ecology of the Amazon that were exhibited in Iquitos, Peru. The exhibition helped raise Peruvian consciousness about the importance of protecting the environment.