- Cauca River Valley
About the Artist
Little is known about the peoples of the Cauca River Valley in west-central Colombia who produced Popayán [po-pah-YAHN] style gold and ceramics. The dates of the Popayán style, reminiscent of several surrounding artistic traditions, are yet to be determined. Though we do not have a lot of information about it, this piece is the most impressive known example of Popayán ceramic art. Two similar vessels are known, but this is the only complete example. The artist modeled this figure out of buff-colored, gritty clay, which was then fired to a light grey/tan.
What Inspired It
The original function of this object is unclear, but it seems likely that this figure once held very precious or sacred materials of some kind. The figure’s headdress is removable, and the body serves as a vessel. Bones or cremated human remains were often stored in human effigy containers, but these are usually much larger. Stools or benches were important symbols of rank in ancient Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica. The figure’s commanding pose, with his right hand to his chest, his headdress, shield, and jewelry all indicate a person of power, wealth, and importance.
The figure wears a necklace, probably made to represent gold, around his neck. The hole on the figure’s nose most likely held a golden nose ornament.
Geometric patterning decorates both the headdress and the shield. The artist may have carved the designs on the headdress to indicate feathers.
Exaggerated and abstracted features draw attention to various parts of the figure’s body. The face has puffy, slit-like eyes, often called coffee bean eyes. The feet are huge, with toenails carved into the tips of splayed toes.
The swollen calves reflect the use of ligatures (tight bands) that are tied below the knee and at the ankle to strengthen muscles. This practice is still used by some Amazonian peoples today.
A lizard-like creature with a long, curled tail is perched on the back of the figure. This creature is either a costume element or a representation of a shamanic alter ego. Shamans are religious practitioners who interact with the spirit world.
The figure wears numerous decorative items but no clothing. The figure’s genitals are exposed as a symbol of generative power as was common in the art of Colombia, the Amazon basin, and southern Central America.
Quick Classroom Ideas
- Many different shapes can be found in the form and surface design of this figure. Have the class pick out as many different shapes as they can find.
- This figure is a zoomorphic figure, meaning it has both human and animal features. Have students closely look at the Popayán figure and pick out which characteristics are human and which are animal and what animals to they come from. Are there any features that seem neither wholly human nor wholly animal?
- Scholars are not positive who is being depicted here but, believe this figure is a depiction of the solar deity as the First Shaman, an important mythological figure to the people. Have students write about who they think this figure may be and what role he plays in society.