Discovering the Wari

Before the Inca ruled modern-day Peru, the Wari forged a highly complex society relying on art to communicate. See the first exhibition in North America devoted to this ancient Andean civilization now at the Kimbell Art Museum.

The majestic Andes Mountains stretch almost the entire length of South America, encompassing a tremendous range of ecosystems from humid tropics of the Caribbean to ice fields of Patagonia. It is the longest north-south mountain range in the world.

The central Andean region is one of only four places on Earth where civilization emerged independently. Since 2007, Susan E. Bergh, curator of the arts of the ancient Americas at the Cleveland Art Museum, has championed an exhibition that illuminates the art of one such sophisticated society forged between 600 and 1,000. Wari: Lords of the Ancient Andes is the first exhibition in North America to explore Peru’s ancient Wari, a civilization that relied exclusively on art to communicate, record and preserve its legacy.

This exhibition, organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art, explores the Wari’s achievements through 145 stunning objects highlighting all major media in which they worked––polychrome ceramics, ornaments made of precious metals or colorful mosaics, sculpted wood and stone and textiles of striking complexity.

“This insightful exhibition depicts the culture of a brilliant but relatively unknown ancient society,” commented Eric M. Lee, director of the Kimbell Art Museum. “Visitors to the Kimbell will be astonished at the artistry and condition of more than 1,000-year-old artifacts on display.”

Take, for example, a magnificent panel covered with feathers of blue-and-yellow macaws. Several nearly identical panels were found inside huge faceneck ceramic jars buried together in the Churunga Valley on Peru’s far south coast. Together, the panels could have covered a 2,000-square-foot area, transforming it into a breathtaking ceremonial space. To Jennifer Casler Price, curator of Asian and non-Western art at the Kimbell, these panels exemplify a modern sensibility on par with contemporary artists.

In the absence of written language, many of the Wari’s achievements were realized in portable items like Bag with Human Face. This rare hide bag was purchased by the Cleveland Art Museum last year at auction for $146,500, more than twice the estimate. It was used to carry coca leaves, which are still used in Andean ritual today. 

In the first gallery, visitors won’t be able to avert attention from a vessel, 3 feet in diameter, that was used to serve native corn beer called chicha. Translated quite literally in ceramics, faceneck vessels are comprised of a spherical body and face on the neck of a jar.

The Wari were well aware that there is no such thing as a free meal and used it to their advantage, establishing a system of reciprocity by indebting guests after lavish gatherings over food and chicha. Interestingly, the Wari deliberately shattered ceramics that may have been used as offerings in official feasts. The theme of food and drink, along with Wari imagery of a staff-bearing deity, ceremonial clothes and ornaments and tomb offerings are represented in an approachable way.

One artwork makes its way home after traveling with this exhibition to the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale. Standing Dignitary is the only known example of a freestanding figurine entirely covered in the inlaid shell technique, and it resides in the Kimbell collection.

“Unlike Maya art, which is so dense with iconography and mythology, this [exhibition] is a lot easier,” explains Price who oversaw the installation of Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea at the Kimbell in 2010. “It’s more fun.”