Thursday, September 15, 2011

Out and About: Exhibits - Maya: De l'aube au crépuscule

I've always been fascinated by the Maya.  And the Incas.  And just about any civilization that predated written history, including Ancient Egypt.  Right back to the people who lived in caves and "discovered" fire.
     I guess it's because I could let my imagination run wild.  What did cavemen sleep on? Where and how did they get their food? What drove them to paint on the walls of their caves? How did the Egyptians and the Maya build those pyramids?
     For the cave paintings, we haven’t much of a clue. For the Egyptians, there are hieroglyphs and the Rosetta Stone to help. For the Inca and the Maya, we have the reports of the Spanish Conquistadores. But they only knew what they saw. They knew little of what had gone before and was no more... like Machu Picchu, Chichen Itza or Palenque.

 Of course, those civilizations are in Peru and Mexico, and the exhibit currently at the relatively new Quai Branly Museum in Paris is about Guatemala. I knew less about that region, although the names El Mirador and Tikal rang a distant memory bell.
     Now I know a lot more, thanks to this wonderful exhibit put on jointly by Branly and Guatemala’s Museo Nacional de Arquelogia y Etnologia. (Wish I knew where that Spanish accented "a" was on my keyboard!) 150 fascinating pieces of artwork from Guatemala are on display, most of which have never been seen outside that country. All carefully placed in context by the curator’s placards.
     And there’s something for everyone. Carvings, pottery, sculpture, jewelry... even musical instruments. All laid out chronologically and including the pre-classical, classical and post-classical periods, right up to the Conquistadores.
     The lighting is low and dramatic, as the French tend to do. It helps focus on the artwork. Plus the dimness embodies the mystical aura that surrounds these artifacts, as well as the lack of knowledge we still have of the ancient civilization that produced them. Jade, obsidian, mother-of-pearl shine in the lighting, jumping out from the clay and stone in which they’re set. Ancient pigments made from leaves and berries cling still to artwork sculpted centuries ago, some back as far as 2000 B.C.
     One idea that interested me was that Mayan spirituality ran through everything. "Spiritual life is closely linked with nahualism (in which we all have a double who protects us and guides us through life) and with animism (everything has a soul and a life force which we must understand and respect). The Maya are attached to the respect of others and consider that each human being is part of the harmony of the universe, and that every action elicits a divine response that compensates for it."
     This was explained near the end of the exhibit, in one of the wall panels telling you what you’re looking at. All texts are in both French and English (the latter always coming out slightly shorter, but not because any information is left out). There are also audio-guides available which give you even more information, and they’re in many different languages.

     The exhibit includes three short videos to give more background, all three in English with French subtitles. One was about deciphering the Mayan glyphs, with a spotlight on their calendar and its accuracy. Another was on the excavation of Mayan ruins. The last was on the Mayan people today, who still make up 55% of Guatemala’s population.
     Makes me want to book a flight to Guatemala. Maybe during the next Michigan winter.

Until October 2
Musée du Quai Branly
37 quai Branly
Paris 7è
Métro: Alma-Marceau, Bir-Hakeïm or RER C - Pont d’Alma
11 am to 7 or 9 pm. Closed Mondays

Entrance fee: € 6 and 8.50

More information at:

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