Art of the Americas Links Ancient Cultures the Art Institute of Chicago Hosts a Comprehensive Exhibit That Yields Clues to Patterns in Pre-Columbian Societies

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A GIANT wall map greets visitors to "The Ancient Americas: Art From Sacred Landscapes" exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. The map begins in the southwestern United States, curves down along Mexico and Central America, and ends at South America's southern tip.

It's a region unfamiliar to many North Americans. Although numerous exhibitions, movies, and TV shows this year have commemorated Columbus's arrival to the Americas 500 years ago, few have concentrated as thoroughly on the indigenous peoples who inhabited this vast land for thousands of years.

"The Ancient Americas" is a unique exhibition of pre-Columbian art and culture that spans more than 2,500 years. It took nearly six years of planning and countless meetings and delicate negotiations with the governments of Latin American countries to complete.

Sixty-four museums, mostly from Latin America and the US, lent 300 objects representing 23 cultures. Many objects - which include massive stone sculptures, intricately carved goldwork, and ornately woven, well-preserved textiles - have never been seen outside the Southern hemisphere.

The exhibition "gets people started on a journey north to south," says Richard Townsend, curator of the museum's department of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. "I'd like for people to begin to realize that although their ancestors came from Europe or Asia or Africa, they now live in the Americas, and the cultural traditions expressed in the exhibition are part of their heritage too."

One unifying theme links the Amerindian cultures represented here. For ancient Americans, the landscape was sacred, and human society was an intimate part of nature. Artists maintained a dynamic interaction with the environment by creating architecture, painting, sculpture, and other forms of art. These creations were part of an on-going relationship with the mountains, sun, moon, animals, and plants.

This human reverence for the earth provides valuable lessons for today's industrialized world, Dr. Townsend says. "These objects don't belong to the remote past; they speak to ever-present reality.... What can be more central a problem than our own adjustment to the land - now and in the future?" he asks.

"Ancient Americas" focuses on Indian cultures in the southwestern US, Mesoamerica, and the Andean region of South America. The exhibit begins with the Mimbres culture, dating to about AD 1000 in New Mexico, and continues southward to Peru. Large black-and-white photo murals of ancient architectural landscapes adorn the walls to remind people of the interplay between monumental or small-scale objects and nature.

Although the theme of man's connection to nature is common among many cultures, the form, depth, and degree to which this relationship is artistically interpreted differs from society to society.

The Olmecs, who inhabited southern Mexico nearly 3,000 years ago, developed massive stone sculptures that depicted human figures with traits of felines. A large basalt Cave Mask has these characteristics. Found at a burial platform, its open mouth symbolizes the entrance to the realm of the ancestors, who were intermediaries between the living community and earth's regenerative powers. …