- The Washington Times - Friday, March 31, 2006

Blood and sex were paramount for pre-Columbian Mexican and Peruvian women, as the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ “Divine and Human: Women in Ancient Mexico and Peru” exhibit superbly shows. Sex, essential for producing new life, and blood, indispensable for human sacrifices, were crucial for pleasing gods who insistently called for more humans to please them and serve as sacrificial victims. In this spiritual cosmos, women as divinely appointed procreators were elevated beyond bearing and nurturing children to higher roles as goddesses and priestesses as well. This world of opposites pervaded Mexico’s Aztec (circa A.D. 1350-1521) and Mayan societies (circa 600 B.C.-A.D. 1000), and Peru’s Moche (circa A.D. 1-700) and Chimu Empire (A.D. 900-1470).

Yet little precise information existed about women’s roles until the 1991 excavations at northern Peru’s San Jose de Moro in Jequetepeque Valley uncovered the tombs of two Late Moche-period priestesses, according to the wall text. The tombs clearly indicated San Jose’s importance as both a cemetery and a ceremonial center for more than 1,000 years and the priestesses’ central role there.

In the haunting, dimly lit final exhibit gallery, curators from the Ministry of Education in Peru and the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia in Mexico partially reconstructed the tomb of a plume-headdressed priestess. Clearly associated with blood sacrificial ceremonies — as the exhibit label tells us — she’s arranged into what was called “the birth position” with a copper masklike face and arms and legs arranged openly.

Moreover, discovery of still another priestess’s tomb the next year indicates that these female priests came from a powerful family of women who energetically ruled alongside men in San Jose de Moro.

Mexico also had its share of early women’s tombs, with the richly filled graves in the state of Veracruz packed with splendid terra-cotta “Cihuateteo” figures. The Cihuateteo, according to the museum, guided the dead to the afterworld.

The curators wisely organized the 365-object show into eight sections:

• Society, Politics and Religion.

• Body Adornment.

• Sacred Origins of Food.

• Textiles and Clothing.

• Human Origins and Daily Life.

• Religion and Magic.

• Goddesses.

• Burial Sites.

For example, a huge orange-colored pot from the state of Chihuahua has four women’s breasts encircling it in the Sacred Origins of Food segment.

Maize, or corn, was basic for all Mesoamerican societies. A ceramic ear of corn sits on what looks like an unsteady base while, nearby, a mural fragment shows a priest with four ears of the sacred plant. According to the exhibit label, Mesoamerican belief had it that corn was stolen by the god Nanahuatzin from Tonacatepetl, “the hill of our food,” where ants guarded it.

Not surprisingly, weaving was a domestic task regarded as spiritual, and the exhibit’s Textiles and Clothing section vividly illustrates this. The tiny woman shown weaving on an early belt loom — preserved through the altitude and dry climate — could have produced the extraordinary cloths shown here.

In addition to weaving, these women also used vegetable and mineral pigments to decorate themselves, as the Body Adornment section shows. Even silver weaving tools were embellished.

More permanent than textiles worn as adornments, body scars were used by Mesoamericans as another form of ornamentation — made by cutting into the skin without using pigments. They are depicted in several of the objects here and can be perceived as quite beautiful.

Even hairstyles — as shown in an especially fascinating Moche goddess with a wild-looking hairdo braided to rest on top of her stomach — were created to approximate sacred flowing water.

Sex removed from the physical to the spiritual world; death — often through bloody sacrifices — that transformed people rather than just killing them off; and women depicted in both their physical and spiritual roles are the heart of this show.

At first, the show could seem confusing with so many big and small artworks of cloth, pottery, stone and metals, but the excellent timeline mounted at the exhibit entry and a map showing both the Mesoamerican and pre-Peruvian cultures, provide an excellent framework.

The objects and their installation couldn’t be better, and going to the show is the next best thing to visiting Mexico and Peru. Don’t miss it.

WHAT: “Divine and Human: Women in Ancient Mexico and Peru”

WHERE: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Through May 28

TICKETS: $8 for adults; $6 for students and visitors 60 and older; free for members and visitors 18 and younger. Free Community Days for the exhibit are the first Wednesdays and Sundays of every month.

PHONE: 202/783-5000; or 800/222-7270, Ext. 7084

ONLINE: www.nmwa.org

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