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"Maya, From Dawn to Twilight" exhibition at the Musée du Quai Branly

Despite its poetic, far-ranging title, "Maya, From Dawn to Twilight" at the Musée du Quai Branly is not an exhaustive exhibit, but a selection of some 150 exceptional works from the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Guatemala City, many never before shown outside their native land.

Vase with lid and black slip handle animal heads (250-550 AD) [Credit: Ricky Lopez Bruni]
Although there are stone carvings and jade jewelry, the vast majority of these pre-Columbian treasures are fragile ceramics—platters, bowls, jugs, vases, incense burners, religious and funerary objects. Most are painted in earthy colors of ocher, reds, oranges, blues and black, with motifs that include humans, deities, nature and wildlife—corn, water lilies, kapok trees, fish, birds, snakes and jaguars. Many are inscribed with hieroglyphics, giving dates and descriptions, like captions for the cartoon-like drawings; the Maya had mastered systems of mathematics, astronomy, calendars and the most proficient language in Meso-America.

At its apogee, Mayan civilization extended over much of southern Mexico and the Yucatan peninsula, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras, with Guatemala in the center. In general, Mayan history is divided into three periods, each with several subcategories: Pre-classic, 2000 B.C.-250 A.D.; Classic, 250 A.D.-1000 A.D.; and Post-classic, the period after the still unexplained collapse of the Mayan city-states, from about 1000 A.D. to the Spanish conquest in 1524.

Vase 'plover' (250-550 AD) [Credit: Ricky Lopez Bruni]
Here the show begins with the Recent Pre-classic era, 400 B.C.-100 A.D., personified by an anthropomorphic ceramic urn—a small fellow sitting cross-legged with his hands crossed beneath his chin, his eyes half-closed as if in meditation and his two front teeth exposed in a crescent smile. Among his notable contemporaries is a piglet seated beneath a mushroom, carved in volcanic stone.

From the Early Classic period, 250-550 A.D., come a sophisticated urn, a seated figure forming a circle with his fingers, in black ceramic with white incisions; and a large black-and-orange bowl whose cover knob is a spotted jaguar head with fanged jaws wide open and long red tongue protruding, either in attack mode or giving a very impressive yawn.

Recent Classic works (550–800 A.D.) include a small shell-and-jade skeleton figurine, like a medieval memento mori; and a surprising 8-inch tall whistle—a polychrome ceramic figure wearing an elaborate feathered headdress and holding two objects that look like maracas.

Among the show's many pluses: wall texts in English as well as French, and a terrific little video with a quick lesson in Mayan hieroglyphics, in English with French subtitles. One big minus: no photos of Guatemala's Tikal or other monumental ruins to set the scene.

Author: Judy Fayard | Source: The Wall Street Journal [August 26, 2011]

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