Field Notes, Objects, Plants, Practices, Spatial Orders

The Maize Plant in an Incaican Microcosmos

This wood cup, which is called in Quechua, quero, was produced in the sixteenth century, shortly after the arrival of the Spaniards to the Andean region. The queros, in the past as well as in the present, serve for consuming maize beer as part of Andean rituals, which are comprised of two entities.

Bat-Ami Artzi
Wood cup, sixteen century, unknown artist. V A 8915, Ethnological Museum of Berlin, high: 15.8 cm. (photography by Martin Franken).

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This wood cup, which is called in Quechua, quero, was produced in the sixteenth century, shortly after the arrival of the Spaniards to the Andean region. The queros, in the past as well as in the present, serve for consuming maize beer as part of Andean rituals, which are comprised of two entities. For that reason, the queros were manufactured and used as a couple. However, in this case, the other part of the pair was lost. This quero embodies three plants in its materiality and visuality. There is evidence that suggests that the pair of queros were cut from the same wood block. In other words, they grew together waiting to be shaped by the artist (Cummins 2007:274). In addition, the inlaid parts are made of resin of the Elaeagia pastoensis plant, known as mopa mopa, which was colored with a variety of pigments.

The outer surface of this cup is fully decorated and divided into three sections. In the upper section there is a narrow band filled with small buildings. The middle section, the larger one, is filled by incisions that create curved lines and zigzag bands. The lower section includes three layers: rows of colored ovals shapes, a red design and a row of rectangular forms that had colored inlays, which did not survive. The three sections are united by six maize plants that are spread from the bottom to the top. Each plant has three corncobs with their leaves, and on top of them, there is a standing bird.  

Wood cup, sixteen century, unknown artist. V A 8915, Ethnological Museum of Berlin, high: 15.8 cm. (photography by Martin Franken). 

If we join together all these elements, which are visually united by the maize plants, we can understand this quero as an Incaican microcosmos that maintains the cyclicity of cultivating, harvesting, storing and consuming maize.  Since a very early stage in Andean civilization, terraces were constructed in order to expand the agricultural land, especially for maize cultivation. The lower section of the quero represents these terraces, which were built in layers of stones, fine sand, gravel and soil. In the quero, the rows of colored oval shapes probably refer to the terrace’s wall and below it are two construction levels. 

The middle section with the incised curved lines and zigzag bands represents the flowing of water in canals, which served to irrigate the agricultural lands of the terraces. The upper section with the band filled with small buildings probably refers to the warehouses where the corn was stored. This kind of construction was built on mountain slopes, where the climate conditions are preferable for the conservation of the crop. It appears as if it is not coincidental that in this representation the warehouses are in the upper section. The six maize plants with the corncobs and the three sections indicate cultivating, harvesting and storing of the maize. The use of the quero itself stands for the maize consumption in the form of maize beer. 

The represented motifs on this quero are typically Inca, but the style which was used to display them is very different from the highly geometrical style of the imperial Inca art. The colonial queros present a more naturalistic style, probably due to the influence of European art tradition. Despite the use of this inspiration source, the queros in the colonial period were an instrument for Inca resistance and for the perpetuation of the Inca memory. This piece, which was created in a very chaotic period, describes a typical Andean landscape. It reflects the aspiration to restore the Inca order, in which the maize plant was the central axis of the empire. 

Literature:

Cummins, Tom (2007): Queros, Aquillas, Uncus and Chulpas: The Composition of Inka Expression and Power. In: Variations in the Expression of Inka Power: A Symposium at Dumbarton Oaks, 18 and 19 October 1997, edited by Richard L. Burger, Craig Morris and Ramiro Matos Mendienta, pp. 267-312. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington D.C.

About the authors:

Bat-ami Artzi, Ph.D. of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is an art historian, archaeologist and curator interested in the art and material culture of ancient and colonial Andean indigenous societies. Her doctoral thesis "Beyond the Image: Femininity and Other Gender Expressions in the Ancient Art of the South-Central Andes (800 B.C-1532 A.D)" successfully reconstructs many aspects of the ancient Andean gender structures' and their expressions in art, society, religion, and ideology. Artzi's research centers on the material representation of ideas and notions through forms, technologies, materials and iconographies. Her research also focuses on the way Andean societies conceived the European invasion and how colonial art interlaced the Andean tradition with the European one. Dr. Artzi's studies were funded by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (2018, 2011), the Minerva Foundation (2015, 2011) and by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2010-2014, 2019). For one of her publications she has been awarded the Polonsky Prize for Creativity and Originality in the Humanistic Disciplines (2017).

Contact: 4A_Lab@khi.fi.it