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September 7, 2008

Press Release: Martinsville Bulletin

Sunday, September 7, 2008

By HOLLY KOZELSKY - Bulletin Accent Editor

The exhibit "Animal Human Spirit: Images of Original Cultures" at Piedmont Arts Association (PAA) shows a taste of life in the Americas before European intervention changed the cultures.

The exhibit features pottery and other works from the University of Virginia's Art Museum's Pre-Columbian collection. That collection includes works from a range of Pre-Columbian cultures, including the Maya, the Viscus culture of Peru and those of Western Mexico.

The Pre-Columbian era incorporates the historical periods of North America, Mesoamerica and South America, before significant contact with the Europeans occurred in the 15th century. The era is named for Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus, who first brought Europeans to the Americas.

A collection of Aztec heads figurines from the Robertson Collection at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville is included, as well as aboriginal art from Australia.

"If you take artifacts from indigenous cultures that predate contact with European colonists, you start to see similar design elements and themes," said Tina Sell, PAA director of exhibitions. "Contemporary works from cultures outside of European" influences, such as aborigines from Australia, have similar design elements as those from hundreds or even thousands of years ago from the Americas.

That contemporary work is shown in "Dreaming of the Stone Country," eight paintings by Kunwinjku artists from the Northern Territory of Australia, now on loan from the Kluge-Ruhe Collection to PAA. The paintings depict ancestral stories from Western Arnhem Land.

Commissioned by John Kluge in 1991, the paintings were made using natural ochres and pigments on archival paper. This style of painting resembles rock art that was produced in the region and dates back thousands of years.

"It is rare to see these images in the Western world," Sell said. Their basic design elements "date back to the origins of culture."

Similar elements between the Pre-Columbian and the contemporary aboriginal works include ducks and armadillos, Sell pointed out. The effigies (sculptures and vessels) and paintings, old and new, "draw their images from their spiritual beliefs and everyday practices."

The art "is really telling a cultural story," she said. It tells us about the identity of a culture, what the people did, its origin and what they believe happens to people after death.

The Pre-Columbian collection includes necklaces from 600 A.D. The hand-created beads have been protected through the years.

Most of the pieces are more than 1,000 years old. A human head effigy jar from Guatemala, for example, dates back to 600 B.C. to A.D. 250.

There are figurines, dishes, a vase, jars, a whistle, a pot and an urn. A couple of items that look like clay statues probably doubled as musical instruments. They have holes in them, which may give them a function similar to a flute, but they also make rattling sounds when shaken.

"This was considered a high-security exhibit, and we were extremely fortunate to get it from U.Va." (the University of Virginia), Sell said. The items "were unpacked ... and immediately secured."

The exhibit is intended "to present a diversity of the type of exhibits we are showing," Sell said.

"Animal Human Spirit: Images of Original Cultures" and "Dreaming of the Stone Country" will be on exhibit through Oct. 25 at Piedmont Arts, 215 Starling Ave., Martinsville. Admission is free.

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