December 8, 2007  Dr. Bryan Just "Mesoamerican Visual Culture at the Princeton University Art Museum"

            Princeton Art Museum is home to a broad and important collection of Pre-Columbian materials, with particular strengths in Olmec and Maya objects.  from Xochipala and Jaina, Olmec jade carving, Mixtec, Aztec and Inka jewelry and musical instruments. Dr. Just began his talk with praise of Gillett Griffin, whose influence and guidance during his many years as curator, as well as his generous donations and acquisitions, helped form the brilliance and breadth of the Gallery’s collection today. Gillett’s particular interest was in the formative period, and he delighted in acquiring exquisite, small pieces for the collection. His influence and taste can be seen through out, as each piece exhibited has an intrinsic artistic beauty, as well as anthropological importance.
            The first items highlighted for the group were two figures. The first was a well known Olmec sculpture of a shaman in a transformation pose, still almost completely human in appearance, with only folded back hair. The crouching pose and a lens shaped incision on the back mimicing the first sign of molting, indicate an incipient change into a specific toad with hallucinogenic secretions important to shamanic activities. Dr. Just pointed out that the figure had a reddish cast except in the area which would have been covered by a loincloth, meaning that the figure had probably been clothed. The second figure was a new acquisition: a large classic Maya polychrome figure of a woman holding a very large jar, which was decorated with two faint cross legged figures. Her forehead was covered with a red glaze, her mouth was wide and painted and she was attired in a sarong style dress characteristic of both the moon goddess and royal women depicted on pictorial classic vases, including the noted Princeton Pot, found nearby.  The gallery also houses the Hauberg Stela, named for its donor, which is a well known small stela commemorating the first sacrifice of a royal youth, bearing a late 2nd century date. Dr Just speculated that the stela may have been retrospective, as the spelling conventions used were later than the inscribed date.
            Tearing the Mayan enthusiasts away from the collection of exquisite Maya vessels and figurines,  Dr. Just directed the group’s attention to a display of pre-historic Alaskan Bering Strait Ivories, which will be part of a planned exhibit on the art of both sides of the Bering Strait, and then moved on to Nayarit and Veracruz figurines. Black pitch, which would have been gleaned from one of the naturally occurring petroleum seeps that  mark the area of the Mexican Gulf Coast oil production, accentuates the  ritual scarification  depicted on the face of one of the Veracruz figures. Outstanding in the Aztec collection, to our eyes, were two sets of clear quartz ear plugs with fine cores of gold and turquoise, as well as a rare wooden mask. South American pieces included a tiny Wari figure made of imported turquoise, a beautiful Moche portrait head, and finally, a seated Nazca female figure, bearing a neck wrap and a feline deity tattooed on her back, with clothing that would have been draped over her body.  Particularly noteworthy was an incredible mud coated wooden Wari drum, with a painted camelid skin head, one of many musical instruments found throughout the collection; whistles, flutes and even a trumpet were pointed out.    Bryan closed his talk with a reference to the work the Museum has been doing in creating a fully searchable Web-Site, which would include the sounds made by these instruments. These recordings, of course, include the work of John Burkhalter, PCS member and speaker.  We look forward to  being able to access the collection of the Art Museum, and would like to thank Dr. Just for his knowledgeable and enthusiastic tour of this important Pre-Columbian Collection.
            Bryan Just received his MA and PhD from Tulane University’s Interdisciplinary Program in Art History and Linguistics, with a 2006 dissertation, The Visual Discourse of Ninth-Century Stelae at Machaquila and Seibal.  He received his BA from Yale University.  He is the author of numerous publications including collaborative efforts with Gabrielle Vail, Anthony Aveni, Harvey Bricker and others.  He has taught art history courses at Tulane and presented numerous conference papers. He was recently appointed to serve as the Assistant Curator of Art of the Ancient Americas, at the Princeton University Art Museum.

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