Ethereal Peru: An Interview with Director Nathalie Bondil of the MMFA

Peru is one of six “cradles of civilization,” from which a series of advanced societies emerged. Characterized by remarkable artistic expression and technological innovation, successive Andean cultures thrived among the peaks and valleys of the Andes until the armies of Francisco Pizarro vanquished the Inca in 1532 CE. Nevertheless, primordial, symbolic imagery–mythical, ritualistic, and spiritual–continued to shape the artistic spectrum, precipitating a wave of nationalist affirmation in modern times.

Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and the Moon provides a retrospective presentation of Peru’s history through an exploration of identity, spirituality, and indigenous collective memory as reflected in art. In this world exclusive interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks to Ms. Nathalie Bondil, Director and Chief Curator of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal), with regard to this exhibition’s unique focus and meticulous organization.

JW: Director and Chief Curator Nathalie Bondil, thank you for speaking with me about Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and the Moon: Identities and Conquest in the Early, Colonial and Modern Periods, which just opened at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

In 2008, you curated another exhibition with a Latin American focus–¡Cuba! Art and History from 1869 to Today–which brought much-needed attention to Cuban arts and culture. What prompted you to return to Latin America and what provided you with the inspiration to present such an encompassing show, grounded in an exploration of Peruvian identity? Additionally, I was curious as to the title of the exhibition; what is the meaning, symbolic or otherwise, of “Kingdoms of the Sun and the Moon”?

NB: I found fascinating the historical perspective of this country which, in only two centuries, changes its status from a colony in the margins of an Eurocentric world map, to the label of a cradle of civilization thanks to the discoveries of archaeology: I wanted to tell this story.

Coming from the “Old World” and living in the “New World,” I wanted to examine the construction of American identities; how artists used art as aesthetic tools, even sometimes weapons, in order to translate ideologies often motivated by nationalism and politics, in these rather recent independent countries. It is not about finding an ultimate answer but about how myths and legends are built thanks to visual vocabulary and style. Traveling through times and space is my passion; visiting Peru, I noticed archeology was the main door in order to understand pre-hispanic cultures as they remain without written history (on the contrary of the Asian and Mediterranean cradles of civilizations). In this old Andean era but recent, independent Peru, it is like archeologists, searching very far through the ages, were defining peruanidad nowadays. Also, discovering indigenism, a modern artistic school, which remains unknown outside Peru, I found it special in its inspiration roots, old folk arts coming sometimes from pre-Columbian times.

The title evokes the primal duality principle in Andean cosmology, not in a Manichean report (good against evil as in the Christian religions) but as an essential complementarity. Basically, the male principle refers to the solar world, the feminine principle to lunar world as we can notice in several pieces of silverware half gold and half silver. Discussing with our curator, Victor Pimentel, we thought this old name was beautifully poetic, but overall a good synthesis of the duality principle from the primitive epoch…to our current knowledge, partly in the light, partly in the darkness.

JW: Many in Canada and the United States are relatively unacquainted with the level of sophistication demonstrated by ancient Peruvian cultures, in addition to the danger looting poses to our understanding of Peruvian patrimony. How do you convey the importance of contemporary archaeological work in shaping a singular “Peruvian identity,” while simultaneously addressing the important issue of looting within the exhibition?

NB: A tribute to 100 years of archeology, I wanted the exhibition to begin with the discovery of the Machu Picchu in 1911, which becomes a symbolic cornerstone of a collective patriotic memory (the Yale collection has been entirely restituted in 2012) and to end with a strong museum statement against illegal trafficking. However, the success of an active policy of combating this trafficking, Peru is the Latin American country most affected by antiquities trafficking, followed by Bolivia and Mexico according to the Peruvian section of Interpol in 2011. In the last gallery, a looted Mochica headdress, recently restituted to Peru, which becomes an icon against pillaging, is exceptionally lent to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (it was my idea and not at all a condition for the loan).

First showing outside Peru, this symbol of the war against art trafficking has an edifying story. Recovered from a major private collection, this spectacular Mochica gold forehead ornament represents the decapitating god Ai-Apaec, a terrifying god surrounded by eight tentacles. It was intercepted in a London gallery by Scotland Yard in 2004. It came from the illegal excavation of a tomb at La Mina, in the Jequetepeque Valley, which had been extensively pillaged in 1988-89. Instantly dubbed by newspapers the “Peruvian Mona Lisa,” this unique octopus was displayed by the Peruvian authorities at the Museo de la Nación in Lima in 2006 as a symbol of Peruvian identity.

More than 3,000 years of civilization, this exhibition tells a century of archeological discoveries, and therefore how it has changed our current perception of an artifact, which is now a cultural property and not only an artwork. One century of investigations has defined a totally different vision of the pre-Columbian world. Important cultures, especially on the North Coast, came to light enriching the comprehension of the pre-hispanic world instead focusing mainly on the contact civilization: the Inca Empire. Archeologists played a critical role in this recognition, so vital to a young nation, by interpreting both material and non-material heritage. The Peruvian government struggles today against the “poaching of memory”: citizens are increasingly aware of the need for their heritage protection and recovery because of the potential impact on the economy and tourism, and no longer only for nationalistic reasons.

JW: Kingdoms of the Sun and the Moon displays an impressive array of artifacts and dazzling works of art: metalwork (of silver and gold); pottery; sculptures; paintings; drawings; photographs; and even textiles. Of nearly 400 works of art, over 100 have never been exhibited outside of Peru until now.

How challenging was it to divide this exhibition into four separate sections, given the degree of continuity and hybridization in Peruvian art? Assembling and coordinating such a vast exhibition, covering over 4,000 years of artistic and cultural development, is no easy feat! Was it difficult to retain the exhibition’s focus?

NB: I apologize to the other museum directors…but the best team is ours! It is partly a joke as conceiving and organizing this type of exhibition need many skills. It is, as always, the result of a great teamwork. Victor Pimentel, the curator, is overall an archeologist who spent his life mainly in Peru; without his deep knowledge of the field, his numerous contacts and his precise eye, the Museum would not have been able to gather so many masterpieces from fifty lenders. Among others, he was supported by a great scientific committee (Walter Alva, Ulla Holmquist, Natalia Majluf and Luis Eduardo Wuffarden). As Chief Curator, I have articulated and organized major exhibitions for 14 years with our remarkable professionals for publishing, design, production, and administration. It is my job: imagination, innovation, passion and anxiety. Dealing with thirty lenders from Peru, private collections and public institutions, was truly demanding as the rules are particularly straight, even in comparison with other experiences with Mexico, Cuba, China and Russia. Fourteen signatures are necessary–until the Peruvian President of the Republic signs the temporary export for artworks–regardless if they belong to public or private collections. This complex system of bureaucracy is explained by a very repressive judicial regulation in case of failure or fault.

The first exhibition encompassing such a wide panorama, it follows, nevertheless, the stages in the development of a living cultural identity. It explores the myths and rituals of ancient Peruvian cultures, their role in forming Andean cosmology, and the symbols later periods continued to draw upon. Next, it shows how they were perpetuated, concealed, and hybridized under the Spanish Viceroyalty. And finally, it considers their resurgence, affirmation, and transformation in the modern era, especially through the indigenista movement, whose superb but little-known art proclaims the pride of an independent nation. Visiting the show during the opening events in Montreal, the legendary archeologist Walter Alva told us with a smile: “But the National Museum of Peru is here!”

And it is true, the Peruvian lenders with the Ministry of Culture were incredibly generous. Not only the exhibition presents for the first time abroad many works, but a great selection of masterpieces, not forgetting a tremendous selection of colonial art, indigenist rare prints and paintings, some folk art and photos from Chambi to Penn. We all would want to present the show in Lima next year as our Peruvian friends would like to share this pride with their citizens. It is interesting to notice how this initiative, a totally independent conception and production, catalyzes a national identity, which remains an issue, a dream, even an illusion following Mario Vargas Llosa’s conclusion in our catalogue.

JW: Myths, rituals, spirituality, and hybridization are other themes that are interwoven and examined throughout the exhibition. In your opinion, should we view Peruvian art as a mélange of interweaving and shifting cultural forms and identities? Or should we focus instead on cultural continuities across time and space?

NB: “What is simple is always false. What is not, is unusable,” said the French poet and philosopher, Paul Valery. The Peruvian reality is extremely complex. This nation wants to be defined through metissage while it is also an incredibly varied mosaic of cultures. In this country, we can find all stages of human social development, even some tribes in the Amazonia who live without contact with the white man. This diversity is both an asset and a headache for the government conscripts in recent geopolitical boundaries. Of all times, human societies have sought their identity by distinguishing each others. From tribes to political states, the question of nationalism is inextricable, yet unavoidable, as nationalism is necessary for the accession to power…for better or for worse. From founding myths to the current religions, from ancestor worship to the pantheon of great men in our democracies, civilizations have formed large accounts by making icons and a theater of memory… However, the language seems to me the major distinguishing factor.

In Peru, the language of images–Catholic colonial art–was first developed with the forced evangelization of the natives by the Spanish conquerors. Indigenous identity remains discriminated at the time of the Republic of costumbrismo, during the 19th century, where the model remains Europe. In the 20th century, the question of identity turns to the native who becomes an ideological reference in both Mexico and Peru. The exhibition shows an eloquent photograph of modern white students painting at the School of Fine Arts a native model in her traditional costume. The issue of discrimination is still relevant despite government efforts and a “neo-indian” movement. In 2001, the first “cholo” president, Alejandro Toledo was inducted into Machu Picchu dressed in Incan garb, by shamans, who presented offerings to the gods of the mountains. In 2006, the President Evo Morales of Bolivia was inducted into the pre-Inca temple of Tiwanaku dressed in Aymara. Even if Quechua became the second official language in 1975, it remains essential to learn Spanish for anyone who wants to acceed to the standard way of life of our increasingly globalized world. Living in Quebec where French has been the official language of the province since 1974 against the hegemony of English, I understand this paradox because language is a key driver of cultural identity.

JW: To conclude our interview, which objects in this exhibition excite you the most, Director Bondil? Likewise, what surprises do you believe await visitors to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts this spring?

In previewing the gorgeous exhibition catalogue, I was naturally drawn to the over 100 pre-Columbian treasures from the Mochica, Chimú, and Incan civilizations, but I was astonished to learn that the majority of all Cuzco School (Escuela Cuzqueña) artists were native Peruvians! I would comment further that selection of Indigenismo art with works by Camilo Blas (1910-1985), Julia Codesido (1892-1979), and José Sabogal (1888-1956) is quite powerful and stirring too.

NB: Obviously, the Mochica gold octopus as a main discovery for the public is my first choice! I learned only the day before I signed the convention with the Minister of Culture in Peru at the very end of December–so only few weeks before the opening–we would have it on loan…more than two months, as it was previously decided and meanwhile, I already decided to choose this unknown masterpiece for our catalogue cover and advertisement campaign. It was a gambling game but I was truly motivated by the strong statement I wanted against illegal trafficking. Beyond scholarly research and history of art, I think it is fundamental to have a long term vision about what you want to defend with your programming (for instance, the former exhibition on ¡Cuba! Art and History supported pacifism and friendship by gathering in Canada works from USA and Cuba).

As Director of a Fine Arts Museum, the selection of the archeological artifacts is really beautiful because Victor Pimentel has also an aesthetic eye, which I found not common among these specialists. We are privileged to host famous masterpieces from main Peruvian collections–a royal litter from the Museos Oro del Perú, some fabulous discoveries from the Museo de las Tombas Reales de Sipan, a unique Chimú golden crown from the Museo Larco–but I wanted to enhance many loans from other institutions in Peru. The Museo Pedro de Osma lent major pieces from their colonial collection: I especially love a chest that contains a history of Nativity carved in miniature that I noticed during my first visit. There is also a truly impressive eucharistic silver urn in a shape of a pelican, which comes from the Monasterio Nuestra Señora del Prado, Lima. There are also some rare and superb textiles made in colorful bird feathers, from our collection, which are on view for the first time!

Naturally, my heart belongs to costumbrismo with the powerful and moving portrait of an Habitante de las cordilleras del Perú (Pinacoteca Municipal, Lima) painted by Francisco Laso in 1855, which welcomes us at the very beginning of the exhibition; this severe man holds in his hands with pride an antique vase representing a prisoner, a projection of its own reclusion. My favorite indigenist painter is Enrique Camino Brent who is, I think, a major artist to discover for his special flavor of an Andean modernity. At last, I am moved by some old photos, especially one by Brünning, a great ethnologist and archeologist from Germany, representing the display of an all dressed dead mother, stood up and surrounded by her husband and her little girl whose glaze still catches through the ages.

JW: Director Bondil, I thank you so much for sharing your insight and perspectives with the Ancient History Encyclopedia. I extend my congratulations to you and your fellow curators on having organized such a fascinating exhibition! Merci beaucoup et bonne chance, Madame! Nous espérons vous parler à nouveau à l’avenir. ¡Felicidades!

NB: ¡Muchas gracias y benvenido en nuestro Museo de Bellas Artes de Montreal!

Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and Moon: Identities and Conquest in the Early, Colonial and Modern Periods will be on show at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, in Montreal, QC, from February 2, 2013–June 16, 2013. It will then move to the Seattle Art Museum, in Seattle, WA, from October 17, 2013–January 5, 2014. 

Please see the Ancient History Encyclopedia’s review of the splendid Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and the Moon exhibition catalogue.

Image Credits & Reference: 

1. Mochica, North Coast, possibly La Mina.Forehead ornament with feline head and octopus tentacles ending in catfish heads, c. 100 – 800 CE. Gold, chrysocolla, and shells. 28.5 x 41.4 x 4.5 cm. Museo de la Nación, Lima. Photo: Daniel Giannoni. 

2. Mochica, North Coast, Sipán. Earspool depicting a warrior, c. 100-800 CE. Gold, turquoise, and wood. 9.2 cm. Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipán, Lambayeque. Photo: Joaquín Rubio.

3. Lambayeque, North Coast. Funerary mask, c. 750-1375 CE. Gold, silver, amber, and emeralds. 7 x 31 x 59 cm. Museos “Oro del Perú”–“Armas del Mundo.” Fundación Miguel Mujica Gallo, Lima. Photo: Joaquín Rubio.

4. Lambayeque, North Coast. Back of litter, c. 750-1375 CE. Wood, gold, silver, cinnabar, sulphurous copper, ammonia, shells, turquoise, and feathers. 58 x 114 x 5 cm. Museos “Oro del Perú”–“Armas del Mundo.” Fundación Miguel Mujica Gallo, Lima. Photo: Joaquín Rubio.

5. Anonymous, possibly Lima. Depósito eucarístico con forma de pelícano [Eucharistic urn in the shape of a pelican], c. 1750-1760 CE. Partially gilded silver, and gemstones. 83 x 91 cm. Monasterio Nuestra Señora del Prado, Lima. Photo: Daniel Giannoni.

6. Anonymous, Cuzco School. Unión de la descendencia imperial Incaica con la casa de los Loyola y Borgia [Union of the Imperial Inca Descendants with the Houses of Loyola and Borgia], 1718 CE. Oil on canvas, gold leaf. 175.2 x 168.3 cm. Museo Pedro de Osma, Lima.

7. Francisco Laso (Tacna 1823–San Mateo 1869). Habitante de las cordilleras del Perú [Inhabitant of the Peruvian Highlands], 1855. Oil on canvas. 138 x 88 cm. Pinacoteca Municipal “Ignacio Merino” de la Municipalidad Metropolitana de Lima. Photo: Daniel Giannoni.

Nathalie Bondil is an art historian by training, and a dual citizen of Canada and France. She was appointed Director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in January 2007. Also the Museum’s Chief Curator for the past ten years, Ms. Bondil has curated many of the exhibitions presented by the Museum, including Hitchcock and Art: Fatal Coincidences; Picasso Érotique; Voyage into Myth; Gauguin to Matisse, the French Avant-Garde from the State Hermitage Museum; Catherine theGreat: Art for Empire; Maurice Denis: Earthly Paradise; Van Dongen: Painting the Town Fauve; and ¡Cuba! Art and History from 1868 to Today. In 2008, Ms. Bondil received the insignia of the Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de la République française, in recognition of her work as Chief Curator of the exhibition ¡Cuba! Art and History from 1868 to Today. In June 2011, she was awarded the Insigne du mérite from the University of Quebec at Montreal’s Faculty of Arts and Science and the title of Chevalière of the Ordre national du Québec. Under her leadership, the MMFA has experienced a tremendous period of unprecedented growth in recent years. The Museum now has 64,500 members–the greatest number of memberships in Canada–and welcomes over 768,000 visitors per year–the highest attendance in the province of Quebec.

James Blake Wiener is a Director and the Public Relations Manager of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, and interviews with experts in the field. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor of history, James is also a freelance writer who is keenly interested in cross-cultural exchange. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world, James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and hopes that you find his news releases and interviews to be “illuminating.”

All images featured in this interview belong to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and are copyrighted. They have been given to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, as a courtesy, for the purposes of this interview. Photo credit of Ms. Nathalie Bondil is copyrighted by Mr. André Tremblay. The Ancient History Encyclopedia would like to extend a special thank you to Ms. Cecilia Bonn of Cecilia Bonn Marketing and Communications for providing these images in addition to a copy of the exhibition catalogue. Her assistance has made this interview possible. All rights reserved. © AHE 2013.


By James Wiener

James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at Ancient History Encyclopedia. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is chiefly interested in cross-cultural exchange, world history, and international relations. Aside from his work at AHE, James is an avid Arabist, devotee of romance languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish), reggaetoñero, and fan of ice hockey.