The New World was Old: The Pre-Columbian Arts of the Muisca
Unbeknownst to the 15th century Europeans arriving in the Americas long-established and sophisticated civilisations awaited them. These civilisations had prospered for millennia in both North and South America, but most lucratively in the swathe in between, spanning from present day New Mexico to Chile.
Although the Aztec, Incan, Mayan and, occasionally, Olmec hold the spotlight of popular culture countless other cultures existed within these lands. The Muisca are one such example, holding a rich history and culture of art and religion quite distinct from their neighbours. Inhabiting the Altiplano Cundiboyacense, a high plateau located in the Eastern Cordillera of the Colombian Andes—in modern day Colombia—they held a territory of approximately 25,000km2.
However, besieged by Spanish invasion, the Muisca, along with the vast majority of natives, were doomed to fail. Ravaged by the colonisers and the foreign diseases they brought with them, the Muisca’s last sovereign was executed in 1540, condemning their civilisation to the annals of history.
However, centuries later, one of the few remnants of their civilisation is their art, which have become prised treasures scattered throughout museums around the globe. This art retains a lot about their culture and way of life, giving us an incredible look back to, and beyond, 500 years ago.
The Arts of the Muisca
While the Muisca are commonly agreed to have become a unified civilisation around 800AD, the earliest art found in the Eastern Cordillera has been traced back several millennia. Interestingly, these works, mainly consisting of rock art (petrographs and petroglyphs) and rudimentary goldwork, contains the essence of styles which were still present in Muisca art of the 15th century.
In most early cultures petrographs and petroglyphs hold an illusive purpose—suggested as both informational and recreational—Muisca rock art is no different. Often found to represent their deities, flora and fauna, abstract motives and anthropomorphic or anthropo-zoomophic elements it is clear that these arts were multifaceted. Potentially mapping out local areas, providing information about how and what to hunt or gather but, just as frequently, representing the mythological understandings of the ancient world.
While Aztec, Mayan and Incan architecture was exuberantly grand—in the form of pyramids, stelae and stone cities—Muisca structures were far more understated. The modest buildings of the Muisca were generally made from degradable materials such as wood, clay and reed, built atop raised foundations to prevent damage from floods. As such, whatever impressive structures the Muisca did create, have been lost to time.
The Muisca’s most renowned and lasting arts pertain to their mastery of gold. The pinnacle of Muisca goldwork is displayed in the famed Muisca raft, a small, ornate 20cm long golden raft thought to be depicting the culture’s legend of El Dorado. On the raft sits a chieftain-to-be, in their journey to become the next leader. But this legend is not all fable, instead this was an actual ceremony undertaken by the Muisca at Lake Guatavita, whenever a new chieftain (zipa) was to be appointed.
But the Muisca’s goldwork was not reserved only for the highest powers. Tunjos, small gold figurines used as small votive offering, were produced in great quantities. These golden mostly anthropomorphic, but very occasionally zoomorphic, figurines were formed from tumbaga an alloy of gold, copper and silver. They are thought to have served three purposes; as offerings in rituals denoted by the Muisca religion, as pieces in funerary practices or as decoration of sacred places. Although the golden Tunjo were reserved for these religious practices, ceramic versions were common in people’s homes.
In their original expeditions, Spanish colonists reported the widespread use of Tunjos , and tracing the persistence of these anthropomorphic icons through the centuries is clear evidence that Muisca religious practices were still alive, despite the intensive catholic conversion policies of the colonisers.
Like the regions tendency for goldwork, the origin of Eastern Cordillera ceramics far outdates the Muisca people. But the Muisca kept the tradition alive, mainly through functional objects for tasks like cooking, retaining liquids, eating, the extraction of salt and other useful practices. However ceramics quickly bled into more decorative objects used for ritual practices, becoming adorned with zoomorphic images of animals found within Muisca territories.
Far more complex ceramics, such as masks and musical instruments, were also common place which, again, played significant roles in religious ceremonies.
Developing most of their textiles from the abundant fique and cotton, clothing, again, played a mainly functional role with colourful, decorative mantles being the most notable item of clothing. Obtaining various complex dyes from seeds and minerals, colours were applied to mantles using pencils, weaving dyed threads or using stamps.
But, as with most objects, the mantle had a higher meaning. According to Muisca mythology, the culture of mantle-making is said to have been taught to the Muisca by the legendary figure Bochica. While the god Nencatacoa protected mantle makers and artists. Imbuing the practice with more symbolic importance.
Textiles also played a unique part in Muisca life, beyond function and art, as small textiles functioned as the civilisation’s currency.
While mantles played a hugely symbolic role in wearable arts, jewellery is thought to have had a larger importance in denoting status. Countless types existed, formed from gold, gemstones and other precious materials. Diadems, nose pieces, breast plates, earrings, pendants, tiaras, bracelets and masks are the most commonly found forms of Jewellery which still remain.
Although the Muisca society is thought to be a predominantly egalitarian one, Guecha warriors, priests and chieftains wore multiple types of jewellery, while common people wore fewer, suggesting that jewellery was an important marker of a person’s place within the culture.
While most of the forms we have mentioned so far, bar architecture, withstand the test of time, body art is infamously ephemeral. However it is thought that the Muisca, as with neighbouring cultures, used tattooing as a common artistic practice to express identity, faith and even, potentially, present historical information. They most commonly used Bixa orellana (Achiote) as the pigment for such tattoos.
The Function of Muiscan Art
As we have seen by surveying a variety of Muiscan arts, the purpose of art objects is manifold, and two clear categories emerge.
Firstly, we have the category of functional objects which, due to their creative, artistic embellishments, have accrued value as artistic objects over time. This includes objects such as embellished cooking ceramics. However, many objects have proven to hold much deeper cultural meanings, such as ceramics and textiles being used in religious, mythological or cultural ceremonies, Tunjo’s being used as offerings and trinkets and mantles and jewellery to denote personal identity.
As such, the function of Muiscan arts closely resembles that of many other cultures’ arts—often bridging the gap between functional and ideological objects.
It is hard to determine exactly who created art in Muiscan society, although it is clear through deities such as Nencatacoa that it was the work of artisans. In such a way, it is unlikely that Muiscan arts were sponsored or commissioned by individual benefactors as was (and is) commonplace in European arts. Instead, given both the functional nature of most artistic goods and the mass production of textiles and Tunjos, it is likely that artisans represented a much more fundamental part of the social structure. While the final portion of arts centred solely on religious ceremony and practice would have, most likely, been produced by devout individuals and priests in the interest of good faith.
However, given the lack of evidence denoting Muiscan social structure, individual duties and the overall internal value of artistic or artisanal products, one cannot say for sure who created the vibrant and complex arts of the Muiscan people, or exactly why they did.
A Eurocentric Tale
With this in mind, it is important to acknowledge the fact that much contemporary knowledge of Muiscan life, culture are reliant on colonial accounts riddled with biases, misconceptions and misattributions. Their main conquistador Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada and priest, Juan de Castellanos, provide the foundations for later practitioners but, of course, a story told by a colonial European is a story told from the outside in.
After the independence wars of 1810, interest in Muiscan culture surged, with White Colombians establishing their capital in Bogotá, the former viceroyal city and capital of the Muiscan confederation. Although this event benefitted the understanding of Muiscan culture greatly, an overemphasis on their culture resulted in the overlooking of other native nations who were simply disregarded as wild people. This resulted in countless archeological findings being misattributed to the Muisca.
These turns of events have made the bedrock of Muiscan archaeology untrustworthy due to ulterior motivations. As such, when surveying Muiscan art, or any other art native to the pre-colonial Americas, we must be immeasurably careful not to regurgitate the propagandistic twists European settlers have prescribed to it. This immediately brings to mind Walter Benjamin’s famous idiom “there is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism”.
In such a way, we should even reconsider the term pre-Columbian as a Eurocentric, colonial term which places traditional native arts in direct opposition, and thus direct dialogue, with European traditions. This othering is, in many ways, as detrimental to the analysis of the art as much as the early White Colombian’s venerating of Muiscan culture.
Muiscan Contemporary Art
That said, in the centre of Bogotá the historic production of tunjos is still active, emulating the exact methods the Musican people used centuries ago to craft the votive offerings. Murals, notably in Bosa, are still crafted with depict native deities. With various Colombians devoted to keeping these long forgotten traditions alive, the value and function of Muiscan art becomes clear, even if it was unclear at its inception. The art, to this day, retains the fragments of a bold, advanced culture, and allows its traditions, values and beliefs to live on—both as a window into the past, and as a way to recontextualise our turbulent present.