Montréal, April 19, 2017 – Pointe-à-Callière, the Montréal Archaeology and History Complex, is proud to present Amazonia. The Shaman and the Mind of the Forest, a journey along the fabled Amazon River, a voyage through the heart of the Earth’s largest forest, and a fabulous introduction to the history of the Indigenous peoples living in these little-known places.
Adapted by Pointe-à-Callière from an original concept by the Musée d’ethnographie de Genève (MEG) and with the participation of the Royal Museums of Art and History (RMAH), Brussels, the exhibition features over 500 remarkable objects from some thirty different ethnic groups, from nine countries in the Amazon basin. For the first time, the unique and fragile splendours of amazing Amazonia are on display in Montréal!
An evocative name
Amazonia. The name alone summons up images of vast greenery, powerful rivers and spectacular birds. But the reality is infinitely more beautiful… and worrying: close to one-fifth of the Amazonian forest has already been destroyed. And since the European conquest in the 16th century, Indigenous cultures and territories have been invaded. Their story remains largely unknown, however: societies with no written language, in a natural environment in which even the slightest material trace quickly fades, for a long time the local Indigenous peoples had only spoken words to pass down their histories. Starting in the 16th century, fortunately, Europeans turned to tracing their histories, and many ethnographers later managed to document them using objects, photos and films.
Extraordinary cultural diversity
The exhibition focuses on what is common to these many peoples – shamanism – and on the extraordinary diversity of their material culture. The objects come from different communities dotted across the vast forested territory, comprising parts or all of Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Surinam, Guyana and French Guiana.
Shimmering feathered finery, sets of ceremonial masks and diadems, blowguns, bows and curare-tipped arrows, vases, basketry, musical instruments and items required by shamans in their use of hallucinogens, the objects presented in the exhibition illustrate the customs of Indigenous cultures as they have been observed from the 18th to the 21st centuries, drawing on the rich collections of partner museums. Photographs and films are also important parts of the exhibition, portraying many different aspects of Amazonian peoples.
The flowing river
As they step into the exhibition room, visitors will be charmed and intrigued by an installation that uses projections of films and archival photos to create the illusion of constantly flowing water on a surface covering much of the room.
The exhibition takes a historical approach, moving on to the 16th century, as European powers like Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands and England landed in the New World, initiating one of history’s longest and bloodiest conquests. The Amazonian countries gained their independence in the 19th century, but the fate of the local peoples did not markedly improve, for the new nations began to colonize the forest to serve economic ends. Today, while certain “uncontacted” groups avoid all interaction with “neo-Amazonians,” many Indigenous peoples lead sedentary lives, mixing traditions with modernity.
Beyond reality: shamanism
For traditional Amazon societies, the world reaches far beyond the realm we know. One section of the exhibition deals with shamanism: like a mediator, the shaman can cross into the other universe, unmask the true nature of concealed beings and communicate with the unknowable. Many items in the shaman’s array, allowing him to enter a trance, are displayed: pipes, inhalers, snuffing paraphernalia, various kinds of tobacco and necklaces, rattles and herbarium plates. It is explained how by drinking or inhaling hallucinogenic or psychotropic substances, the shaman enters an altered state. He leaves his body, travels through parallel universes, takes new forms, communicates with other species and sees, hears and feels all that mortals cannot.
A treasure for all of humanity
Then the exhibition immerses visitors in the dense Amazonian forest, allowing them to imagine all its natural splendours. They will be entranced not only by actual sounds recorded in the forest, but also by sound tales created from original recordings of different Amazonian peoples. For Indigenous Amazonians, music and different sounds are ways for humans, spirits and animals to communicate with one another. These tales evoke ancient myths, spirits in rituals, initiation ceremonies or simply everyday activities. Bathed by the Amazon and its tributaries, subject to frequent natural flooding, the Amazonian forest has the most biodiversity on earth – a treasure for all of humanity. Over 40,000 plant species (up to 4,000 per hectare), more than 220 fish species, 1,300 bird species and almost 450 mammal species, not to mention all the insects, have been identified! In this part of the exhibition, visitors will also meet about fifteen different Amazonian peoples.
The exhibition ends in a setting recalling a Xabono house, common to Yanomami Indians, with an impressive collection of some 20 ceremonial masks on loan from the RMAH. The Mehinako Atuxuá masks, an exceptional and unique collection, were used in ceremonies to recover stolen souls.
Spectacular and intriguing objects
Many Amazonian birds have brightly coloured plumage, offering exceptional material that Indigenous peoples use for symbolic purposes. So it is no surprise that many of the key items in the exhibition contain feathers. A masterpiece in the Musée d’ethnographie de Genève’s collection, an olok-apo high double mask from Brazil, is a spectacular and exceedingly rare headpiece made with the feathers of seven bird species. Also from Brazil, a fabulous cara grande mask represents the face of the enemy. It was made with tapirage, a technique requiring particular skill. Practised on live birds, tapirage involves plucking the bird and irritating its surface skin by, for example, applying venom from a frog’s back mixed with achiote juice.
An exceptional collection of four Mehinako Atuxuá masks from the RMAH is also sure to impress. The Mehinako people believe that the spirits of the forest, water and air can make villagers ill by stealing their soul, and devour their victims. Most rituals are therefore meant to appease them. One of these ceremonies is known as Atuxuá, which aims to return a stolen soul.
With a human face modeled on their necks, joni chomo vases may have been used to store water or the manioc and corn beers for ritual feasts. They are also on loan from the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels. Arrows, spears and fearsome blowguns are displayed, too. A giant blowgun from the MEG, measuring over 3 metres, projects a dart an impressive distance. The dart is small but deadly, as it is coated in curare. A tsantsa, literally meaning shrunken head, once prepared by the Jivaro and coveted by Westerners collecting curiosities, is also very rare.
Amazonia. The Shaman and the Mind of the Forest is an exhibition produced by the Musée d’ethnographie de Genève and adapted by Pointe-à-Callière, with the participation of the Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels (RMAH). Pointe-à-Callière extends its sincere thanks to its main museum partners for their unflagging co-operation: at the MEG, Boris Wastiau, Executive Director and Commissioner of the exhibition in Geneva, and Philippe Mathez, Project Director; at the RMAH, Alexandra de Poorter, Executive Director and Serge Lemaitre, Curator, Collections from the Americas. Pointe-à-Callière also wishes to thank its sponsors: Air Canada Cargo, InterContinental Montréal, Tourisme Montréal and La Presse. A CD with the sound tales played in the exhibition is available in the Museum Shop. The exhibition will run from April 20 to October 22, 2017.
Pointe-à-Callière is subsidized by the City of Montréal.
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