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Chicha for two

November 16, 1532, is a day that, for Tom Cummins, lives in infamy. On that date the conquistador Francisco Pizarro met the Inca king Atahualpa in what is present-day Peru. Life for the Incas was never the same. The next 40 years saw continuous resistance against Spanish rule, and within a century the native population was decimated by war, pestilence, and the hardships of forced labor. A Catholic church intent on washing the New World clean of idolatry suppressed centuries-old Incan religious rituals, and Atahualpa's sovereign people became colonial beings.

PHOTO:  Cummins dons his historian's hat to study the role of sacred cups in past and present Andean societyTo Cummins, professor of art history, what happened that day still carries weight in Peru's native society. The encounter, he writes in his forthcoming book Toasts with the Inca (University of Michigan, 2001), "is the crucial moment of historical possibilities" that would set the tone for Spanish-Incan relations. On the one hand, as Spanish accounts of the meeting relate, Atahualpa threw Pizarro's Bible to the ground, offending the conquistador and leading to a slaughter that ended with Atahualpa in chains. On the other hand, a little-known first-person account-by the king's nephew-describes an earlier iconoclastic act, this one by Pizarro. When offered a ceremonial drinking vessel of the Incan drink chicha, the conquistador poured it out on the ground.

Pizarro's act, which Cummins relates in his book, sparked an unprecedented transformation in Incan society and, since the two are intertwined, its art. Pizarro desecrated a quero, a cup always produced and used in pairs for weddings and other social alliances, agricultural ceremonies, feasts, and before the Conquest, religious rites. Though the cup offered to Pizarro was likely made of gold, most queros were wooden, carved with abstract geometric patterns inlaid with a resinous gum. Offering a drink in a quero, writes Cummins, is "an act ritual in nature but with such strong political, social, religious, and material underpinnings" that its sacrilege becomes, in the nephew's account, a metaphor for "the undoing of imperial Inca cultural and social forms."

Queros are still used in Andean society for festivals and ceremonies and are passed down through families via wills or, in recent years, rented if families don't have queros of their own. "The cups represent a pattern of relatedness in Andean society," says Cummins during a conversation in his sunny second-floor office in the Cochrane-Woods Art Center. "You always need both to complete a ceremony, because they are of the same thing. They're constructed from the same block of wood, and they represent two halves that are also binary oppositions-the hanan and the huri, the right and the left, the high and the low, the male and the female. One is larger than the other, but both are absolutely necessary."

That the quero survived Spanish rule-which is, in and of itself, a remarkable thing, considering its primary role in Incan spiritual life-is not what fascinates Cummins. Rather, he is intrigued by how the images on the quero, and the use of the object itself, changed after the Conquest. The art historian, the crown of his head spotted by the Andean sun and a gray pony tail dangling down the nape of his neck, has been traveling to Peru since 1982 to study the quero, converse in Quechua with its native users, and pore over official documents with references to the object. The cup was the topic of his 1988 dissertation in pre-Columbian art history at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has examined thousands of queros, and the impact of the Conquest, he says, is plain to see in the images carved into their sides.

Before Pizarro the abstract geometric motifs on queros were meant to release the "articulated power, or camay, of the object itself," he says, which, for the Spanish, constituted idolatry. In the late 1500s the Spanish abolished Indian autonomy and outlawed the use of queros except for purely secular functions. Around 1600 the patterns that had adorned the objects for at least 1,500 years were suddenly replaced by pictorial imagery, first in the form of animals such as snakes, lizards, and spiders, all of which have magical powers in Incan mythology, and later in the form of human figures, usually dressed in archaic Incan costume and often depicted drinking from a quero. Until then, Cummins points out, pictorial imagery was strictly a Spanish and European mode of art.

"So the question for me has been, What does a picture do that abstraction doesn't, at a time when we have tremendous social and political disarticulation of Indian society?" Cummins leans back in his chair, but his answer pushes forward. "It instantiates memory and reinforces the social organization of Indian communities."

The queros took on a dual life, becoming both licit and illicit. The human figures represent Andean ancestors, he says, and the ritualistic use of the object-even if for what is on the surface purely a legal or social occasion-provides a personal connection with the past. "What is lost with the Conquest is that which is inherently understood in Incan society. Social forms that had operated without question suddenly became questioned. The pictures became a way for the quero to remain integral to society while also being integrated into colonial life"-all of which was fine enough in the Spanish view. "But is it still religious? Absolutely. Absolutely."

Cummins describes his book as a biography of an object in Andean life before and after the Conquest, and it is part of a string of research in which he is exploring how Andean art and society changed when conquistadors claimed for themselves a New World and brought with them new modes of art, such as pictorial imagery, and communication, including the written word. Studying the transformation of art during the colonial period, believes Cummins, reveals much about contemporary Latin American art.

"You need this sense of history," he says, "to understand why Latin America has such a remarkable and varied but conflicted artistic legacy." Almost five centuries after that November meeting, he argues, there is still much to mourn, and learn, from a cup of spilled chicha.- S.A.S.

  AUGUST 2001

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