The Indigenous Art Collection at Butler University
The term indigenous is derived from the Latin word indigena, and is translated as “to be born in.” Indigenous art, therefore, is defined as native and local art specific to the ethnic groups and civilizations that inhabited an area first. In terms of dating the objects in this collection, the art displayed here can also be described as Pre-Columbian. This term refers to the time period of the Americas before the arrival of renowned explorer Christopher Columbus in 1492. Pre-Columbian also designates the numerous cultures and visual arts of the people who inhabited North, Central, and South America, and the Caribbean during this time. The smaller indigenous populations of this area were either conquered by larger civilizations, such as the Mayan or Aztec nations, or by the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors. Illness or food shortage were factors of civilization extinction.
The Pre-Columbian, indigenous artists who created these works of art were respected members of society who often lived in the royal palaces of their respective civilizations. They worked in a wide variety of mediums, including paint, textiles, clay, wood, and stone. While much of this indigenous art is thought to be utilitarian, it is believed that the art also had a religious or ritualistic aspect, especially in regard to these cultures’ respect of ancestors. These artifacts were often buried with the dead in order to accompany them in the afterlife. Historical documentation of this time period is seldom found. Only written recollections from early explorers and conquistadors give us a glimpse of what these indigenous cultures were like. Many of these ancient civilizations did not have writing systems, so the visual art they created expressed their traditions, religion, and everyday life.
The objects in Butler University’s collection of indigenous art are made of terracotta, or baked clay. The pottery wheel had not been invented yet, and the artists mainly worked by hand or with the help of pre-fashioned molds to create the vessels, bowls, instruments, and decorative figures seen here. Some of the objects include painted decoration or carved incising. They were fired at varying temperatures to create their numerous earthen color varieties.
c. 900 BCE–1470 AD
The Peruvian Chimú culture is well known for its ancient capital’s palace at Chan Chan, now deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Chimú artists were granted the honor of living at the expansive palace that covered more than eight square miles. The Chimú rulers employed thousands of artists and craftsmen for the purpose of creating luxury objects to demonstrate the civilization’s power and prestige throughout South America. This pottery was both utilitarian and also elevated the status of the Chimú elite. Many objects were given as gifts to conquered nobles to ensure cooperation under their new rule.
In terms of artistic decoration of ceramics, the Chimú worked solely with monochromatic colors, such as this blackware pitcher. The shiny gray-black finish of this object was achieved by firing the pottery at a very high temperature in a closed kiln, which prevented oxygen from reacting with the clay. The shapes of the vessels made by Chimú artists were often varied. Animal-, food-, and human-shaped vessels were fashioned from molds made by the Chimú artists. Decorative incising was added to give the vessels additional character, such as the eyes and feathers that appear on this duck. In Chimú culture, the duck is a highly revered bird, and often appears as decoration on vessels and on human figurines wearing duck masks and feathers.
Ancient terracotta objects are often worn due to lack of preservation and the perishable nature of the clay. Many of the artifacts that remain today are from the looting and destroying of ancestral tombs by conquistadors, who seized anything deemed valuable and destroyed objects that were thought to be sacrilegious. Trade merchants from Pre-Columbian times and later excavations of these indigenous tombs have protected the majority of the remaining artifacts.
These indigenous artworks were gifted to the University by various donors in the 1970s and 1980s. They were featured on display at the former Eiteljorg Gallery, a three-room exhibition space in the Atherton Union, with a primary purpose to serve as a teaching collection to accompany academic offerings in art history from 1978 to 1988. The objects were included in the “Art of the Americas” display, which also featured Native American art from the Plains and Southwest regions. After the closure of the Eiteljorg Gallery, the objects were housed in the Diversity Center. Butler University is proud to be able to showcase these indigenous objects for students, faculty, alumni, and the public to enjoy.