PARIS — The latest show at Paris’ Quai Branly museum comes with a warning for visitors: “This exhibition of Moche ceramics shows sexual acts of an explicit nature.”
But the extraordinary and graphic testimonial of the ancient Moche civilization of Peru isn’t about physical pleasure or procreation, according to the curator.
He says the sexual acts evoke the rituals that accompanied the death of dignitaries, and the human sacrifices that went with them. They tell a story about the power of the elite that he says has parallels with modern life.
“Sex, death and sacrifice in the Moche religion,” which opened this week and runs until May 23, brings to Europe for the first time 134 erotic Moche ceramics on loan from the Larco Museum in Lima, Peru.
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The Moche lived on what is now the northern coast of Peru between the first and eighth centuries. The ancient Andean people belonged to one of the first societies to organize itself in a way that would be recognized as a state, constructing cities with elaborate monuments and specialized centers for the production of textiles, metal and ceramics.
Their culture is on display at the anthropological Quai Branly museum, whose recent exhibits include an exploration of the Teotihuacan people of ancient Mexico and a tribute to African literature and culture.
The visitor to the Moche show is asked to look beyond the graphic nature of the exhibits, such as the outsize penis used for pouring liquids, or the grimacing woman being forced to perform oral sex.
Some of the acts are disturbing and violent — but not in the provocative fashion of pornography or some modern artists.
They don’t reflect scenes from ordinary Moche life, the exhibition explains.
Curator Steve Bourget, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has made his career studying the Moche, says he believes they were part of ritual or sacrificial ceremonies — bloodthirsty and wild though strictly controlled affairs.
Some of the ceramics are almost anatomical — the Moche artists have made clear, often in minute detail, the nature of the acts they are depicting.
Both an anthropologist and an archaeologist, Bourget says its only possible to understand such a long-gone culture because “I eat the Moche, I sleep the Moche, I talk to the Moche.”
It’s a relationship that seems to be working out for him.
“The Gods of the Moche seem to like me so they keep letting me find stuff,” he says.
Fifteen years ago he discovered the broken and sex-sated bones of male warriors who’d lain for centuries in a massive sacrificial site.
After the first bodies were discovered, it took archaeologists several days to work out what they had found, but the cut marks on the throats, on the vertebrae, on the neck bones gave it away.
He also found outfits, textiles, and objects similar to those depicted in the ceramics, after which “it’s only a small step” to imagine them performing the sexual rituals.