Where do we come from? Where are we going? What happens after death? Myths and religions, philosophers and scientists have sought answers to these existential questions since time immemorial. The answers that people give are very different, but there are also surprising similarities. On the eighth floor of the MAS, as part of the theme Life and Death. Upper World and Underworld, a look is taken at the extraordinary bond between humans and the world of gods, ancestors and spirits.
The exhibition consists of several parts, the last two of which focus on pre-Columbian America on the basis of the Paul and Dora Janssen-Arts collection. This beautifully presents the inextricable link between life and death in cultures in the Americas before their conquest by Europeans.
There is a part of Life and Death. The choice of a thematic approach by the MAS is fully maintained: the more than 400 objects from the renowned Janssen collection are not presented chronologically or geographically, but are part of a storyline. These stories illustrate the point that there were enormous differences between the inhabitants of the American continent, but that their vision of the world around them also exhibits a striking number of similarities. Thus we see how human sacrifices were regarded as essential to ensuring continuity between life and death, and how fertility rituals across the continent took various forms, but were always at the core of the pre-Hispanic way of life. Precious grave goods, often in gold, reflect the importance that all inhabitants of the continent, from Alaska to Chile, attached to the afterlife. Multimedia materials show that this vision is still very much present in contemporary Latin America, although it has been mingled with Catholic traditions.
In the next part of the exhibition, the visitor’s attention shifts: whereas the previous part looked at how people in pre-Columbian America lived and – especially – thought, the final part of the eighth floor analyses how the inhabitants of Europe, from Antwerp to Spain, have looked at the objects from this ‘remote’ continent, from the time of their ‘discovery’ to the present day. Dozens of gold objects tell the story of the conquistadors’ lust for gold in the sixteenth century, and sculptures in ceramics and stone show how artists and collectors from the early twentieth century onwards acquired a feel for the aesthetics of the American objects. Amazing objects in jade, shell, textiles and feathers make it clear how collectors of ‘pre-Columbiana’ like Dora Janssen, became fascinated by the aesthetics and craftsmanship that is so evident in these objects.
We hear from Dora Janssen herself in the exhibition and in this book: she tells of her fascination and love for the beauty of pre-Columbian artefacts. Space is also given in the book for the personal testimony of an ‘Antwerp Venezuelan’, Orlando Verde, who explains how he feels a connection with the entire continent. He also experiences ‘his’ objects as aesthetically attractive, and is proud of his own heritage and the diversity and history of Latin America.
The last objects on the last exhibition floor of the MAS again testify to the scientific work behind exhibitions such as those at the MAS: an object only acquires a voice and a story through the work of anthropologists, historians, archaeologists, art historians and others. In the case of the American continent, this is not always easy: archaeologists take on the challenge of bring the ‘mute’ objects back to life.