The Portal to Unity between Nature and Humanity

View of the exhibition Portable Universe: Thought and Splendour of Indigenous Colombia at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Photo MMFA, Jean-François Brière

Collaboration between museums and Indigenous communities offers a step toward a new way of displaying sacred objects.

Thought and Splendour of Indigenous Colombia: Portable Universe is a collaborative exhibition organized by five museums in the United States, Canada, and Colombia in dialogue with the Arhuaco community of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region of Northern Colombia. The active inclusion of the Arhuaco community in this exhibition’s organization intentionally puts forth an indigenous perspective of the world, allowing viewers to witness each object through the lens of the culture from which they came. This decision provides a richer understanding of the intentions behind each piece and creates a cross-cultural dialogue through which knowledge can be equally exchanged. 

The exhibition opens up with a didactic wall text that provides an overview of how the perspective of Indigenous people enriches present-day society through a timeless sensibility. There is no beginning or end for the objects collected here,  for their inherent spirit traverses time and space. Upon entering the gallery, the viewers encounter the “Votive figure (Tunjo)”, which is a sculpture shaped like a man seated in the basket position. Through the gesture of the figure’s connected hands, this piece provides a glimpse into one of the major themes of the exhibition—the circularity and timelessness of indigenous thought. A selection of contemporary artwork at the end of the exhibition rounds out the show by reinforcing the timeless notion of nature as a respected and valued part of humanity.

The curators refused to organize the display according to a linear timeline. This choice encourages the visitors to connect with the pieces’ functional role and the intentions of the creator rather than inserting them into a canonical order. Consequently, the viewer focuses on the lessons embedded in each piece regarding the relationship humans share with nature and their symbiotic roles.

View of the exhibition Portable Universe: Thought and Splendour of Indigenous Colombia at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Photo MMFA, Jean-François Brière

Considering nature as our extended family and respecting it is another recurring theme of the exhibition. The importance of the natural world in Indigenous communities shows through their sacred practices. The exhibition opens a discussion that calls into question the Western view of nature as a resource to use and exploit and encourages viewers to consider the Indigenous view of nature as our shared home that must be respected and protected. 

Each room in the exhibition is curated according to a different theme in order to emphasize an important aspect of the Arhuaco culture. Video projectors, images and soundscapes throughout the exhibition remind visitors of the natural sights and sounds that are significant and sacred in the practices of the Indigenous communities of Colombia. These practices focus on the principles of creation and imitation of natural elements. Video projections serve as extended narratives and insert a sensorial and human element into the gallery space. 

The exhibition is located in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and will be open to the public until October 1st, 2023. 

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