Amazon To Caribbean At Horniman Museum Explores Vanishing Amerindian Culture

by Kate Smith | 24 October 2005
photo shows jaguar skin belt

A belt made from Jaguar skin - the most revered animal in Amerindian culture, associated with shamans.

Everyone knows how the Caribbean was populated: over three centuries Europeans brought thousands of captured African to work on sugar plantations - and their descendants make up the vast majority of the Caribbean population today. But what about the people who were there before these willing and unwilling invaders? The Horniman's new exhibition looks at the civilisation of the now-almost-vanished Amerindian culture, and in doing so brings a new slant to Caribbean history.

photo shows hassan arero with axe

Dr Hassan Arero, the curator of the exhibition who spent three weeks with the WaiWai in Guyana gathering information for Amazon to Caribbean.

Amerindian culture spread across eastern parts of South America as well as the Caribbean Islands themselves. The culture has now all but disappeared from the islands, but still exists in pockets in South America. The still living Amerindians include the WaiWai of Guyana whose artefacts are at the heart of this exhibition.

The objects on display at once give a social history of Amerindian life and a natural history of the surrounding area. Necklaces are made of delicate pink fish scales or jaguar teeth; hair tubes for long Amerindian plaits from bundles of skin and feathers; food preparation materials and stools from wood; aprons are made from seed shells and later from beads. The neon feathers of local birds made brilliant ceremonial decorations. Everything is made from the ephemera of nature, and could hardly be more fragile.

photo shows jaguar teeth necklace

A jaguar teeth necklace.

The exhibition also describes the strong spirituality that is threaded through every object, however everyday its purpose. Baskets are frequently woven with an anaconda motif. Men's bags are decorated with local narratives and myths to do with animals - squirrels, frogs, fishes, scorpions, jaguars. (There are also African patterns - introduced by a group of Africans who escaped slavery and joined the Amerindians in the forest, never to be recaptured.) The Amerindians saw themselves as part of a "Layered Universe" of the sky, earth and underworld. Among the Amerindians of Venezuela, the sky was associated with men, jaguars, birds and the shaman. The earth was associated with the village and community, animals and spirits. The underworld represented women, murky waters, the anaconda, amphibians and other water dwelling animals.

Today there are less than 300 WaiWai left in Guyana and they have abandoned many of their ancient practises. But a new land agreement signed in 2004 gives hope that the tribe will be able to survive into the future. Their words are only fleetingly recorded in the material on display - it would be good to hear more about their perspective on their history.

photo shows feather headdress

A headdress made of the brilliant feathers of South American parrots.

The fragility of the material here calls for slightly dimmed lights and intensive conservation, but there are also activity corners for children, and the atmosphere is far from solemn. On the Saturday I visited the museum was alive with both children making things, and adults engrossed in this enlightening and ultimately uplifting exhibition. For anyone concerned with the history and spirit of the Caribbean, this is essential viewing.

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