Arts + Culture

Fowler Museum presents ceramics and gold from precolonial Colombia

Exhibition showcases the rich cultures of an ancient world

Fowler Now Gold L2015.3

Nose ornament from the Tairona peoples, Colombia, 900–1600 CE. Gold. Private collection.

The Fowler Museum at UCLA is currently showing “Encountering Ancient Colombia — A Journey through the Magdalena Valley,” a selection of rare ceramic objects from the Magdalena Valley in Colombia. Drawn primarily from the Muñoz Kramer Collection of ancient Colombian ceramics at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, these works include fascinating vessels and sculptural forms, many never exhibited before. A small number of breathtaking gold objects from a private collection are also included. Most of these works have been separated from their original archaeological contexts, challenging us to try to reconstruct their origins from the available evidence.

The reconstruction of Colombia’s ancient past involves the work of archaeologists, ethnographers, art historians and historians — each discipline illuminating different facets of a vanished world. As visitors make their way through the exhibition, they will find quotations from 16th-century Spanish chroniclers and the insights of 20th-century ethnographers presented alongside the objects. Each display case invites visitors to consider how we know what we think we know about these objects and the peoples who made them. The installation seeks to question our knowledge of the ancient objects on view and to illustrate the world of precolonial Colombia. 

One particularly compelling section of the installation explores the important theme of supernatural or hybrid beings in art associated with the Tairona culture. Objects in this section show animals with human features and humans with animal attributes. Using a combination of historical sources and ethnographic research, we now understand such figures to represent shamanic practices, in particular transformation and divination. In the Americas shamans are generally distinguished by their ability to travel out of their bodies in spirit forms. Ceramic and gold representations of figures with animal appendages or attributes appear to depict the moment of actual transformation.

Another section focuses on objects associated with death and burial practices in the middle Magdalena Valley. A large proportion of ancient Colombian objects, including many of the ceramic and gold pieces on display, were most likely found in tombs. The reasons for their inclusion in burials are varied: Some were containers filled with food and drink to sustain the deceased on his or her journey to the afterlife; others were personal belongings; still others may have been made especially for burial, to act as companions, guides, or protectors. Urns also were made to contain the bones and ashes of the deceased. The exhibition features a large and dramatic burial urn from the area. Archaeological evidence strongly suggests that the urns were used for burial, but many questions about their use and decoration remain.

“Encountering Ancient Colombia” is a collaboration between the Fowler and LACMA and was organized by Julia Burtenshaw, a postdoctoral curatorial fellow at LACMA. It will be on view through January 3, 2016.

The Muñoz Kramer Collection was acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as a shared resource for LACMA and the Fowler as part of an ongoing collaborative collections/exhibitions initiative. A selection of works from the Muñoz Kramer collection is concurrently on display at LACMA in the exhibition Ancient Colombia: A Journey through the Cauca Valley, on view through April 10, 2016.

The Fowler Museum at UCLA is one of the country’s most respected institutions devoted to exploring the arts and cultures of Africa, Asia and the Pacific, and the Americas. The Fowler is open Wednesdays through Sundays, from noon to 5 p.m.; and on Thursdays, from noon until 8 p.m. The museum is closed Mondays and Tuesdays. The Fowler Museum, part of UCLA Arts, is located in the north part of the UCLA campus. Admission is free. Parking is available for a maximum of $12 in Lot 4. For more information, the public may call 310-825-4361 or visit


Ancient Colombia: Heritage, Gold and a Lost City
Saturday, November 14, 10:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m.
LACMA’s Brown Auditorium (map)

In conjunction with two exhibitions on ancient Colombia at the Fowler and LACMA, this off-site program at LACMA features presentations by distinguished scholars who explore the rich history and development of Colombian art and archaeology.  A free round-trip shuttle to the Fowler from LACMA will be available at 1:30 p.m. To reserve a spot on the shuttle, contact Co-presented by LACMA and the UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology.

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