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Vessels reveal the intricacies of eighth-century Maya life, lore and courtly intrigue
Maya, Vase with Seated Lord with Rattle, ca. 725–735, detail. BAMW photography.

PRINCETON, NJ.- Dancing into Dreams: Maya Vase Painting of the Ik’ Kingdom offers an intimate glimpse into a world rich with courtly intrigue, portrayed on exquisitely painted eighth-century chocolate drinking cups from a Maya center located in present-day Guatemala. Complementing the Princeton University Art Museum’s important holdings of Ik’ vessels with loans of select masterpieces from other collections, this exhibition both elucidates the politics and dynastic history of the Ik’ kingdom and reveals the vital role of master artists in these schemes.

Ik’ vessels comprise an extraordinary and sophisticated history of artistic achievement. During a brief period of time from 700 to 800 C.E., in a discrete locale in the Central Maya lowlands, a critical mass of aesthetic and social trends nurtured a flourishing artistic culture. Artists enjoyed exceptional creative license to develop personal styles while adhering to the tenets of regional and local conventions (as well as the whims of royal patrons). Several artists made their individual contributions to courtly visual culture and to inter-kingdom politics more explicit by signing their creations, a practice instituted in the ancient Americas only among the Maya of this region.

These works often commemorated shared rituals and rites of passage and include descriptions of people, events, games, sport, local wildlife and lore in elegant imagery and calligraphic writing. Recent scholarly breakthroughs in the decoding of these hieroglyphs make it possible to determine both their ceremonial uses and much about the people involved in their production, including royal patrons and noble artists. According to exhibition curator Bryan R. Just, Ph.D., Peter Jay Sharp, Class of 1952, Curator and Lecturer in the Art of the Ancient Americas, “This breathes new life and touchingly evocative personality into these ancient works of art and the people who made, inspired and used them.” Because the works were largely designed for viewing in social settings, they provide a compelling window on human interaction within a complex and sophisticated culture that flourished for millennia before Europeans arrived in the Americas.

Maya painters of the Ik’ kingdom experimented intensely with realistic representation, often departing from the broader Maya tradition of the idealization of faces and bodies to capture individualized portraits. They employed pigments in technically sophisticated ways, producing naturalistic coloration and line work that depict accurate body proportions, evoke figural mass, and suggest graceful and subtle movement. The formal similarities among these vessels both suggest that they were produced by artists who had regular contact with each other and reflect a keen sense of their audiences. They share a regional style and aesthetic—a contention supported by new epigraphic and archaeological research.

“The Ik’ kingdom was the nexus of a very special moment in ancient Maya art history,” Just says, “Unlike most Maya kingdoms, where one all-powerful king ruled, multiple Ik’ kings seem to have shared that role. More kings required more artists to make fine objects for them. This in turn nurtured artistic competition, innovation and sometimes emulation.”

Due to the durability of ceramics and their employment of storytelling through glyphs and images, they represent a compelling form of documentary evidence of the cultural, artistic and linguistic riches of the Maya people. The Ik’ kingdom vessels bear testament to the society’s relationship to art, ritual, social interaction and political succession, as well as to the tastes, aspirations and foibles of the ruling classes through the eyes of the artists who so intently observed them.

Dancing into Dreams also offers an intriguing vantage point from which to consider archaeological practice over time—the practical and ethical challenges that confront each generation of scholars, collectors, museum curators and public audiences hungry for insight into lost worlds, their visual splendors and what they can teach us.

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