Exhibition reveals the richness, diversity and complexity of the Olmec civilisation

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Exhibition reveals the richness, diversity and complexity of the Olmec civilisation
An Olmec monument is displayed at the entrance of the Paris Quai Branly museum on September 29, 2020. This Olmec head, 1200-900 BC, weighs five tons and traveled for the first time outside of the Xalapa museum in Mexico and needs a special installation treatment. The Olmecs were the earliest known major Mesoamerican civilization. Exhibition starts on October 8, 2020. Thomas COEX / AFP

PARIS.- For the first time in Europe, The Olmecs and the civilizations from the Gulf of Mexico exhibit reveals the richness, diversity and complexity of the Olmec civilisation (1600 – 400 B.C.) and numerous other cultures that followed, up until the early 1500 A.D. Starting with the spectacular Olmec, over 300 objects show but a glimpse into the multiplicity of differing artistic traditions, beliefs and languages that thrived in the region bordering the Gulf of Mexico during three millennia.

The ancient Olmec lived and prospered on the coastal lowlands of the southern states of Veracruz and Tabasco. It is there that one finds some of the early examples of village life, urbanisation and monumental earthen architecture. Evidence of long-distance trade and a fully developed art style expressed in large and small-scale sculptures in stones ranging from basalt to jade reveal an established complex society with a sophisticated ideology that left an indelible imprint in the contemporaneous cultures and those that followed.

When the Spanish first arrived on the coast of ancient Mexico, more than twenty different languages were spoken in the region and countless unknown others in the past. This linguistic diversity is expressed in various attempts to create writing systems that for the most part did not persist through time, but disclose its relationships to its near and distant neighbours, like the Maya, Teotihuacan and other cultures. The Gulf coast region was a natural corridor that linked the south to the central Mexican cultures, which is fully evident in the material culture of the many cultures that flourished in the region.

One of the unique traits of the Gulf coast cultures, beginning with the Olmec, is its stone sculpture tradition. Spanning over two millennia the depiction of women and men produced some of the finest examples of ancient Mexican statuary art, shown here with masterpieces from Mexican museums. Aside from their astounding aesthetic merits, they reveal different cultural canons and tenets among the diverse populations: from nakedness to tattooing; from simple loincloths to elaborate accoutrements; from sculptural portraits of the elite to the depiction of mythical images.

The artefacts displayed in this exhibition, originating from nearly 50 distinct archaeological sites, highlight the extraordinary multi-culturalism and dynamic interactions of ancient Mesoamerican cultures during the three millennia before European contact. For example, the section on offerings displays the multi-ethnic societies that inhabited the Gulf coast region. These ritual offerings ranged from those deposited in the natural landscape – closely associated to features such as springwater and hills – while in later times, they are mostly associated with constructed landscapes or related to funerary contexts. Among the most noteworthy items are jade objects, rubber balls, wooden and stone sculptures, ceramic vessels and carved turtle shells.

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