In this single masterful ceramic, one of two in the Met’s collection (see also MMA 1986.383.2), an Inca artist summarized the life cycle of corn, from sowing to harvest to its conversion into aqha, or beer, one of the most important elements in the ritual life of Andean communities. The lower part was modeled as a chaquitaqlla, a pointed foot plow used to till the soil, complete with a handle strapped to the shaft, of a type still in use today by traditional farmers in the Andes.
The top of the plough was rendered as an ear of corn, devoid of its husk, and symbolizing the harvest. Compared with the stylized depictions of this plant in other Andean ceramics (e.g., 1989.62.1), this ear, with its winding rows of plump and desiccated kernels, appears to have been modeled after a real ear, transforming an organic and perishable body into a mineral, durable material. The size of this ear of corn seems small compared to today’s standards, but it was a standard size at the height of the Inca Empire.
The ear of corn is connected to a jar with a flaring rim, a type known as as urpu, used by the Inca as a container to store corn beer. Large urpus, such as those in the collection of Museo de Arte de Lima (IV-2.0-0031 or IV-2.0-0032) or in the collection of the Museo Inca in Cusco, were used to serve beer at public gatherings, whereas smaller versions, such as MMA 1979.206.1094, were used in propitiatory offerings to Mother Earth, known as Pachamama. Because each of these activities—sowing, harvesting, and preparing beer—were carried out in different seasons, this sculpture also reflects different moments of the agricultural calendar.
By the early sixteenth century, much of western South America was part of the Inca Empire, called Tahuantinsuyo, "the realm of the four parts," in Quechua. Artists in Cuzco, the imperial capital, developed an imperial style, and works such as the present example were part of campaigns to extend and impose Inca ritual practice throughout the Andes. This sculpture, and the symbolism of corn beer, can be understood as part of a complex narrative about water. According to Inca cosmology, the world is surrounded by water. The Milky Way, which is clearly visible in the clear skies of the Andean mountains, is thought of as a river that crosses the sky. With every rain, water flows into the earth, forming rivers that reach the sea, the Mamaqucha. From there, water rises again, feeding the sky, and continuing a never-ending cycle. During its transit through the world, water impregnates the land and sustains life. The Incas made explicit the importance of water flow in their landscapes, through the construction of ritual canals, but also in rituals in which vessels such as the present example would be deployed. When aqha is poured in through the opening at the top of the urpu, it flows through the plough and ultimately out of the vessel onto the ground, impregnating the liquid with vital force, and symbolically completing both the cycle of corn and water in a single act.
Hugo C. Ikehara-Tsukayama, Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial/Collection Specialist Fellow, Arts of the Ancient Americas, 2022
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