When my father told me our family was traveling to Peru, I had certain expectations. I expected to hike among the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu, to gush over the fluffiness of the alpacas and llamas, to get a million mosquito bites in the Amazon Rainforest, to eat exotic foods and to haggle in embarrassingly broken Spanish at local markets.
I did not, however, expect to see the world’s largest collection of erotic pottery. But when I walked down the pathway leading from Museo Arqueológico Rafael Larco Herrera’s main building to its supplementary structure at the bottom of a hill and stepped into the brightly lit exhibition hall, there was no denying it. Whether or not I had been expecting it (or was prepared for it), I was gazing upon millennia-old pottery depicting, in vivid detail, a multitude of sexual positions and giant penises.
After getting over the shock of this spectacle (and the awkwardness of sharing the experience with my parents and two younger siblings), the collection’s importance became apparent. These pre-Columbian societies, including the Nazca, the Inca and the Chincha, used pottery to represent the most important aspects of their culture. The museum featured thousands of pieces depicting sacred animals, holy ceremonies and day-to-day practices. It should be no surprise that these ancient cultures also found sex important enough to document. In fact, it was fascinating to see, clearly and without obstacles like language barriers or incomplete historical records, exactly what sex meant to these ancient peoples.
Moving through the erotic pottery collection, there were several distinct categories. There were pieces depicting heterosexual relations — who knew fellatio existed B.C.E.? — and the more spiritual implications of sex. Several pieces demonstrated ghosts or corpses having sex with the living. And then there were the humorous pieces — vessels with goofy-faced, spread-legged individuals with penises that towered over them or vaginas that were larger than the clay torsos.
Clearly, the pieces revealed a lot. These ancient cultures were obviously … experimental when it came to sexual positions and practices. They also revered sex as a powerful and holy life-giving force with spiritual connections. And they also made penis jokes. How little things have changed in several thousand years.
But throughout the exhibit, my mind kept repeating one question: Would this kind of collection be displayed in the United States? Would American museums be bold enough (and the American public accepting enough) to let a collection of erotic, borderline-pornographic pottery be displayed?
And my answer: perhaps.
Perhaps the pottery could find a home at the Museum of Sex in New York City. Perhaps a large, respectable museum could pull it off as a traveling exhibition. And perhaps people would pay to see it. But there would definitely be opposition. Last February, the city management of Temecula, California requested that a piece by Jeff Hebron selected for “Visual Expressions 2010” at The Gallery at the Merc be removed from the exhibition because it depicted a non-“family-friendly” nude woman. Last month, a satirical political print by Stewart Williams, called Tea Baggers, was removed from “Paper Politics,” a touring exhibit now stationed in Pittsburgh, for including an image of its sexual namesake.
But this trend is nothing new. In 1999, then-New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani threatened to revoke the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s lease and withdraw its municipal funding when the museum refused to remove a controversial nude piece, artist Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, from “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection.” This declaration stirred up the public, inciting the likes of Hilary Clinton to come to the museum’s defense.
Based on precedent, it seems some factions would vehemently oppose an exhibition of erotic pottery, condemning the collection for its blatant immodesty.
This makes me sad. Unlike Michelangelo’s David, which stands proud, naked and beautiful in Florence, carved from the purest of white marble by one of society’s greatest geniuses, the erotic pottery in Lima was crafted from the dirt of the earth by simple, unknown artisans. Both represent aspects of human sexuality and both have endured the test of time. Yet David would be more accepted in the United States than the erotic pottery — no questions asked. He is pure, he is majestic and his sexuality is subtle.
No matter how stunned I was by the breathtaking awe that David inspired, I felt more of a connection to the pre-Columbian peoples who molded giant penises for kicks. In the exhibition hall, I could imagine a group of Nazca adolescents circled around a piece of erotic pottery, guffawing like there was no tomorrow. They seem more real to me and their sexuality seems more honest than the purity David exudes — it’s primitive and in some cases grotesque, but it’s honest.
It saddens me to think that so many people might never have the opportunity to intimately connect to an ancient culture, simply because some individuals might have reservations with sex being portrayed in such a primitive, direct fashion. In my opinion, half the point of museums is to connect the public with peoples and cultures from our collective past. Museums are supposed to help spread understanding and information — they are supposed to be a beacon of education, not be afraid of being non-PC. And if our history includes clay penises, well then, who are we to judge?