PRE-COLUMBIAN ART was the premiere exhibition of Mingei International’s James L. Greaves Collection, with more than 230 Pre-Columbian art objects of clay, stone, shell, bone, wood and fiber.

This unique assemblage of art objects, dating from 1500 B.C. to about 1500 A.D., represented marine fauna and marine-associated mythological themes from the Americas: fish, sharks, crabs, lobsters, sting rays, octopuses, assorted shell creatures, seals and waterfowl as well as fisherman. Many of the clay forms were musical instruments: ocarinas, flutes and horns.

Particularly strong in representations from South America, the Collection included objects from cultures extending from Peru (Moche, Chimú and Nasca) to North America’s Eastern Woodlands (Mound Builders). Commenting on the Collection, Armand Labbé, Guest Curator and Director of Collections and Research at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, said, “Iconographically rich compositions such as these are rare in Pre-Columbian art. They serve as archives of cultural myth and cultural practice.”

Jim Greaves, a fine art conservator, acquired his first Pre-Columbian objects — three textile fragments — while in graduate school. Several years later a friend gave him a small, ceramic effigy of a conch shell from Colombia. The conch shell, which had been broken and repaired in ancient times, was especially interesting to Greaves as a conservator. Attracted to the marine shell form because of his love of finely crafted, simple, naturalistic images, he acquired more Colombian shell-shaped objects, expanding the collection to show various decorative techniques. Soon he was collecting shell forms from Mexico, and later fish and marine animals from there and from other cultures. Describing his collecting philosophy, Greaves said, “ Paramount always was knowledge of the beneficial effect of comparisons for increasing one’s ability to appreciate each piece and the greater whole. The result is a collection that may gratify on many levels as it is rearranged to explore different artistic, technical and cultural relationships.”

A 192-page Mingei International documentary publication, PRE-COLUMBIAN ART: MARINE ANIMAL FORMS, accompanied the exhibition. This publication and a documentary video were sponsored by an anonymous friend of the Museum and donor of this collection. The documentary videotape was played during the course of the exhibition in the adjacent Multimedia Education Center.

Related Events:

Following the Members’ Reception for the exhibition on December 10, Armand Labbe, Guest Curator for the exhibition and Director of Collections and Research for the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, presented an illustrated lecture in the Museum’s Warren Theater Gallery.

The exhibition was funded in part by the San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture and the County of San Diego Community Enhancement Program.


On View: Dec 11, 2001 - Oct 28, 2003

Curator: Armand Labbe

More Exhibitions