Pre-Columbian, Costa Rica, Atlantic Watershed, ca. 800 to 1200 CE. A fantastical figure, carved from porous volcanic stone, depicting a man with a fierce monkey head, nude aside from a huge pectoral and a multi-tiered, pyramid-like headdress. The figure has well-carved genitalia and an emphasized muscular lower body. The face is dramatic and a little bit frightening, with emphasis on the huge canines and wide, staring eyes. Size: 5.5" L x 10.35" W x 21" H (14 cm x 26.3 cm x 53.3 cm)
This figure probably depicts a shaman channeling a monkey medium or in the act of transforming into a monkey. Pre-Columbian Costa Ricans carved volcanic stone sculptures whose subjects are often animals, usually those who have symbolic meaning like crocodiles, snakes, jaguars, or, like this fellow, monkeys. Humans are depicted wearing items that may signify rank or show a social affiliation - presumably this figure's hat would have been instantly recognizable to people at that time. This figure's zoomorphic head indicates that he is a shaman, someone who could transform himself to visit the spirit world, often associated in ancient Central America with close proximity to the animal world.
Monkeys in ancient Costa Rican art were probably modeled on the native spider monkey, known for being inquisitive and chattering. They were figures of fun, but also are often associated with creation myths both in Central America and in the Mayan world, suggesting an almost evolutionary understanding of the monkey/human relationship. Various myths recount earlier worlds inhabited by monkeys rather than humans that were destroyed by cataclysms, making monkeys like proto-humans. Monkeys were often associated with writing and art, perhaps because of their observed intelligence.
Provenance: collection of the late Alfred E. Stendahl, Stendahl Gallery, Los Angeles, California, USA
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