By Asiel Sepúlveda

With funds provided by Santander Bank, N.A., four art history Ph.D. students traveled to Peru, where they explored historic cities and Inca sites and presented papers at a symposium about art, architecture and politics at Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú in Lima. 

Study Abroad SMU

The Quespehuara stone near Cuzco, Perú, is an abstract
depiction of the surrounding landscape created by the Inca.

“The view in front of the Quespehuara stone is an artistic legacy left by the Inca. One cannot own or sell this view, nor can it be transported into the gallery; it only exists here. It is part of the geography.”

It was our first day in Cuzco, Perú, the capital of the pre-Hispanic Inca Empire. We stood at the edge of a shallow stream with a massive carved stone at its center. The negative carvings formed a step pyramid motif, believed to resemble a mountain, a common artistic symbol in the pre-Columbian Andes. We wondered what was so special about this rock that merited the miles-long, off-road hike away from beautiful Cuzco. The air was thin and our bodies were trying to cope with the high altitude. Art History Chair Adam Herring seemed unaffected by the environment. He proceeded to cross the stream and began assembling his camera equipment while we sat around to catch our breath and contemplate the site. Soon after, he began photographing the rock from several angles, taking pictures he will use to teach this material to SMU students. I kept wondering about the importance of this rock outside of a city that houses perhaps the finest stone masonry work in the world. Why was this location important to the Inca? What purpose did this rock serve for those who carved it? Why have we come this far to see it?

Curiosity overcame my lack of breath and I decided to cross the stream to where Professor Herring set up his tripod. His view was much better than mine. This was, indeed, no ordinary rock. Not only did it spring out of the center of a stream, source of water and life, but its shape mirrored the mountainous terrain in the distant background. The carved rock was both a sculpture and an abstract depiction of the surrounding landscape. As a visual tool/marker, the stone guided the viewer to see the vistas behind it, to appreciate the magnificence of this place. The trees opened up and with it our vision was expanded. We were exposed to the mountain and the mountain was exposed to us.

The Quespehuara stone, which bears the name of the community where it is located, provides a glimpse of Inca vision. The Inca were abstract thinkers who made sense of their world by transforming nature into symbolic landscapes. They controlled vast territories of land and peoples without cartography or writing. Their maps were drawn on the earth itself, on the rocks and mountains that shaped the Andes. The Quespehuara stone is but one of the thousands of artworks that harnessed nature and transformed it into geography. From here the landscape became a familiar road map. These were maps of vision that connected particular vantage points between valleys and mountain ranges, maps that guided travelers through the vast empire. 

The view in front of the Quespehuara stone is an artistic legacy left by the Inca. A guided vision. This might be hard for us to comprehend due to our concept of art as a commodity or something for display in a museum. One cannot own or sell this view, nor can it be transported into the gallery; it only exists here. It is part of the geography. The camera can only capture and distort segments of it. At best, we can take the rock home as a digital photograph and isolate it from the landscape in the process.

The Inca were very preoccupied with visions of the landscape. They built cities in the skies so that they could look down at the world. Such could be experienced today at the zenith of Machu Picchu, where the city and its surrounding mountains are constantly breaking into the clouds. One can accurately say “I stand within the clouds” in this exceptional place.

We climbed the equivalent of 160 stories of Incan roads on our second day in the great abandoned city. At the peak of the neighboring mountain, the city turns into a landscape of geometric forms. The sloping terraces make themselves visible through bright pastel greens that contrast with the dense vegetation of Wayna Picchu mountain in the background. As the view extends, the milk-white clouds hug the mountain range, turning those greens into a blue mist. It is quite difficult to take a bad picture of Machu Picchu. The landscape is too grandiose: the geometrically structured terraces, the grey stone buildings, the mountains growing into the sky, the frequent rainbows and the extending green valleys. It is a site of indulging vision, a feast for the eyes. Such visions are one of the great achievements of Andean art.

They are able to paint a picture without canvas.

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