Arts & Theater

Art review: Amazonian ceramics from Ecuador at Crocker Art Museum

A festival drinking bowl by Esthela Dagua, with turtle, tortoise, iguanid and zigzag motifs, is part of the “Rain Forest Visions” exhibit at the Crocker Art Museum.
A festival drinking bowl by Esthela Dagua, with turtle, tortoise, iguanid and zigzag motifs, is part of the “Rain Forest Visions” exhibit at the Crocker Art Museum. Crocker Art Museum

Melza and Ted Barr, a Texas oil man who graduated from Sacramento’s McClatchy High School, gave to the Crocker Art Museum a substantial collection of California Impressionist and Post Impressionist works that debuted at the Crocker at the time of the opening of the major new building in 2010.

Now the Barrs have given another remarkable and important collection to the Crocker – more than 100 pieces of Amazonian ceramics from Ecuador, on view on the museum’s third floor. The Barrs began collecting the works when Ted Barr was working with Tenneco Oil Company in Quito, Ecuador, between 1987 and 1989. After the Barr’s return to Houston, they enhanced the collection on trips to the Puyo region, east of the Andes, between 1991 and 1996.

On their sojourns, they collected in depth and became friends with some of the makers, including Esthela Dagua, who is one of the most accomplished potters in Puyo. Many of the objects in the “Rain Forest Visions” exhibition of ceramics from the Canelos Quichua peoples were made by Dagua and other known makers such as Amada Santi and Miriam Vargas.

Among the pieces Dagua has made are figurative effigies, vessels with three-dimensional additions in the form of turtles, and thin-walled bowls with abstract, geometric patterns based on the shells of turtles, the markings of anaconda, lizards, and the legs of frogs, as well as rivers and hills. They are illustrated in the exhibition catalog by a drawing of symbols and designs done by Santi.

There are also numerous pieces by anonymous women makers. A catalog essay by Norman E. Whitten Jr., who has done ethnographic research in Ecuador since 1961, reveals that some men, mostly husbands of the potters, now help with making the Quechua ceramics, but the primary makers are all women.

The exhibition opens with a photomural of Dagua’s workshop, and a selection of fragile, low-fired, lightweight ceramics decorated with paints and glazes and coated with resin to make them waterproof, as most were meant for eating or drinking. Among them are Dagua’s small storage jar with three turtles in relief and vertical anaconda motifs. The geometric markings on this and other works, made by the coil method, make you think of American Indian pottery and basketry, but the addition of snakes, turtles, bush dogs, and other Amazonian fauna in relief, often placed in the bottoms of bowls, are exclusive to the Canelos Quechua.

Included in the exhibit is a small case with implements used in the making of the ceramics: dark and light resins, minerals used for pigments or slips of liquid clay, a bottle-gourd tool for burnishing, and a tiny paintbrush made of a stick with several strands of human hair. This type of brush allows the potters to make delicate patterns on the ceramics that almost look like they were done with pens.

Among the effigies are a pregnant monkey woman, a big-billed toucan, an anaconda woman, moon men, and a serving vessel depicting a man with a bear spirit that is as striking as any contemporary sculpture. Several of these relate to Quichua legends and myths.

The moon man is the lover of the nocturnal potoo bird in the complex Origin of the People myth of the Quichua people, which is told in detail by Whitten in the catalog. Moon Man and Squash Woman figure in the Origin of Pottery Clay myth, in which Squash Woman feeds Moon man green, uncooked squash, saving the ripe squash for herself with treacherous consequences. The Toucan (Sicuanga) figures in the Origin of Beauty myth in which he uses his machete-like beak to free Red Painted Woman and Black Painted Woman from a bamboo cage they have been placed in by Machin Runa (monkey person).

This is a fascinating show with a beautifully illustrated catalog that adds greatly to our knowledge of these masterful potters from the eastern Andes and Ecuadorian rain forest. Do see it.

Rain Forest Visions: Amazonian Ceramics from Ecuador

Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St., Sacramento

When: Through Sunday, Feb. 14. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday.

Cost: $10-$5. Free for members and children 6 and under. Every third Thursday of the month is “Pay What You Wish Sunday.”

Information: (916) 808-7000,