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Wari: Focus on Textiles

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Wari: Focus on Textiles

I greatly hope you will take advantage of the opportunity to see Wari: Lords of the Ancient Andes while it is in Cleveland through January 6th of next year.

I invite to you partake in this once-in-a-lifetime event to see amazing, older art in this free exhibition.

Let me focus on one particular category within the exhibition- textiles. Textiles are light-sensitive and so it is the policy at CMA for them to be on view for about three to six months, then come off-view for about five years. So when they are out - go see them!

Tunics and Tapestry

What I've learned from reading the catalogue- tunics, which were men’s garments- are high-status stuff. Deities wear them. Warriors wear them. Wari elites must have worn them. They were incredibly materials and labor-intensive and thus very valuable. So valuable, in fact, that the process of creating them ranked second only to food production in economic importance.

CMA 1997.1; Figure in a Litter (Pachamac style); ceramic and slip

This figure wears what looks like the tie-dyed garments included in the exhibition. His status is indicated by the fact that he sits in a litter (sedan-chair) and may once have carried staffs, supreme symbols of authority, in his clenched hands.

CMA owns two examples of another kind of hand-woven Wari tunic: one that was made with the tapestry weaves. Try to follow along with the stylized figures that appear within. There will be visual aids in the show as well. This tunic depicts a supernatural being referred to as The Sacrificer- a tell-tale identifier - is the presence of a severed head. It relates to one of the more controversial topics in the show- human sacrifice, which may have been conceived as the ultimate gift that humans could offer the supernatural world to keep the forces of life in balance. The bold color choices- reds, seafoam green, brown, ochre, pink- and stylized forms- make this a work that peacefully co-exists amongst works of modern art.

Here is a view of the tunic overall.

Red Tunic

And here is a detail of the main imagery, with an explanation of its components.

Perhaps you can also make out from this detailed view that the threads are very tightly packed together, forming what experts would call a very high “thread count.” The number of threads per inch or centimeter helps to quantify how finely woven a textile is. This blue tunic, , for example, consumed some nineteen miles of yarn, giving us a sense of how much material and time was devoted to this art form.

CMA 2005.53.a.b; Tunic Fragments with Bird-Headed Staff-Bearing Creature in Profile; camelid fiber and cotton.

In this detail,

which has been cropped to show you one unit of the design, boldly geometric forms depict a bird-headed creature- an attendant of Wari’s chief deity, the Staff God. Its running body appears in profile, outlined in white; the bird may be a raptor. Like the Sacrificer figure, it holds a staff and wears a crown, but also has wings. The use of the deep indigo blue for the background is rare, and denotes an extremely high-status item.

The preservation of these textiles is remarkable, when you think about it- they are up to fifteen hundred years old! Those that do remain were probably sheltered in the drier sands of the coastline of Peru, rather than the central highlands that were the center of Wari territory. Their preservation on the coastline speaks to the extent of Wari cultural influence.

The Wari exhibition brings attention to a little-known culture, one that was just beginning to receive focus in the 1950s. Curator Susan Bergh selected the objects, organized the show, edited the catalogue, and wrote essays for it. As she notes it is through a study of the arts that we can gain an understanding of early human endeavor and achievement in this hemisphere.

-- Alicia Garr

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