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An Evolving Art

‘Gods and Empire: Huari Ceremonial Textiles’ at the Washington Textile Museum allowed visitors to trace the development over time of a canon of textile art within the limits of a single culture. Georgia de Havenon reports.

Over forty years ago Alan Sawyer, director of the Textile Museum from 1959 to 1971, wrote of Tiwanaku (Tiahuanaco) textiles, “…the principal variations would seem to be temporal, reflecting stages in several centuries of an evolving art tradition.” (Textile Museum Journal, December 1963,pp.27-38). This evolution was apparent in the TM’s recent exhibition, ‘Gods and Empire: Huari Ceremonial Textiles’.

It is now accepted that, although the title of his article was ‘Tiahuanaco Tapestry Design’, Sawyer was actually referring to both Tiwanaku and Wari (Huari) textiles. Most of the iconography on both types is believed to have originated at Tiwanaku, the Bolivian site near Lake Titicaca with monumental freestanding stone gateways and sculptures carved with the rayed head deity and winged animalheaded attendant figures prevalent on many of the textiles in the show.

Contemporaneous with later Tiwanaku and dating from about 750 to 950 AD , the Wari culture was centred near modern day Ayacucho in south-central Peru. However, the majority of surviving textiles have been recovered near the coast of Peru at outposts of Wari influence, either having been transported there,or woven by weavers transplanted there, or made by local weavers working in the Wari vernacular.

All the textiles in the exhibition were woven in the interlocked tapestry technique with two-ply cotton warps and two-ply camelid wool wefts. As the exhibition is fortuitously confined to one large room, the visitor is able to view the entire group of twelve textiles, giving a sense of how the appearance of tapestry can be manipulated through density of weave.

Since Sawyer’s seminal article, a more concrete stylistic analysis has evolved as a consequence of excavations that have uncovered varying styles of ceramics, and through the use of radiocarbon dating. Ann Pollard Rowe, the TM’s Curator of Western Hemisphere Collections, has applied this expanded scholarship to the textiles in the exhibition. Although they are not shown in chronological order, when one stands in the centre of the room, it becomes patently clear how the iconographic markers changed over a period of roughly two centuries during the height of Wari influence.

The highlight of the exhibition is the ‘Fire Textile’, discussed by William Conklin in HALI 133 (pp.94-102). This extraordinary narrative cloth, although fragmentary, is remarkably expressive and technically proficient in its execution. Rowe has designated the eight-foot long ceremonial weaving as an early work and has included nearby an earlier Tiwanaku-Pucara example with similar iconography to support her hypothesis.

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Wari style tunic, with side seams unsewn, Peru, ca. 850-950 AD. Found at Palpa on the south coast. The Textile Museum, Washington DC, acquired in 1941 by George Hewitt Myers, 91.351

Hung at the opposite end of the room is the exhibition’s earliest example of a classic tunic (2). It is constructed of two loom panels each close to six feet in width, with compressed imagery. Rowe assigns no religious meaning to the textile and asserts, “In this period [before 800 AD ], the religious iconography was only appropriate for objects used in religious ceremonies and not for clothing”. This seems possible, but in a society where minute details such as the direction of the ply are said to have a spiritual connotation, it would follow that almost any imagery would be infused with some religious significance. (Most Andean textiles are made of two S-twisted strands, forming a Z-ply. In the Andes today, weavers attach a spiritual preference to the Z-ply.) In any case, the textile is unusual within the iconographic canon, composed of columns of large scale volutes surrounding skeletal-like figures.

Other later examples of tunics (850-950 AD) line the walls, dazzling the viewer with the brilliant palette of dyed wool fibres preserved in the desert atmosphere of the south coast of Peru. In particular, the reds and pinks, generally created from cochineal, stand out in textiles with both realistic and abstract imagery.

Most scholars would contend that the later a textile was woven during the Wari period,the more abstract its imagery. It is most interesting to see this unfold in the exhibition. Two of the most abstract examples are (3) and inv. no.1965.6.1, whose dense over-all imagery is almost dizzying in its effect. The delicate state of the first textile no doubt dictated that it be shown flat, making it even more difficult to read, but allowing one fully to scrutinise details of its construction. The second textile, also from Palpa on the south coast of Peru, shows a figure playing a flute. These two examples, from the far edges of the culture’s influence, are in a style that differs completely from other known Huari textiles. Unlike most Andean textiles, because they have a provenance, the pair are of particular note and warrant additional study.

Traditional Wari themes such as the stepfret and warrior holding a staff can be seen on other tunics, all in remarkably fine condition. This excellent state of conservation is one of the factors that make the TM exhibition noteworthy, as it does hold one of the finest collections of Wari textiles extant.

An example of fine condition, with interesting iconography (1), presents a design of rectangles showing figures who appear to be participating in a ceremonial musical event, alternating with sections of red stripes. Could this configuration be based on earlier Paracas textiles with the same type of alternation? Panels contain three variations of figures, one with a tumpline across its forehead, playing a drum, one blowing what is described as a deer head trumpet, and yet another carrying a rattle and blowing a whistle. Within its repeating pattern, this textile, dated 850-950 AD , depicts scenes with ordinary people rather than deities.

A slightly earlier tapestry headband, of about 800-850 AD (HALI 140, p.53), is said to be from the period in Wari history when religious iconography was first used on garments. The most finely woven textile in the exhibition (80 weft yarns per centimetre), with colours that appear to be preserved in almost their original state, it features atypical iconography showing a figure, possibly female, standing in a reed boat and gesturing. Hung near the exit, it is an excellent ending to an exhibition that can be approached on many levels: in terms of technique, or of religious iconography, or of secular iconography, even in terms of pure excitement, something it is hard not to feel when surrounded by these rare and pristine examples of a complex culture whose story has not yet been fully revealed.


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Gods and Empire: Huari Ceremonial Textiles The Textile Museum, 2320 ‘S’ Street NW, Washington DC, USA 1 July 2005 – 15 January 2006


by Doris Leslie Blau