Radiance From the Rainforest

Category: Exhibitions

Review by Valerie Justin, Vanishing Textiles

Chimu Tabard. Photo courtesy the MET
Chimu Tabard. Photo courtesy the MET

Gorgeous garments and accoutrements from pre conquest South America fashioned from the brilliantly colored feathers of birds from the Amazonian rain forests, are currently shown in the Michael Rockefeller wing of the Metropolitan Museum in NYC. Titled “RADIANCE FROM THE RAINFOREST- Featherwork in Ancient Peru” this exhibit covers different cultures and different areas from the very early (6th-1st BC) Paracas culture on the Pacific South Coast through Nasca and Huari cultures to the Chimu whose leaders ruled over a large area on Peru’s North Coast and whose feathered textiles were , according to archeological finds, used extensively (10th-15th c). Among the exhibits are a number of miniature groupings. A delightful funerary procession consists of an oval casket and an intricate litter supported by silver posts from the Chancy culture.

In the current issue of HALI #156 Heidi King, curator of the exhibit, shows 13 pieces from the total of 70 in the exhibit. Her discussion puts these in context through spare written records and archeological evidence, much of it from late 19th and 20th century excavations.

The last pre conquest rulers, the Inca, left in burial tombs miniature figures dressed not “to the gills” but in feathers: garments and important head gear as offerings to the gods. A delightful funerary procession from the Chancy culture consists of an oval casket and an intricate litter supported by silver posts. Earlier works are of human size –tabards (tunics) and head dresses, probably used for “the elite to display on festive occasion since feathers like precious metals, shells and coloured stones were highly valued for their magnificent colours and silken texture”

As you can see in the photo of the Chimu tabard (Peru, South Coast) the blue and yellow are feathers from the MACAW (also scarlet and red-and-green). Other common feathers are from Parrots, Flamingos and Egrets.

These splendid feathers were transported across the Andes to the Pacific where feathered cloth was made by trained artisans. Sewing strings of feathers on to woven cloth (of cotton and camilid hair) in overlapping horizontal rows was one method explained by Ms. King. Other techniques (looping and use of single knots) as well as gluing small birds’ feathers in mosaic were used.

Two textiles at the Metropolitan are not of feather work but are part of the feather work culture. One is a woven tunic painted with tropical birds from the Chimu where painted cotton textiles were the style.


Woven tunic. Photo courtesy the MET
Woven tunic. Photo courtesy the MET

The second is a beautiful tapestry woven tunic (small, perhaps for a child,from the colonial period,16th or early 17th c.) The panels at the bottom half of the garment consist of small boxed motifs somewhat like tapestry-woven designs from the Eastern hemisphere. But the panels on both sides of the upper section consist of repeated identical feather motifs (certainly not tapestry motifs in the ‘old’ world). This small tunic (called uncu) is as fine as the better known colonial tapestries made for Spanish conquistadors and officials (the Boston Museum of Art has published a large collection of these).

It is the Western Hemisphere aspect of the featherwork that makes them unique; during the period of discovery the American landscape (particularly South America) captured the imagination not just of navigators and naturalists but of artists and the literati. These magnificent works of feather art reverberate with the creative spirit of the artisans of the Americas.

Location and more information: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue. New York.

Valerie Justin, Vanishing Textiles, August 20, 2008, Sag Harbor, New York

Find books by Valerie Justin,

More articles mentioning: ,

Previous post: « | Next post: »