Last semester, several botched attempts at textile weaving in the Morse/Stiles loom room left me with eyesore and splintered fingers. “Who’s Happier Than You?” was the subject line of the email I received when I was initially accepted into the fiber studio (yes — to learn to weave you have to apply first). But the labor of the craft and the complicated workings behind one simple textile — an unfinished scarf deemed unfit for a Christmas present — left me discouraged. Weaving was hard work.
The Andean textiles featured in “Weaving and the Social World,” currently on view at the Yale University Art Gallery, exhibit the kind of competence and patient toil that I clearly lacked in my short stint as a weaver. But from these works I saw that early indigenous Americans, even with much more primitive tools, were able to produce tunics and tapestries much more compelling than those I’ve seen from even the most arduous Yale undergraduate.
A man walking through the gallery pointed to a feathered tunic and said to me, “Not bad for just a rag on the wall, you agree?” The textiles featured in this exhibit defy the expectations one would normally have for cloth, such as its two-dimensional nature. Some inhabit so much space they could be considered sculptures. Tunics dating as far back as 1000 B.C. use real feathers — plucked straight from macaws — and crocheted animal heads protruding from their surfaces. One tunic had tassels at its sleeves, foreshadowing a current trend.
But how do these textiles represent the social world? Each Andean region seemed to have its own style, and over time, the overall fashion of one culture permeated that of its neighbor. An observer passing through can see the interplay of varying aesthetics: how, eventually, a textile from the Tiwanaku culture could begin to resemble one from the Incans. More abstract geometry and figurative forms, too, first clashed across geography and then came together. While textiles from the central and southern highlands incorporated checkerboards and broad stripes, those from the southern coast featured deities and demonic faces. One common tie, it seemed, was the color scheme of the Andean countryside itself — the gallery resonated with hues of reds, oranges and tan gradients (all colors of the mountainside), hints of navy blue or wheatgrass green peeking out on occasion. Once or twice, the threading possessed the yellow of a flower.
While the transition from oral to written culture was still churning its wheels throughout this time period, textiles became an important means of communication. Sewn into them were images used to tell stories, emit warnings and honor gods. Many of the pieces featured in the exhibit straddle the line between mythology and zoology; their depictions are clearly influenced by the natural world, yet possess mutations or amputations that could only come from the imagination. For example, some real names of textiles from this exhibit include “Mantle with Flying Figures,” “Tunic with the Crested Moon Animal,” “Mantle with Stylized Killer Whales” and “Mantle with Double-Headed Serpents.” While some of these creatures were certainly real and existent in the taxonomies of these Andean civilizations, ancient weavers chose to depict them as subjects of abstraction and fantasy.
Although weaving has often been relegated to a repetitive or mindless practice (some even suggest it for therapy), these hangings display an almost preternatural attention to detail. At the tail end of the gallery, “Tunic with a Red Square,” a textile from the South Coast of the Río Grande, stands out as a precedent to Rothko. A mostly brown textile displays a stark red square in its center, breaking the piece up into equal thirds. Even circa 500 A.D., Andean cultures (in this case, the Nazca) could master the type of bold abstraction that critics would gawk at 1500 years into the future. While indigenous Andeans used this medium to interact with one another in the distant past, an observer visiting “Weaving and the Social World” today would consider these textiles a calling to the modern viewer.