A little out of the way in the small, unassuming Gallery 100, curator Deborah Spivak has unearthed a set of hidden treasures within the collections of the Saint Louis Art Museum and the University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archaeology. Though produced by various cultures over a span of thousands of years, the objects within “Balance and Opposition in Ancient Peruvian Textiles” all originate from the geographical boundary of what is now modern Peru. The show includes pieces from the Incan Empire and pre-Incan cultures such as the Wari, Paracas, Recuay, Chimú, Nazca, Tembladera, Ica, and Chancay.
In ancient Peru, textiles replete with skillfully crafted and meaningful motifs were used in everything from mundane clothing to the transition of political power. The Incas used handpicked and high quality textiles in claiming new territories and solidifying control. Much of the Incan Empire was founded in the strategic use of alliances and ritual gifts. The conqueror would offer gifts, including textiles. Acceptance by the tribe’s leader would denote surrender and the larger acceptance of the conqueror as their new leader. Failure to accept the gifts would be met with force and often the execution of the tribal chief.
Textiles in Peru held such importance due to the amount of work and artistic skill used to produced them. Every step of the process used to create the textiles was carefully done by hand, from the spinning of the wool to the exact patterning to the weaving itself.
The simple backstrap loom used today in the region is the same type of loom used by the ancient Peruvians to produces these works of art and consisted of wooden pegs, shuttles, and rods which could be rolled up and conveniently carried from place to place. The process of weaving together the warp (vertical yarns) with the weft (horizontal threads) echoed the fundamental principle of duality which held immense meaning for ancient Peru.
For the creators of these textiles, the world existed within the opposing forces of dual opposition, such as day and night, male and female, or life and death. Within this view of life, each opposite could not exist without the other and together they created the balance necessary for life itself. Artists incorporated the concept of duality within the patterning and design of their crafts, often layering meaning upon meaning.
The Peruvians carried the theme of duality to the grave, clothing the dead as they would have been clothed in life. The textiles within this exhibit are hundreds and even thousands of years old and many were recovered from burial sites where the dry, desert region preserved them to a remarkable degree. In addition to the textiles, the exhibit includes examples of tools used in their crafting and other objects found along with them in burial tombs.
“Balance and Opposition in Ancient Peruvian Textiles” will run through November 25, 2018 in Gallery 100. The Saint Louis Art Museum will host a family weaving demonstration celebrating this exhibit on Sunday, July 15 from 1pm to 3pm. Spivak, who is an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow for Ancient American Art, will lead a gallery talk discussing the values of cloth in Ancient Peru on Thursday, July 26 at 11am and Friday, July 27 at 6pm. Additionally, SLAM offers hands-on art activities and a 30 minute family tour throughout the galleries focusing on cultures from across the globe every Sunday in July from 1pm to 4pm with their Family Sunday series. The exhibit and all activities are free and open to the public.