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Exhibitions/ The Andean Tunic, 400 BCE–1800 CE

The Andean Tunic, 400 BCE–1800 CE

At The Met Fifth Avenue
March 7–October 16, 2011

Exhibition Overview

Featuring about thirty Andean tunics drawn from the Museum's collection, as well as loans from the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., and two private collections, the exhibition examines the form of the tunic, which held an important cultural place in Andean South America for centuries, particularly in Peru and northern Bolivia. Textiles, a much developed art form there in ancient times, were themselves valued as wealth, and tunics were among the most treasured of textiles. Highlights include a Paracas tunic in the so-called linear style with distinctive shoulder fringe (300–100 BCE), a red Pucara tunic with large shoulder patches, perhaps depicting the face of the sun (135–525 CE), and a seventeenth-century tunic that includes both European lions and toqapu, organized fields of discrete Inka-period designs.

The exhibition is made possible through the generosity of the Friends of the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.

On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in

The ancient peoples of northwestern South America are renowned for their great abilities as weavers, dyers, and designers of textiles. The primacy of cloth was established with the earliest beginnings of civilization in the region that is now Peru, when the manipulating of fibers into functional and decorated cloth and fiber objects began. Cloth has remained integral to Peruvian society as a mark of indigenous wealth and identity until modern times. Among the myriad textiles produced in the Andes were garments, including the main article of traditional male clothing, the tunic—shirtlike, open at the neck and sewn up the sides—which was made and elaborated with skill, care, and imagination for more than two thousand years and occupied a particularly meaningful cultural place in ancient Peru. All garments were gender specific and generally conformed to basic types: for men, a tunic, mantle, and loincloth; for women, a dress, belt, and shawl. Headbands, hats, or other head coverings were usually worn by both.

By the middle of the sixteenth century, the Andean tunic had become known to a European world well beyond the rugged Andes Mountains. Invading Spaniards in the 1530s recorded that the tunics were worn by male officials of various rank and status within the Inka empire, even by distinguished royals such as the ruling Inka himself. As noted by one Spanish commentator, "The clothing worn by the lords in ancient times was very elegant and of many very fine colors."

The earliest Andean tunics known today come from regions near the Pacific Ocean in the southern part of Peru. The Ica valley, a long, mostly dry, river valley running between mountains and sea, has yielded a number of these ancient textiles, many of which come from burials in the foothills of Ica's Ocucaje basin, a high-ground water oasis. This exhibition includes two fourth-century BCE tunics from this area.

Close in time and not far in distance from Ocucaje and the Ica valley, large funerary precincts with great textile-wrapped bundles of the honored dead were placed on the Paracas Peninsula, a small, desert point of land that juts out into the Pacific. The Paracas bundles held some of the most extraordinary textiles known from ancient Peru. They included a wide range of garment types, tunics among them. The tunics, as almost all Paracas textiles, are splendidly elaborate. Exceptional and detailed in conception, with a programmed use of color, they carefully compound patterned elements. The Paracas tunic in this exhibition illustrates all three of these qualities.

Four tunics on view in the exhibition—which probably originated in the Arequipa area, further south and inland from the Paracas Peninsula—demonstrate the strong, straightforward color, complex design, impressive size, and demanding techniques that are all features of tunics in the early first millennium of the Common Era. Archaeologically the period is not well known today, but it is one that produced significant textiles. Nasca-style textiles, associated with the south coast region where the large Rio Grande de Nasca meets the sea, have a long history, with roots in coastal Paracas and an end under the influence of the highland Wari empire.

In the high plains of the southern Andes, other groups and regional centers coalesced in the early centuries of the first millennium CE. Such communities were able to produce elegant, impressively sized tunics for the elite members of the population. The regional center of Pucara, to the north of Lake Titicaca, was one of the growing number of these communities. The people of Pucara constructed new ritual buildings and developed a distinctive, stylized iconography that would be used to embellish ceramic vessels and textiles. The iconography included male and female images with characteristically large eyes that were split into light and dark halves. The eyes are a telling feature—they appear on animal and bird images as well—that remained in use for several centuries.

Wari, another highland community, was located to the north of the present-day city of Ayacucho. Today it is one of the largest archaeological sites in Peru. The Wari community began to expand in the eighth century, and its influence was felt throughout both Andean highlands and the Pacific coast, where a new religion and its iconography spread. A great deal of Wari imagery focused on an imposing central deity and the attendant figures that surrounded it. The attendants, always depicted in profile, are anthropomorphic and have bird, human, or animal heads. They carry tall staffs and feature wings on their backs, and their postures imply running or kneeling. While these attendants are a consistent aspect of the Wari textile design vocabulary, specific design details vary from tunic to tunic; each artist-weaver must have had flexibility in working out the patterns and color choices.

Another politically expansive center of around the same period as Wari is Tiwanaku, now a well-known archaeological site in the altiplano of Bolivia not far from Lake Titicaca. Tiwanaku was the major urban center of the Titicaca basin and a powerful presence in the Andes during the second half of the first millennium CE. Based on earlier traditions and the apparent sharing of the new religion, the Wari and Tiwanaku art share certain characteristics, including iconographic features. Commonalities exist in aspects of their textiles as well, such as winged attendant figures and columnarlike designs with an alternation of patterned and plain areas on the tunics.

Along the north Pacific coast in about the eleventh century, another politically powerful group was consolidating into what would become the rich and long-lived Chimu kingdom. Until conquered by Inka warriors in the fifteenth century, the Chimu ruled much of the coast to the north and south of their capital at Chan Chan in the Moche valley. In the north, the preferred shape in tunics differed considerably from that in the south. Waist length and sleeved, Chimu tunics were composed of two loomed lengths for the body and smaller loomed pieces for the sleeves. They were worn with elaborate loincloths. As befits a rich kingdom, tunics for the elite members of the community were carefully and lavishly decorated. Some centuries later the fanciest of high-status male costumes came in matching sets that consisted of a mantle, a tunic, a loincloth with a large front panel, and a turban or hat.

Extremely successful empire builders, the Inkas set out from the mountain capital of Cuzco in the 1430s and managed to conquer much of northwestern South America in the hundred years before the arrival of the Spaniards. An amazingly disciplined people whose focused sense of organization and control can be seen even in their tunics, the Inkas inherited many of the highland traditions for the making of textiles. Numerous examples of Inka tunics, discovered in burial sites throughout the large territory they conquered, still exist. Others, never buried but rather worn after the Spanish conquest, have also survived. Although smaller than the earlier Wari tunics, Inka examples share such features as fine tapestry weave, preference for camelid hair fiber (the Inkas used the hair of all of the camelids—alpaca, llama, vicuña, and even the wild guanaco), a basic rectangular shape with no sleeves, and a knee length. When compared to contemporaneous Chimu tunics, such as the example with felines and crescent-headdressed figures on view on the exhibition, Inka tunics are imposing and positively austere in their clarity of design.

While invention and originality appear to have been prized in earlier centuries, a form of standardization in the garment's size and pattern took place under Inka rule, as demonstrated by several tunics in the exhibition. One much favored type included diamond-patterned bands across the body at approximately waist level.Tunics became even more important under Inka domination; they were commissioned as a form of taxation and were worn by members of the Inka ruler's household, by his entourage, by nobles, and by warriors. Treasured items in gift exchange, they were put to political and diplomatic purposes and given as gifts to allies and subjected peoples, to leaders and to followers. They had ritual functions as well, used as offerings to sacred places, to powerful deities, and to the honored dead.

In the 1530s, Spanish colonial rule began in Peru with the imprisonment of the ruling Inka emperor and the incorporation of his realm into a new, European order in the Andes. The tunic continued to be made, valued, and worn, particularly by members of the Inka elite and their descendents, and it retained much the same shape, while its elaborations incorporated not only Inka symbolic motifs but also European ones. As a concession to Europeanized fashion in some examples, the tunic's sides were left open at the bottom to accommodate the wearing of trousers. Descendents of the Inka imperial family retained their noble position in society and had the right to wear such tunics on special occasions, most often for church festivals. Persons clothed in garments of a heroic pre-Hispanic time and representing Inka identities became worrisome to both church fathers and colonial administrators in the 1780s, and the wearing of such garments, particularly tunics, was prohibited.