WOMEN IN ACCHA ALTA, Cuzco, Peru, wear traditional costumes with broad-brimmed hats, 2008. Photograph by Barbara Mauldin.
Folk Art of the Andes

Tradition and Transformation




The crowning glory of the Andean people, for thousands of years, has been their textile weavings. The Spanish, arriving in 1526, were impressed; early records speak with admiration of weavings of great refinement, beauty and quality.

It all began with a tunic and a lot of fighting. The Spanish, in three hundred years of colonial rule, had never been able to subdue the Mapuche, a large indigenous group in the area of southern Chile today. “The Mapuche were like the Apache or the Navajo; they were nomadic and really smart about their tactics,” explains Barbara Mauldin, Latin American curator at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. “They eventually stole horses from the Spanish and became expert horsemen.” During an uprising late in the eighteenth century, according to contemporary documents, the Spanish noticed something different about what the Mapuche were wearing. Since precolumbian times, indigenous Andean men had worn the tunic—a short woven garment with a slit opening for the head, sewn up the sides with small armholes. The Spanish decreed that men must wear pants, but left the tunic alone; only indigenous men wore them, and the tunic became a symbol of Indian pride. Along came the raiding Mapuche, who had opened up the sides of their tunics for greater flexibility of movement on horseback. The Spanish liked what they saw.

WOMEN’S HATS of straw, fabric, thread, sequins; (left) 17.8 x 41.9 centimeters, Villa Villa, Chuquisaca, Bolivia, early to mid-twentieth century; (right) Tarabuco region, Chuquisaca, Bolivia, circa 1965. MOIFA collection.

“The Spanish said, ‘we can weave those,’ ” Mauldin continues in her museum office. “They already had their obrajes [Spanish-colonial weaving workshops] set up, which were mostly for weaving yardage to sell and use throughout the colonies. Apparently Arica, a Spanish settlement on the coast [now in northern Chile] was where the Spanish started weaving the first ponchos. They began exporting those to the rest of the colonies for the Spanish military and for ranchers, because they saw it as a horsemen’s garment.” At the same time the Spanish abolished the tunic: “They wanted to get rid of this Indian identity,” says Mauldin. “At that point indigenous men were forced to wear a shirt and jacket.” But the poncho’s story did not end there.

Forbidden to appear in their tunic, the native Andean men were told to wear the poncho instead. As Mauldin recounts, “At first they didn’t want to, because it was considered a Spanish outfit; it wasn’t Indian. But when the Independence movement started [in the early nineteenth century], they noticed the Spaniards were wearing big elaborate ponchos with all these insignias, and the Indians said, ‘Hmm, you know, those aren’t bad.’ They liked the look. Men like Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín [revered revolutionary generals] wore ponchos too; they were huge and very striking and flashy-looking.” Indigenous men after Independence started wearing the garment, and the poncho came into its own. Mauldin has looked though countless books on costumes from around the world. “You don’t see the poncho anywhere, except in South America.” Born of pride, pragmatism and a sort of derring-do, it became synonymous with an entire continent.

MEN’S KNIT CAPS (left) of wool, plastic buttons; (center) of wool, glass beads, 86.4 x 25.4 centimeters; (right) of wool; Urcos/Ocongate region, Cuzco, Peru, late twentieth century. IFAF collection in MOIFA.

The legacy of cross-cultural adaptation, of indigenous craft traditions combined with European artforms and techniques, lies at the heart of Folk Art of the Andes, a major exhibition (which closes in the Hispanic Heritage Wing September 9, 2012, and in the Bartlett Gallery on March 10, 2013) at the Museum of International Folk Art. The collection of extraordinary textiles, costumes, religious art, jewelry, tinwork, toys, silver, ceramics, woodwork, masks, saints, retablos, and much more chronicles folk art produced after Independence throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, down along the spine of the Andes from regions of Venezuela and Colombia, through the highlands of Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, to Argentina and Chile. Mauldin discovered the cultural intermixing while she was assembling the show. “I looked at what we had and what else was available… it wasn’t that I was weeding out pieces that looked more precolumbian, or worrying about things that looked more European; it was just what was out there and what was being made. And then reflecting on all these pieces, I could see that most of it had a very European stamp to it.” It gave her the connection she was looking for: “I wanted to have a continuity to the show that really contributed something about our understanding of what we might term the folk art of the Andes.”

WOMAN’S BLOUSE of cotton, embroidery thread; 114.3 x 127 centimeters, Pinchicha, Ecuador, circa 1980. Private collection.

The crowning glory of the Andean people, for thousands of years, has been their textiles. The Spanish, arriving in 1526, were impressed; early records speak with admiration of weavings of great refinement, beauty and quality. The exhibition includes superb examples: ponchos, costales (bags used to carry produce), women’s mantles and overskirts, exquisite alpaca coca bags, belts and headbands, European-style clothing, shawls, and even adornments for llamas, considered sacred across the highlands. When the Spanish were finally expelled in 1824 the indigenous people for the first time could answer to themselves. “People were no longer under such a heavy hand,” Mauldin says. “Even before, the Inca and other different groups had controlled a lot of what was being made and worn, particularly for textiles. And then the Spanish had very strict codes about what [the indigenous people] could do or wear. It was in that period when the new republics were forming… that basically the folk artists were freer to make things for themselves that they couldn’t have worn before or used in their homes or even made for trade to other people.”

Historian George Kubler has described the post-Independence nineteenth and twentieth centuries as the period of the greatest fluorescence of folk art throughout Latin America, though as Mauldin points out, “Kubler felt that folk art [in South America] became too commercialized by 1970. He was writing in the 1970s and he was already starting to see this whole movement towards making things for tourists and outsiders that was not quite what traditional folk arts might speak to.” From Mauldin’s perspective, Kubler could have cheered up. “I think if he had written later in the twentieth century he would have said that certain things did continue; it wasn’t all being totally destroyed by tourism.” To highlight the astonishing diversity of Andean folk art, Mauldin displays everything in groupings: for example, jewelry from several Andean countries is collected in cases together. “I like to show multiples of things because not only do you learn more, but also because each one is different, so that you can see the hand in the work. To me that’s really exciting, when you can see the artist’s hand.”

WOMAN IN TRADITIONAL CHOLA OUTFIT in Puno, Peru, 2008. Photograph by Barbara Mauldin.

A high, wide wall at the entrance greets you with rows of ponchos a world away from the souvenirs most of us know. One magnificent example, an enormous mid-nineteenth-century alpaca poncho, was woven by the Aymara-speaking people (considered by many still the most spectacular weavers in South America today) in Bolivia. Its design is very indigenous and very traditional, composed of strips of fine intricate patterns within a layout of six bands, with solid or bi-colored stripes in between. In contrast is a stunning deep indigo and white ikat poncho, from the town of Cacha Obraje in Ecuador. No one knows where or how the ikat technique got to South America, though there are plenty of theories. As the town’s name implies, it was once the site of a colonial obraje. Maudlin explains that ikat in the Andes “…was probably what the Spaniards were wearing. The ikat pattern was introduced from outside, and the ponchos were woven in cotton, which was more common in the obrajes. Cotton was known in precolumbian times and cultivated in the coastal areas for European use.” The obrajes introduced new technology, like the treadle loom, and techniques like ikat. Most of them were run by religious orders, to produce income for the church. They were notorious for the horrible conditions. “It was a hard life,” says Mauldin simply. The system ended as soon as the Spanish left.

Indigenous women kept their great weaving traditions alive in rural villages; besides for their own consumption they were required to pay so much in their finer weavings, as a type of tariff, to the colonial viceroyalty. Nevertheless almost all traditional precolumbian clothing worn by women was wiped out by severe restrictions imposed by the Spanish. “When the Spanish arrived the women were wearing a dress, called an aksu [an Aymara word],” Mauldin notes. “It was one piece of two lengths of fabric, sewn together and wrapped around the body; it came under the arms and pinned over the shoulders, and was open at the side. But the Indians didn’t wear undergarments. The Spanish immediately said no to that, and said you’re going to wear the peasant costume of Spanish women: the full skirt with a shirt—usually a rough bayeta cloth woven in the obrajes—and little jackets. They could still wear their traditional mantles and belts, which they could continue to weave.”

CORAL AND GLASS BEADS NECKLACE, string; 22.9 x 22.9 centimeters, Salasaca, Tungurahura, Ecuador, early twentieth century. Private Collection.

Several older mantles are in the exhibit [women wore horizontal stripes; men wore vertical]. The mantle preserved ethnic identities; woven in very distinctive colors and patterns they signified the different communities. Through it they could pass down all the old techniques and the old designs. “The women’s mantle really continued to be important,” Mauldin says. “In the more remote communities it took a longer time for the Spanish to enforce the policies, but particularly in Bolivia the indigenous women continued to wear that dress, the aksu, over the Spanish-style clothes. They wore it as an apron over the full skirt, because they just did not want to let go of it [either their dress or their weaving tradition].”

Meanwhile the mestiza [in the colonial class system, mestizo were acculturated indigenous people, sometimes offspring of Spaniards and Indian women, who lived in the towns and cities and served as domestics or skilled workers] in colonial towns developed a new-found love for European fashions: among other things, they fell for hats. In precolumbian times, hats never existed; men wore little caps and women folded cloths on top of their heads. Then European women arrived in the wide-brimmed hats fashionable in the seventeenth century. “This idea of actually putting a hat on your head that had a brim like that was new,” Mauldin explains. “I found a reference—I think it was eighteenth century—that colonial workshops were making hats for Europeans and for indigenous women, particularly the mestiza class.” The hats are still the same. “With indigenous ladies, once something gets into what becomes their traditional costume, it pretty much stays,” Mauldin says wryly.

The Spanish introduced knitting, which Indian men in Bolivia and Peru took up to make colorful caps covered with their own unique patterns; and embroidery, which gained widespread popularity for hats, adaptations of European clothes and some ethnic dress. “Over time in different regions the Peruvians have gone more to embroidery decoration for hats. With the ones from Bolivia, like the Tarabuco hats, the indigenous women just keep adding more and more to the embroidery, like sequins and glittery things, and glass or plastic beads; they just love all the embellishment and they keep playing with that,” she continues. Made of straw, felt or sewn from fabric over a basket-woven structure underneath and shown assembled together, the hats look fanciful and lighthearted. As Mauldin reiterates, “It’s a lot about fashion.”

Detail: ALPACA PONCHO; 108 x 163.8 centimeters, Oruro region, Bolivia, mid-nineteenth century. Collection of Paul and Elissa Cahn.

A revelation is that precolumbian women did not wear any jewelry [the Inca elite wore some, like ear spools and pectorals]. “As far as I can tell, from the early paintings when the Spanish first arrived and from the great drawings and prints and descriptions that they left, you don’t see earrings, you don’t see necklaces,” Mauldin says. “What you do find are the tupu [metal pins to fasten the aksu over the shoulders] and a single horizontal pin [a closure for the mantle].” A lot of Indian-crafted silverwork originally was made for the churches, and eventually the repoussé technique and ecclesiastical motifs migrated over into secular jewelry patterns. A red and blue bead necklace in the exhibit is unusual on two counts: Its style is indigenous to Ecuador (“they love red”), yet its coral and Venetian glass beads were not available or known before the Spanish. “It’s interesting because you see more jewelry worn in Ecuador than you do in either Peru or Bolivia,” notes Mauldin. “And the weaving in Ecuador is so much simpler: you don’t get much pattern. They just load up on the jewelry in Ecuador; they wear really nice earrings. It came through the mestiza into the indigenous communities.”

Alpaca herds used to be everywhere in the highlands; spun alpaca produces a fine long-fibered yarn with a lustrous finish. But in the later part of the nineteenth century so-called reforms made by the new governments created land ownership. “They were selling land to outside corporations so the patterns of how the herds were able to move changed. The alpaca really suffered,” Mauldin says. “By the early twentieth century you see mostly sheep wool being used. The sheep of course had been brought by the Spanish and didn’t need as much land.” Recent years have seen a revival of alpaca weaving, in some areas of Bolivia and particularly in the Cuzco region in Peru. “There’s a concerted effort to bring back the alpaca and have the wool available for weavers. Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez [who will attend the 2012 International Folk Art Market] has a nonprofit in Peru to help nine or ten communities keep their weaving traditions going, and they’re using alpaca, sometimes mixed with sheep wool. The quality of the weaving has really improved under her guidance.”

QHAPAQ NEGRA DANCERS participate in a festival in Paucartambo, Peru, 2009. Photograph by Andrea Heckman.

One of the least known aspects of Andean life is their love of dancing. Precolumbians masked and danced, in festivals, pageants and pilgrimages. As Mauldin explains, “Apparently they would tell the history of their ancestry and about pilgrimage routes through ritual dance steps. Those steps were forbidden at a certain point when the Spanish caught on,” and the significance is lost. But the Spanish came and went, and the Andean peoples danced on. In the exhibition’s rear gallery stands the life-size figure of a man, posed in mid-leap. His carnival costume and mask come from Oruro, Bolivia, a big mining region. The costume fairly vibrates with swags of gold fringe, embroidered gold dragons and scads of bright embellishment on a red velvet outfit. On the man’s head sits a bulging-eyed, polychrome-painted tin mask, with long horns corkscrewing into the air. Miners still believe in Supay, the god of the underworld; in colonial times Catholic priests told them the spirit was evil and the same as the devil. To keep Supay happy and include him in an annual festival, dancers in Oruro in 1790 began wearing costumes and masks that impersonated the European idea of devils. It must have worked, because the diablos are a sensation in the highlands.

More dance costumes, masks and accessories on display try to outdo each other in riots of color and crowded surface decorations. An enormous two-to-three-foot-high Corpus Christi headdress, particular to one region of Ecuador, stands in the form of a golden sunburst with points around the edge. “It’s all about reflecting the light,” Mauldin explains. Studded with mirrors, light bulbs, fake pearls, framed religious pictures, and shiny gimcracks, all the glitter and imagery is meant to suggest a look of great richness. Little plastic sheep are scattered around. Mauldin mentions precolumbian sculptural figures wearing high headdresses that have been found in excavations. She speculates that it functions like “a little altar on your head to the gods, asking for fertility for your sheep and prosperity for your family and your community.” It may be a modern, devoutly Catholic feast-day celebration, but in the background, the ancestral gods are probably having a field day.






More Folk Art of the Andes images



Leslie Clark
is a Santa Fe-based freelance writer. She was enthralled to spend time immersed in the Folk Art of the Andes exhibition at its Museum of International Folk Art. “It’s not only a beautiful show, with so much to see; but also the level of aesthetics and artistry fairly makes you catch your breath,” she says. She still visits the show. “Every time I go back I discover something else.” In a Santa Fe surfeit of richness, Clark also writes on the upcoming International Folk Art Market.



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