Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 11, 2007
Elena Phipps, Johanna Hecht, and Cristina Esteras Martin, eds. The Colonial Andes: Tapestries and Silverwork, 1530–1830 Exh. cat. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, 2004. 412 pp.; 250 color ills.; 105 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (030010491X)

The monumental exhibition The Colonial Andes: Tapestries and Silverwork, 1530–1830, held in the fall of 2004 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, signaled recognition of the tapestry and silverwork masterpieces produced during the viceregal period in the Andes. One of the achievements of the exhibition’s curators, Elena Phipps and Johanna Hecht, and consulting curator, Cristina Esteras Martín, was their ability to obtain from both private collectors and institutions vital objects that had rarely, if ever, been exhibited. The result was a remarkable collection of many of the most significant artistic treasures from the late pre-Hispanic Inca and colonial periods. Although the focus of the exhibition was textiles and silverwork, reflecting the preeminent position of those media in the pre-Hispanic Inca period and their continued importance in the viceregal period, the exhibition included critical examples of other media, such as paintings, manuscripts, and keros (wooden vessels), that provided context and illuminated the themes of the exhibition.

The exhibition catalogue, which recently received the Eric Mitchell Prize for best English language exhibition catalogue for 2004–2005, consists of seven essays, divided into two sections, followed by an illustrated 247-page catalogue. The scope of the exhibition, as well as the color reproductions and extensive text accompanying each of the 161 objects exhibited, makes this catalogue a major contribution to colonial Andean scholarship and provides an important visual resource heretofore lacking in the field. The inclusion of color reproductions of both the front and back of important tunics (uncus) will provide scholars and viewers the opportunity to conduct critical comparative studies. The exhibition also included several key viceregal paintings to which access has previously been limited, including four paintings from the Corpus Christi series (116a–d) and The Virgin of the Mountain (80), from the Casa de Moneda de Potosi.

The catalogue’s first section, “Inca Heritage,” provides an overview of pre-Hispanic Inca artistic practices and social structure, and their transformation in the colonial period. Thomas B.F. Cummin’s essay, “Silver Threads and Golden Needles: The Inca, the Spanish, and the Sacred World of Humanity,” lays the groundwork for the subsequent essays, detailing the intricacies of the organization of the pre-Hispanic Inca empire and its reconfiguration following the arrival of the Spanish. One area of commonality was the role of costly and exquisitely crafted objects in the ritual display of wealth and power, especially metalwork and textiles, which were highly valued in both societies. The rapid adaptation of Andean artisans to Spanish techniques and the discovery of what was literally a mountain of silver in Potosi provided the impetus for the plethora of silver objects produced during the viceregal era.

Phipps’s “Garments and Identity in the Colonial Andes” concentrates on the preeminent role of textiles in the pre-Hispanic Inca period and the continuities and changes in technique, utilization of fibers, and design elements during the colonial era. The transition from the abstract Inca aesthetic to the figural European style did not result, however, in the complete obliteration of Andean elements, as they were often simply reconfigured (in, for example, the subtle changes in abstract Andean tocapu [textile designs] and the introduction of Andean flora and fauna). The comprehensive nature of Phipps’s close examination of weaving techniques, fibers, and dyes, and their correlation with both contemporary and colonial sources, assures the status of this essay as an important resource for future scholars.

“The Viceroyalty of Peru,” the second section of the catalogue, contains five essays that treat not only the production and physical form of textiles and silverwork in the viceregal period, but also examine multiple aspects of colonial society, thus providing a historical context for their production. Two complementary essays, Hecht’s “The Past Is Present: Transformation and Persistence of Imported Ornament in Viceregal Peru” and Esteras Martín’s “Acculturation and Innovation in Peruvian Viceregal Silverwork,” provide an overview of continuity and change in the production and design of viceregal silverwork. Hecht explores the adaptation of Western designs by Andean silversmiths in a manner that creates ambiguous images capable of more than one reading, depending upon the cultural background of the reader. She links colonial design motifs on silverwork with other viceregal media, such as textiles, manuscripts, and painted images, and describes the plethora of silver objects—not just plates and vessels, but also elaborate altar frontals, candelabra, monstrances, and other liturgical items—that the abundance of silver in the Andes made possible. Hecht notes that while the ownership and display of silver objects during the Inca period was restricted to Inca rulers, during the colonial period access to silverwork was restricted only by monetary considerations.

Esteras Martín follows Hecht’s theme, noting that the pluralistic nature of both Spanish and Andean populations and cultures at the time of the conquest resulted in a viceregal society that became the sum of those diverse parts. She posits that viceregal Andean society and artistic production should never be considered simply a product of the imposition of Spanish cultural and artistic ideals, but rather must be considered as something genuine and original, a blending of ideals, aesthetics, technique, and form. She compares not only the designs but also the techniques of pre-Hispanic Andean and European artists, and like Hecht posits that the transformation of the artist in the viceregal period was multidirectional.

Phipps’s second essay, “Cumbi to Tapestry: Collection, Innovation, and Transformation of the Colonial Andean Tapestry Tradition,” complements her other one. Here she describes the fusion of pre-Hispanic and Spanish weaving techniques, looms, and design elements to create new woven forms with different functions, a transition from “human scale” products of wearing apparel that encoded identity to “large scale” tapestries, wall hangings, rugs, and curtains that were decorative and narrative (73). She emphasizes that colonial weavers did not just copy, but that they combined Andean and European techniques, materials, and designs to create a unique colonial aesthetic. These unique designs also included Asian motifs, probably observed on textiles brought from Manila. Their use by multiple patrons, including citizens of all ethnic groups, political figures, and religious orders, is documented by colonial sources.

“Religion and Society in Inca and Spanish Peru,” by Sabine MacCormack, examines the multiple threads of Andean religion as they were woven together to create a uniquely Andean form of Christianity. She emphasizes that the pre-Hispanic Andean population was ethnically and culturally diverse with distinct religious practices, and that the imposition of the Inka imperial cult did not conflict with either their worship of local deities (huacas) or the position of local religious authorities. This contrasted sharply with the imposition of Christianity, which required Andeans to abandon all local religious activities. In conclusion, MacCormack observes that as huacas were part of the landscape and dealt with everyday concerns, the saints lived in heaven and were concerned with the afterlife, but that as saints became patrons of local churches, they, like huacas, became part of the landscape and were consulted for local affairs. This convergence of saints and huacas, she states, “is a testimony to the flexibility of Christian traditions, and to the resilience, the spiritual energy of the Andean peoples” (112). This cross-fertilization created the dynamic art forms of the colonial era.

Frank Salomon’s “Andean Opulence: Indigenous Ideas about Wealth in Colonial Peru” examines the different understandings of the word “treasure” by Andeans and Europeans. This difference is highlighted by the difficulty the early Jesuit lexicographer Diego Gonzáles Holguín had in finding a corollary to the Spanish word, tesoro. The Quechua word he ultimately selected, ylla (or illa), refers to a bezoar, a stone that is regurgitated by llamas and alpacas and which is believed by Andean peoples to this day to imbue their herds with “strength, health, and fertility” (115). While bezoars are the illa of animals, mummified ancestors were the illa of humans, because “Andean societies believed that each group’s fecundity or productive essence inhered through its mummified ancestors” (116). What the Spaniards saw as Inca “treasure,” therefore, were the textile and metal gifts offered to the mummies, the human illas, as an act of homage and reciprocity to ensure the community’s future. Salomon notes that wills recorded during the first four decades of the colonial era show that the concept of illa broadened to include the idea of silver as cash and that, ultimately, monetary wealth took its place in wills, as did silver jewelry, lace, embroidery, pearls, and other luxury items. Nevertheless, the original understanding of illa continued to imbue peasant notions of wealth as crops, herds, and metals—as they do even now.

These two concluding essays provide social and historical context for the viceregal period at the same time that they reiterate themes consistent throughout the text, i.e., the diversity of the cultural mix in both the pre-Hispanic and viceregal periods. As the essays in this volume have cogently illustrated, viceregal production of textiles and silverwork was the result of a cross-cultural fertilization that created dynamic new art forms. The curators, editors, and authors of the essays and comprehensive catalogue texts have created an outstanding volume and resource for the study of viceregal art.

Marie Timberlake
Professor, Department of Art History, Savannah College of Art and Design