Time Warps

Andean Art: Textiles as a primary medium of exchange

One hundred years of archeological excavations have revealed to the world the rich, sophisticated and multiform expression of the great Andean cultures. Within this bountiful body of artifacts, textiles play a cardinal role in mirroring the psyche of their mysterious creators whilst providing a coherent, cohesive and flexible medium to express the "weltanschauung" of those times.

Textiles are amongst humanity's first artistic endeavors, playing a seminal role in the evolution of consciousness by reflecting archetypes of both a religious and social nature. Textiles become an exalted vehicle where the use of symbols, the arcanes of faith, cosmology and mythology are exposed. Unlike ceramics, which passed through all levels of secular society, textiles always plied a deeply spiritual component together with a status function. Today they continue to provoke the psychic unconscious. The afficionado, the scientist and the neophyte viewer of these mysterious weavings are collectively inspired to lift the veil shrouding these ancient works.

Textiles in the Andes were primarily destined as ceremonial offerings to the gods, ancestors and deceased as well as highly valued gifts for the living, playing a fundamental role in the sealing of alliances, as expressions of appreciation and advancement between lords and vassals and tribute between the defeated and the victorious. They highlighted important stages in the Andean life cycle, emerging as a form of "currency" which strengthened, in the form of artful and precious gifts, the bonds between kinfolks, and assuaged former foes in the form of goodwill.

Antique traditions, unlike our own, are not governed by a trade of capital and a commerce of goods. On the contrary they emphasised the gift in all forms of social intercourse in order to ritualise, amongst human society, the fundamental relationship ordering the Cosmos, that is the gift of life and sustenance bestowed by the Gods to the living. The ordering of society reflected this principle at every level and acted as the essential bond that held fast all of the social strata.

In this train of thought, it is not surprising that the ritual involving the exchange of gifts became fundamental to the social interactions of the Andeans, by imitating the gods it brought the divine into the realm of the human. When addressing the divine, "primitive" Man draws upon the power of his imagination to make visible the invisible realm. In order, the most beautiful and inspired of his creations are offered to the divinity, then to his Son on earth the king, his clergy and so on. So that weaving, as a prime conduit of magical images intended for the gods and symbols of power for the rulers, became the focal point of creative endeavors. As a result, it intensified the quest to develop ever more complex techniques to reflect an extremely sophisticated and refined iconography.

Such pursuits have raised the weaving tradition in the Andes above mere craftsmanship and elevates the corpus as a whole, in terms of the extensive visual vocabulary and syntax expressed, to the level of our knowledge incorporated in books, indeed libraries. As such, it is perhaps blasphemous to refer to such creations as art in the conventional sense, but is more correctly Art, arising from and revealing the realm of the Sacred.

If the impulse of giving finds its roots in the ritual of ceremonial offering or thanksgiving, it follows that love and fear play a particularly important driving force behind the creative process and inasmuch become the inspiration of the artist in his intention to please the giver (either loved or feared) and the recipient (also either loved or feared). In other words, those creations cannot simply be the result of intellectual conceits but are more properly conceived in the heart.

The Gift to the protector, whether divine or human, inspired the givers to put their heart and souls in their creations, giving birth to an extraordinary weaving tradition we perceive today as art. Hence we could say that art proceeds from the gift and this echoes the words of Lewis Hyde "where there is no gift there is no art"1. Having studied the approach to gift and exchange of various cultures he concludes "that art that matters to us...which moves the heart, revives the soul or offers courage for living, that work is received by us as a gift.... The work appeals, as Joseph Conrad says, to a part of our being which is itself a gift and not an acquisition"2. Although some of these works first saw the light of day twenty centuries ago, their power of evocation is such that their contemplation still stirs our being today.

In the ancient Andes as in most ancient cultures, the Shaman, the Hierophant or the Priest King links the celestial to the terrestrial and the gods to man. This tradition has survived in many parts of the world and even in the most notable of modern religions, in Christianity with the Pope and in Tibetan Buddhism with the Dalai Lama. In our context, however, it is the Shamanic tradition which embodies best our point. For the ancient Andeans, the Shaman as artist was probably synonymous to the artist as Shaman and the aim is likely to have been one of transformation and indeed elevation to another consciousness. We can draw many parallels between the Shaman and the artist in the XXth century who, as a visionary becomes a revealer of what lies beyond what the eye perceives and the mind can conceive.