by PC’s designer / guest blogger
On my last design trip to Lima, Peru I had the chance to visit the Amano Museum. I heard about the wonderful collection of textiles that were housed there, though nothing prepared me for the magnificence of the artifacts gathered there.
This privately owned museum consists of many artifacts, but mainly textiles from the lesser-known Chancay culture that flourished between 900 AD-1400 AD in an area about fifty miles north of Lima. Mr. Yoshitaro Amano, a Japanese businessman, collected everything since the end of the Second World War when he settled back in Peru. His business gave him the financial freedom to pursue his long held passion for pre-historic Andean archeology and his dream of collecting, preserving and understanding the significance of Chancay artifacts. He never charged to visit his museum as he felt it would be inappropriate to charge the Peruvian people to see a collection of artifacts from their own cultural heritage, but he has certainly repaid his debt with the care and love that this collection imbues. Visits are by appointment only, and as the guides speak only Spanish or Japanese, Marcia from PC’s Lima office came with me to translate in whispers as we went around. We arrived at the museum, a simple building that used to be Mr. Amano’s home, at the appointed time and were buzzed in through the iron gates. We crossed a bridge over a long rectangular pool brimming with hundreds of goldfish, then the magic began.
We were led upstairs into the first room, which consists of ceramics organized chronologically to show the progression and differences between the cultures. To start with, we were given an overview of the succeeding Peruvian civilizations from the Chavin culture from around 900 BC until the invasion of the Conquistadores. Not only were these ceramics still whole, but the colors and patterns were still completely intact, decorated with figures and representations of the important plants and animals used in daily life. It was striking how everyday things, especially crops, animals and fish were consistently represented through all the periods, whether the objects were for everyday or ceremonial use.
But it is the second room that is the most astonishing, a mouth-wateringly gorgeous collection of textiles. There are some representative textiles in cases on the walls around the room, but the majority of the treasures are kept hidden in large, plain chest drawers. These were randomly opened for a few minutes at a time as we went around the room again in chronological order. The oldest pieces in the museum are almost 4000 years old, though the majority of the pieces range in age from 600 AD to 1500 AD and incredibly are still almost perfect. The very dry and sandy conditions unique to the Chancay Valley region of Peru preserved the textiles as if they had only just been placed there. Even quite recently it was still possible to go to this area and find bones, bits of textiles and pottery lying in the sandy ground.
Amongst the first drawers to be opened is one that displays tiny decorated drop spindles, used to spin the incredibly fine cotton and later, the alpaca thread that was used to create all these textiles. Some of it was so fine that even today it wouldn’t be easy to produce by machine. The craftsmanship to produce it would have taken years to learn. One of the important identifying features of the textiles was the use of various types of twist in the yarn, each type used specifically by different groups for very specific techniques. It was also possible to see when camelid fibers from highland areas were introduced into the cloth, as trading between highland and coastal regions started. This area and the yarn they produced would initially only have been indigenously grown cotton.
The most stunning impression made on me though was that the intensity of the colors was still so clear and bright. The vivid shades of red, ochre, rust, gold and even blue are all from natural local sources, cochineal, weld, indigo and various tannins being the most common, and are evidence of the significant technical mastery the dyers achieved.
Especially beautiful and unique are the Chancay gauzes, today called Leno weaves. These incredibly lightweight lace panels were woven on simple back-strap looms and apparently were produced purely for ceremonial use. Most were found wrapped around the mummified remains. The complex structures were constructed by hand manipulating the warp threads as they were woven. Panels were then often joined together and some were over embroidered to add further textural dimension, as well as figurative representations of animals and insects. Some were even over-dyed afterwards in a sort of ancient tie-dye effect to mimic animal markings.
Karina Nielson Rios has studied these textiles in depth at the Amano Museum and now weaves beautiful leno weaves in her Native Denmark, inspired by the Chancay Gauzes. I would like to thank her for so generously sharing her beautiful work and allowing me to use her photographs.
As we went around the room and drawer after drawer was pulled out, I was almost speechless at the beauty of these ancient fabrics and the complexity of the multiple techniques that were often used. The majority of the pieces are woven using various versions of techniques to be able to create patterns, so as to be able to incorporate both stylized and more realistic representations of various creatures and anthropomorphic figures into the cloth. There were very few pieces that I saw that were simple stripes, and even these involved little brocades. It seems that these artisans were much more interested in exploring pattern and color and imagery. There seems to be almost a childlike joy being expressed in the work and especially the recurring motifs of birds, felines and snakes that echo the trinity of spirit world, earthly existence and underworld.
In addition to the pieces with imagery woven into the fabric, there are also softly toned painted cotton cloths, which use various resist methods to create the patterns and imagery of important creatures and objects in the lives of the artisans.
One of my favorite pieces is a patchwork panel created from a resist pattern woolen cloth, that would have been used as a shawl, all beautifully cut apart and re-stitched back together to create a geometric design using the highest level of skill.
There are a few exceptional pieces of feather work, which would have been for ceremonial use. These textiles are extremely fragile and much more prone to disintegration. Feathers were individually tied to threads and added to weavings to add brilliant color and maybe it is suggested for the waterproof properties of the feathers. Certainly wearing one of the feathered ponchos would have been a stunning sight as all the feathers fluttered subtley with the wearer’s movements.
The guides showing the collection apparently never open the drawers in the same order, so only a small portion of the collection can ever be seen in each hour long visit; each drawer is only held open long enough for a quick explanation and then shut again. However, this brief exposure was enough to leave me feeling very humble at the skill and artistry of these people working so long ago with so few resources. This collection of textiles is a both a connecting point on the span of time between those long ago artists and myself creating textiles today; as well as an enduring record of the passionate spirit of craftsmen to create beautiful imagery as a celebration of life.