Ancient Andean weaving tools and materials were simple; weavers relied on their hands and imaginations to create complex textiles. A weaver’s tools, such as the spindles found in this work basket, were buried with their owner, demonstrating the importance of weaving and its centrality to social identity. Andean weavers used two main fibers to make yarn: cotton, which was cultivated most extensively in warm coastal valleys; and the silken hair of llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas, species that are unique to the highlands of South America.
A virtuoso piece of tapestry weaving, with over eighty threads per square centimeter (most tapestries of this period have about forty-five), this miniature shirt was undoubtedly a ritual or funerary offering. It is likely made of vicuña fiber, the finest fleece used by Andean weavers. The staff-bearing figures resemble relief carvings on the Gateway of the Sun at the archaeological site of Tiwanaku in Bolivia, illustrating the influence of Tiwanaku imagery on the slightly later Wari style.
After the Spanish Conquest in 1532, the traditional Inca tunic for men took on new forms and meanings. Local lords, or curacas, adopted garment styles that had previously been reserved for the Inca nobility. These members of the new elite appropriated the high-status garment of the past in order to validate their authority. This tunic is unusual because it combines Andean and European symbols: traditional Inca geometric designs known as tocapu are visible along the lower edges of both sides and around the neck; the images of Inca men and women and heraldic shields flanked by lions, embroidered in silver thread, show European influence.
Jody Folwell believes in making statements with images and words. She makes clay pots in the traditional coil way, but then sculpts them into asymmetrical shapes and incorporates colors, designs, and wordplay. The words “Market Stampede” superimposed over a herd of Indian ponies galloping across the surface of this pot satirize buyers rushing to the Santa Fe Indian markets. Each Folwell pot tells a story—sometimes beautiful, sometimes caustic—about contemporary life.
At the height of Maya civilization (C.E.
300–900), painting, particularly on ceramic vessels, was the primary art form. Artists painted images, often accompanied by hieroglyphic texts, to record historic and mythological events. This vase, probably created as a funerary object, depicts three supernatural beings in a procession or dance: Tzuk Amal (the toad), Water Lily Jaguar, and Och Chan, the Bearded Dragon. The hieroglyphic text says: “Och Chan and Water Lily Jaguar are the Way [companion spirits] of the Lords of Calakmul.”
The jaguar symbolized power and was believed to be a supernatural partner of Maya rulers. The other two supernaturals may also be companion spirits into whose form rulers and shamans would be transformed during vision quest rituals.
Chinantec women in Oaxaca, Mexico, wear traditional blouses, or huipiles, as emblems of their ethnic identity. The specific floral and geometric designs woven and embroidered on this huipil identify it as Chinantec. In addition to their dramatic appearance, huipiles have cosmological significance. When opened and laid flat, the huipil‘s design creates a cross with the hole for the head in the center, placing the wearer at the heart of the huipil and the universe, surrounded by levels of meaning and symbols.
Most Plains Tribes painted geometric or figural designs with natural pigments on elk, buffalo, and deer hides that would be used as robes or tepee walls. By the 1870s, hide artists like Cadzi Cody (Cotsiogo), a member of the Wind River Shoshone tribe, developed pictorial styles and chose subjects that both affirmed native cultural identity and attracted an outside audience. This elk hide from about 1900 depicts two themes highly marketable to tourists visiting the Wind River Reservation.
In this hide painting, Cody combines historical and contemporary narratives by depicting both a buffalo hunt and the Wolf Dance. Buffalo had been eradicated from this region by the 1880s, and the Shoshone people, depicted here with bows and arrows, had been using modern rifles for quite some time. The Wolf Dance, or tdsayuge, represented in the center celebrated the return of a war party. It evolved into the Grass Dance, which is still performed today at all powwows (major dances and celebrations in the Plains and Eastern Native American regions). Cody depicts the dancers’ elaborate clothing and war bonnets worn as part of the Wolf Dance’s symbolic regalia. The buffalo head between crossed poles shown at the center of the painting is used only in the Sun Dance, a restricted, sacred ceremony performed to ensure long life. Although the ceremony was popular with anthropologists and tourists, the United States government viewed it as unacceptable. It appears that Cody deliberately depicted the buffalo head to attract paying clients, but placed it within the context of the more politically acceptable Wolf Dance to avoid conflict.
Although this object illustrates an “inherited” story and character, the artist Tom Price created it in his individualistic style. The hat depicts Tcamaos, a mythological, supernatural, underwater driftwood log that devours canoes. Price painted the design, including the characteristic red star on the crown, but his wife probably wove the hat.
In the mythology of the Kwakwk‘wakw people, the Dzunuwa, or Cannibal Woman, is a dangerous monster. Twice the normal height, with a black, hairy body and sagging breasts, she lurks in the forest and eats children. The Cannibal Woman is represented by a mask such as the one shown here, worn by a dancer during a Winter Ceremony. The dancer moves clumsily to represent the monster’s confusion outside the forest environment. This frightening character is also associated with riches, and, according to legend, men who could tame her would bring back great treasure. A chief may also wear a Dzunuwa mask when distributing wealth at a potlatch, a gift-giving ceremony.
Kwakwk‘wakw dancers use special effects to suggest supernatural powers and to excite their audiences. A cord rigging allowed a dancer to open and close this mask, creating a dramatic transformation. The exterior represents a thunderbird that, according to the beliefs of the Nmis people, completed the creation of the world. Once it is opened, the mask reveals a face—either human or snake—surrounded by two heads of the sisiutl, or lightning snake. A small man, possibly representing an ancestor or deceased chief, sits on top, and the bottom depicts a bearlike creature.
Both the quantity and the quality of textiles from the South Coast of Peru demonstrate that weaving was of paramount importance to the Paracas people. This extraordinary mantle or cloak, made by early Paracas artists, is one of the most renowned Andean textiles in the world. Its small size suggests that it may have been used as an intimate ceremonial object.
The ninety figures decorating the border have been interpreted as a microcosm of life on Peru’s south coast two thousand years ago, with a particular focus on agriculture. Many of the images illustrate native flora and fauna as well as cultivated plants. The order in which figures repeat has led some scholars to interpret the textile as a lunar calendar. Depictions of costumed figures may represent humans impersonating gods and acting as intermediaries between the real and supernatural worlds. Severed human “trophy” heads are shown as germinating seeds, suggesting the practice of ritual sacrifice and the interconnected cycles of birth and death.
This engraved tooth depicts several scenes of men hunting: chasing a huge walrus, harpooning a whale, spearing a bear, and aiming bows and arrows at a caribou. One of the most intriguing scenes shows three men dancing and holding circular drums. Two of the men wear bushy foxtails, which were considered quite fashionable.
The Haida artist George Dickson made this model for exhibition at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He based it on the full-sized “House of Contentment” in Skidegate that was owned by his great-grandfather. The Haida people consider a house to be analogous to the skeleton of a collective ancestor, and the inhabitants are the spirit forces. The totem pole depicts ancestral crests that are “read” from the top down. In this example, the three Watchmen at the top wear high-crowned hats symbolizing the status of the chief, whom they protect and warn of approaching danger. The middle figure depicts a woman whose family regalia identifies her as a doctor. On the bottom, Wasco, a long-eared sea monster carries the fin whale Scanna on its back.
Living Legacies: The Arts of the Americas
April 16, 2004–March 18, 2008
Living Legacies: The Arts of the Americas is a thematic installation that features the Museum’s world-renowned collections of indigenous art from North, Central, and South America, dating from about 3000 B.C.E. to the present. The three exhibitions currently on view comprise the first of two phases that, when completed in 2006, will present over four hundred objects of remarkable beauty, some of which have never before been shown.
The first phase of Living Legacies presents approximately one hundred objects in three thematic exhibitions: “Threads of Time: Woven Histories of the Andes,” featuring the Museum’s world-renowned textile collection; “Enduring Heritage: Arts of the Northwest Coast,” recontextualizing sculptural objects; and “Stories Revealed: Writing Without Words,” emphasizing the universality of the indigenous pictorial tradition. Each section includes examples of contemporary works, demonstrating the continuity of these artistic traditions and underscoring their role as living legacies for the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
The exhibitions are installed in the Museum’s grand Hall of the Americas, located on the first floor adjacent to the Museum lobby. The hall is a 12,000-square-foot gallery that is 24 feet high and features 16 freestanding columns. This soaring space, designed in 1910 by the architecture firm McKim, Mead & White, is divided into thematic areas that, although visually and conceptually distinct, allow the visitor to move easily from one to the other. Chief Designer Matthew Yokobosky incorporated colorful, abstract murals into the surrounding walls of the gallery to resonate with each adjacent theme. An Andean landscape is depicted next to “Threads of Time,” for example, and an abstract cedar forest mural echoes the Northwest Coast totem poles. Maps, photographs, drawings, diagrams, and wall panels and labels written in English and Spanish enhance the viewer’s understanding of the artworks.