Exhibitions: Living Legacies: The Arts of the Americas

Threads of Time: Woven Histories of the Andes

Weaving is one of the oldest and most symbolically rich artistic traditions in the central Andean region, an area that includes present-day Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, northwestern Argentina, and southern Colombia. Indigenous peoples in this region speak native languages such as Quechua and Aymara, in addition to Spanish. The earliest known Andean textiles were discovered on the northern coast of Peru and date to about 3000 B.C. These dazzling works of art are remarkable for the skills required to create them, the complexity of their designs, and their vibrant colors.

Andean textiles are the result of an extremely labor-intensive process that requires herding camelids (llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas); planting cotton; collecting camelid and cotton fibers and natural pigments; dyeing, spinning, and plying yarn; and, finally, weaving and finishing the textile itself. In pre-Columbian times (before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors in 1532), textiles fulfilled important social and religious functions in indigenous society; they indicated social status and were considered sacred and more valuable than gold.

The textiles presented in this exhibition cover a time period of more than two thousand years and express complex social, ecological, and philosophical concepts. Images of plants, animals, human beings, and deities, for example, provide insights about the Andean environment and the religious and ideological beliefs of its inhabitants. Textiles therefore served—and continue to serve—as "written texts," especially since ancient Andean peoples had no known writing system. Some scholars have suggested that the weave structures themselves were metaphors for the social, economic, and political organization of the Andean world. Textiles remain an essential part of life for the people of this region, serving as bearers of cultural traditions and woven links to the past.

Next: Enduring Heritage: Arts of the Northwest Coast


Exhibition Highlights

Mantle (The Paracas Textile) Weaver's Work Basket with Spindles Tunic (Unku) Miniature Tunic