Mantle (Peruvian, Paracas, 0–A.D. 100)

Mantle, camelid plain weave with stem-stitch embroidery; fringe. John H. and Ernestine A. Payne Fund (1972.353). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

NOW ON VIEW (Ancient South America Gallery, LG33)

This stunning mantle dated to 0–A.D. 100 is created using linear style embroidery, one of three dominant styles expressed by Paracas textile artists (for another example of linear style embroidery, see this poncho). Linear style is highly abstracted in contrast to block color style, which is visually more pictorial (see this border fragment for block color style). In the linear style, Paracas embroiderers rendered imagery with straight lines of stitches running in parallel rows, in both horizontal and vertical directions, true to the matrix of warp and weft threads in its woven cloth ground. The background was filled in first, with images emerging as negative forms; these were then outlined with contrasting colored yarns in a restricted palette; usually 3-4 colors at most. This method of applying embroidery yarns, faithfully aligned with the binary units of its woven foundation, produced ideographic patterns that appear to be woven rather than embroidered.

The label copy for this impressive textile, just recently been placed on view, tells us this Paracas mantle is among only a handful known to survive.

Click for description, detail view and collection data on mfa.org


Object a Week is a revolving showcase of MFA textile collections. A featured object may be indicative of the author’s study focus at a given moment in time and/or related to topics of research, activity, or recent acquisitions in the Museum’s Textile and Fashion Arts department

Katherine Westphal, American fiber artist (1919-2018)

“Siren Song.” Katherine Westphal, American, (1919-2018). Paper; machine-stitched patchwork, photocopy heat-transfer, dye-transfer crayon. The Daphne Farago Collection (2004.2159). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Almost everything I do is related to where I’ve been or where I’m going to go. Basically, I’m a tourist, moving around the world to faraway places either by actually traveling to the spot or by using the armchair method. Then it all pops out in my work – someone else’s culture and mine, mixed in the eggbeater of my mind to create a reality for me and a better understanding of what I have seen or experienced. Much of my work is autobiographical, a record of images observed and treasured.” ~ Katherine Westphal

I depart momentarily from my focus on ancient Peruvian textiles to honor the life and work of pioneering multi-media fiber artist Katherine Westphal who died last week at the age of 99. She was a seminal maker in multiple mediums who practiced rigorous experimentation and pushing of boundaries in textile traditions and encouraged this through her teaching. Westphal employed time-honored textile techniques: sewing, resist dyeing and tapestry weaving, in combination with the emergent processes of her time that came with the Xerox photocopier and other unconventional materials like plastic tubing and tape, to deconstruct and recast new textile forms. She challenged stereotypic views of “women’s work” and brought recognition to quilt making as a fine art form.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston houses an impressive collection of work by Katherine Westphal. Though my weekly posts normally focus on singular objects, I’ve include several of my favorite images here of the artist’s work. Scroll to the end of this page for a link to the MFA’s complete collection of the Westphal’s work, and for related links about her life and career.

My baskets build one stitch at a time – color, shape, image, idea – in a spiral pattern, a growth form. Each basket has a name – and an identity, and each basket is part of a series. The ideas can stem from nature, art, or from the chance remark of a friend. My baskets are not narrative or representational; they are my emotional reaction to a place, event or object.
~ Katherine Westphal

“Tiananmen Square, June 1989”. Katherine Westphal (American, 1919-2018). Gourd covered with photocopy-heat-transfer-printed paper, tied with straw. The Daphne Farago Collection (2004.2155). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
“Out of Focus in Attica,” 1993. Katherine Westphal (American, 1919-2018). Paper; machine-stitched patchwork, dip-dyed, photocopy heat-transfer, crayon and felt-tipped-pen drawing. The Daphne Farago Collection (2004.2163). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Black Samurai, 1977. Katherine Westphal (American, 1919-2018). Commercial silk organza, self-stick plastic tape, silk cord; color photography heat-transfer and felt-tip pen drawing. The Daphne Farago Collection (2004.2092). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Click here for additional works by Katherine Westphal on mfa.org

Also:
Katherine Westphal, Fiber Artist Pioneer, Dies at 99/Hyperallergic
Artist’s bio, statements and featured publications/browngrotta arts


Object a Week is a revolving showcase of MFA textile collections. A featured object may be indicative of the author’s study focus at a given moment in time and/or related to topics of research, activity, or recent acquisitions in the Museum’s Textile and Fashion Arts department

Burial mantle or shroud (Peruvian, Neo-Incan, A.D. 1550)

Mantle or shroud, wool and cotton interlocked tapestry with overstitched edging. Charles Potter Kling Fund (1988.325). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

NOW ON VIEW (Ancient South America Gallery, LG33)

This rare and finely-made burial shroud, created in the Andean highlands using a technique called interlocking tapestry, is dated from the late Inca to early Colonial period, or about A.D. 1550 (just after the Spanish conquest). It is the only known mantle to display an all-over arrangement of t’ocapu, or pictorial symbols – 1,824 in total – and woven in 32 cotton warp threads/200 alpaca weft threads per inch, also making it one of the finest interlocking tapestries known.

This burial shroud was studied by two Peruvianists who each advanced a different interpretation of the mantle’s essential purpose. At around the time the MFA was acquiring this textile in 1988, Alan Reed Sawyer, former curator at the Art Institute of Chicago and former director of the Textile Museum, Washington, DC, drew relationships between the compositional layout of t’ocapu and the stitched tri-color binding pattern in the weaving’s edge to the ritualistic procedure in which the shroud was intended to be wrapped around the body. After extensive iconographic analysis, Sawyer argued that the arrangement of symbols and patterning of the selvage binding served as visual aids to guide officiants in the proper protocols of burial. Some years later in 2003, Gary Orton of Harvard University, who also conducted a thorough investigation of these same elements, ascribed significance to the number of t’ocapu (1,824) as aligning with the count of five solar years, pursuing the hypothesis that the mantle was designed and made specifically to commemorate a five-year calendar.

Detail of mantle or shroud with view of tri-color stitched binding. Wool and cotton interlocked tapestry with overstitched edging. Charles Potter Kling Fund (1988.325). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Research suggests this mantle was made for a young Inca male adolescent of noble rank, created during the last vestige of his people’s great cultural empire – succeeded by Spanish colonialists. Correspondences in 1988 between Jean-Michel Tuscherer, the MFA’s Chair of Textiles, and Alan R. Sawyer who had studied the mantle in great detail, allude to the monumental treasure that was about to enter the Museum’s distinguished collection of Spanish colonial and ancient Peruvian textiles.

This masterwork of Neo-Incan culture has been off-view since its first MFA, Boston exhibition debut in 1992, To Weave for the Sun. Details of the mantle adorn both front and back covers of the exhibition’s catalogue by Rebecca Stone-Miller. It was recently installed in the Museum’s ancient South American gallery (LG33), where it will remain on view for one year.

Click for description, detail views and collection data on mfa.org


Object a Week is a revolving showcase of MFA textile collections. A featured object may be indicative of the author’s study focus at a given moment in time and/or related to topics of research, activity, or recent acquisitions in the Museum’s Textile and Fashion Arts department

Border Fragment (Peruvian, Paracas, 200 B.C.-0)

Border fragment, wool plain weave with stem stitch embroidery. Seth K. Sweetzer Fund (31.901). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The mythical creature embroidered on this border fragment dating to 200 B.C.-0, multiplied in diminutive form along the fringe’s edge, might be interpreted as a fish, a bird, or a composite of both. Along the Peruvian south coast, wind-driven upwelling of the northward-flowing Humbolt current brings dense, cooler waters toward the ocean surface. The current brings with it nutrient-rich waters promoting a fertile marine environment that in turn supports abundant avian species that feed on its bounty. However perceived, the ubiquitous presence of such images imagined by Paracas embroiderers is emblematic of their intimate and reciprocal relationship with the natural world.

Click for description, detail view and collection data on mfa.org


Object a Week is a revolving showcase of MFA textile collections. A featured object may be indicative of the author’s study focus at a given moment in time and/or related to topics of research, activity, or recent acquisitions in the Museum’s Textile and Fashion Arts department

City of the Dead

Detail of mantle, camelid plain weave with stem-stitch embroidery; fringe. Peruvian (Paracas). John H. and Ernestine A. Payne Fund (1972.353). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Border fragment, wool plain weave with stem-stitch embroidery. Peruvian (Paracas). Denman Waldo Ross Collection (16.36). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

My first exposure 26 years ago to the spectacular Paracas mantles on display in the MFA’s exhibition of Andean textiles, To Weave for the Sun, was formative and unforgettable. The vivid colors, dynamic compositions and portrayals of elaborately costumed humans, animals and anthropomorphic beings, rendered in minute stem-stitch embroidery, infused my burgeoning curiosity about ethnographic textiles and their ritual use in societies. Fabrics from Paracas culture have long been a source of intense interest ever since the early part of the 20th century, when intricately decorated and finely made textiles from an unknown prehistoric culture began to surface in collectors’ markets in Peru and beyond, devoid of all context. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston was among a handful of public institutions to receive the first of these textiles prior to the archaeological excavations of their source. These included several mantles and border fragments. I recently studied two of those fragments: one that entered the collection in 1916 (see image, left) and the other in 1921 (see this mantle border fragment). They were gifted to the Museum by Denman Ross (1853-1935), a professor of art history at Harvard University, Trustee of the Museum and noted collector of diverse global art. Thanks to the convictions of a preeminent Peruvian archaeologist determined to preserve and learn from the material culture of his country’s prehistory, new knowledge about these textiles has been developed over recent decades. As I delve deeper into these narratives, I believe the story of the Paracas embroideries and other masterful examples of textile achievement from this culture, one that endured for 900 years, is interlaced with their remarkable survival after two millennia, their celebrated discovery and subsequent interpretation.

The long-concealed location of the Paracas weavings was destined to be excavated by America’s first indigenous archaeologist, Julio César Tello, universally known as the “father of Peruvian archaeology.” Tello, an Indian born in the mountains of Huarochirí Province in Peru and a native speaker of Quechua, was obsessed by the embroidered fabrics that were unlike anything he had seen before in Andean culture. After years of searching for their location, he was able to convince a professional grave robber from Pisco by the name of Juan Quintana to take him to sites on the Bay of Paracas, a vicinity of previous looting that began occurring in 1911. Tello intuited this region could be the fountainhead of the embroideries that were being dispersed to private collections and museums.

Julio C. Tello, “father of Peruvian archaeology” (1880–1947)

On July 26, 1925, with Quintana as his guide, Tello and two companions from Harvard University arrived at the Bay of Paracas at a region called Arena Blanca. There, they were met by the sight of scattered textile fragments, pottery shards, and elongated human skulls on the desert surface. It was a decisive moment that marked the end of Tello’s decade long quest for the source of the enigmatic embroideries. He named the undocumented culture “Paracas.”

Map of Peru with inset (lower left) detailing the south coastal region. The Paracas Peninsula is highlighted in red.
Paracas Peninsula, south coastal Peru

 

 

 

 

 

The word “Paracas” comes from the Quechua word para-ako, meaning sand falling like rain. For several hours in the late afternoon, intense southwesterly winds sweep torrents of sand over the desert peninsula, hence its moniker. Bordered on three sides by the Pacific Ocean, warm desert temperatures of the Paracas Peninsula collide with the wind-driven upwelling of the frigid Humbolt current flowing northward along the Peruvian coast, creating conditions that both prevent precipitation, and promote maximum dryness. Such environmental conditions and protection from light were fundamental to the survival of the ancient weavings that were ritually buried with their dead by Paracas communities. These textiles, encoded with iconographic images whose meaning can only be interpreted in the absence of any written texts, were layered around corpses like skins of an onion, in combination with plain fabrics and other objects associated with the deceased. The body was placed in a seated position within a shallow circular basket, head between the knees, encased within conical-shaped bundles formed by voluminous layers of fabric and clustered in dark, dry tombs where they remained hidden from all knowledge for nearly 2,000 years.

Representation of the Necrópolis of Wari Kayan with cone-shaped funerary bundles. Click image for website source.
The Paracas Peninsula showing locations of three burial sites in proximity to Cerro Colorado.

Tello commenced excavations on the desert peninsula with a team from Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos and Museo Nacional de Antropología y Arqueología between 1925-1929; they began with a survey of their starting point, Arena Blanca, where they found evidence of human habitation, numerous cemeteries, textiles, and pottery. They continued southward to the summit of Cerro Colorado, where they discovered bottle shaped shaft tombs known as Paracas Cavernas. A massive  burial precinct was later to be uncovered on the northern slope of Cerro Colorado, referred to as the Necrópolis of Wari Kayan. Excavations between 1927-1928 at the Necrópolis unearthed 429 funerary bundles – a find of epic proportions.

Julio C. Tello examining a Paracas mummy bundle.

The bundles were removed from the tombs, transported to the Museo de Arqueología Antropología Peruana in Lima, and later moved to Lima’s Museo Nacional de Antropología y Arqueología, where a new wave of research and study was launched. Under Tello’s supervision, 40 of the largest bundles were opened with meticulous attention to object numbering and a method for sequencing the removal of every item. The largest bundles offered evidence that the deceased were Paracas rulers and high status members of their ancient society.

Detail of mantle, wool plain weave with stem-stitch embroidery. Peruvian (Paracas). Denman Waldo Ross Collection (16.31). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Anne Paul is a key contributor to a more recent place within the research continuum set in motion by Tello’s landmark discovery; I have greatly benefited from her published work in my exploration of the embroideries. In her book, Paracas Ritual Attire: Symbols of Authority in Ancient Peru, Paul addresses the particular challenge of interpreting Paracas material culture:

The contents of these Necrópolis bundles are the main record of Paracas culture; its members left no written records about themselves. Covered with rows of isolated images, the garments worn by the rulers were a fundamental form of visual communication within Paracas society. But the interpretation of the messages encoded in these weavings is difficult. Faced with an absence of written texts, it is the task of the art historian to make sense out of what is seen on these garments-to learn how to read images stitched on cloth instead of letters printed on a page.

Beyond the true meaning and significance ascribed to the Paracas embroideries by their long-deceased makers, compelling research and iconographic analysis has contributed to theories about how these images were meant to be read. Stay tuned for my next post, where I will look at stylistic variations and visual patterns of communication that are characteristic of Paracas textiles.


A Closer Look offers focused explorations on topics related to the Textile and Fashion Arts collections at the MFA, Boston. These posts may share correspondences with items featured in Object a Week.