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Exhibition of Magnificent Andean Tunics on View at Metropolitan Museum Beginning March 8

Exhibition dates:  March 8 – October 16, 2011 
Location:              Special exhibition galleries, first floor

The Metropolitan Museum of Art will present a special exhibition focusing on the Andean tunic, beginning March 8. Featuring some 30 tunics drawn from the Museum's collection with loans from The Textile Museum, Washington, D.C., The Cleveland Museum of Art, and two private collections, The Andean Tunic, 400 BCE – 1800 CE, will examine the form of the tunic, essentially a type of shirt, which had an important cultural place in Andean South America for centuries. Textiles, a much developed art form there in ancient times, were themselves valued as wealth, and tunics were among the most treasured of them.

The exhibition is made possible through the generosity of the Friends of the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.

The ancient peoples of northwestern South America are renowned today for their great abilities as weavers, dyers, and designers of textiles. The primacy of cloth was established with the beginnings of civilization in the region that is now Peru, when manipulating fibers into functional, and decorated, fabrics and fiber objects began. Their multiple uses remained integral to Peruvian society and invaluable to Peruvian peoples as a mark of indigenous wealth and identity until the 18th century, long after the advent of European authorities and colonists. Among the textiles produced during those many centuries were garments. Gender specific, the garments generally conformed to basic types. For men, that meant a tunic, mantle, loincloth, and headcovering. Tunics, shirt-like garments sewn up the sides and open at the neck, were the most significant of them. Tunics occupied a meaningful cultural place for centuries as markers of prosperity, place, and status.

The earliest works in the exhibition will be two tunics dated to the fourth century BCE from the Ica valley in southern Peru. One, of beige cotton with a pattern of double-headed serpents, and the other of camelid hair with a supernatural figure on the rich red-brown ground, illustrate the possibilities of surface, color, and design that the two fibers offer. The cotton tunic is its natural hue, as cotton does not dye well, whereas the tunic of camelid hair, which dyes very well, is splendidly colored—there are four Andean camelids: the domesticated llama and alpaca, and the wide vicuña and guanaco. Their hair was spun into yarn for the making of textiles and fiber objects of all sorts.

Another early tunic is one from Peru's Paracas Peninsula, the site of a major archaeological find of the early 20th century. The tunic, from the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, is a deep green with many repeated images of double-headed birds (ca. 300-100 BCE) worked in red with heightened details of yellow. The double-headed birds are done in inventive design units, almost in a theme and variation manner, while the whole conforms to a solidly rectilinear plan. A few hundred years later in the Andean altiplano further south, an impressively red Pucara tunic with large shoulder panels (ca.135-525 CE) was as significant a presence then as it is today. Unusual in structure, the inset shoulder panels are oriented horizontally with a yellow, red, and blue face in the center. The face, which is surrounded by short rays, may represent a deity, perhaps that of the sun. The imagery appears to be an early form of iconographic patterning that, while it changed, would nonetheless endure for some centuries.

The largest tunic in the exhibition (ca. 580-680), with a width of more than five feet at the shoulder, is thought to come from Peru's Arequipa area; it is composed of several horizontal, tapestry woven panels including two with "deconstructed" patterns. The panels are made up of proliferating, ribbon-like elements that do not repeat, reverse, or form legible patterns, yet without any apparent organization the elements are well balanced both internally and within the tunic as a whole. Tunics of this size were probably not worn in life but were reserved for the wrapping of the honored dead. The large tunic can be contrasted with the miniature tunic (ca. 800-850) that is the smallest work in the exhibition, with a shoulder width of barely 10 inches; its imagery is characteristic of the Wari style, including profile staff-bearing figures.

Northern tunics differ in shape from those further south. They are shorter—only waist length—and most frequently have sleeves. Frequently, too, they have elaborated surfaces. Those of the Chimu kingdom centered in the Moche valley had such elaboration as seen in a very red tunic that is completely covered with tassels (ca.1100-1250). The exhibition will include an outstanding work made with an abundance of camelid hair dyed with cochineal, an intense colorant extracted from insects; the tunic has a number of small, brightly colored figures all but hidden beneath the red tassels. Another Chimu tunic on view with an extraordinary surface will be a gauze weave cotton brocaded with pelicans (ca. 1400-1500). Lent by The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., it is made of finely spun cotton and is virtually transparent. The pelicans, in profile on the front and back of the tunic, have a prominent place in Chimu imagery. Peruvian pelicans are shore birds abundant along the Pacific coast.

The Inkas invaded the Chimu kingdom on the northern Pacific coast late in the 15th century. They had begun their conquests only in the 1430s, and by 100 years later, when the Spaniards arrived in Peru, much of northwestern South America had been incorporated into their empire. Disciplined and focused, the Inka sense of control can even be seen in their tunics. Inka tunics exist in some numbers today and are known in standard formats of highly geometric plans. An excellent example on view will be one in a checkerboard pattern (ca. 1460-1540) with a motif in each square that adds to the complexity of its visual effect. The motif is an emblem known as tocapu, one of the enigmatic Inka symbols elaborated on works of art. The motif is present on another tunic in the exhibition dating to the 17th century.

The tunic continued to be worn under Spanish colonial rule on special occasions. Members of Inka royalty and their descendents had that privilege. The red yoke and the tocapu in the 'V' and at the waist are Inka regal symbols, while the rampant felines at the neck are European. Incorporating elements of the two symbolic systems, the Andean and the European, emphasized the social status and importance of the wearer. By the 1780s, however, such tunics were feared by church fathers and colonial administrators alike. They had the ability to raise memories of a heroic Inka past, so the wearing of tunics was prohibited.

Education programs organized in conjunction with the exhibition include screenings of documentaries by photographer and musicologist John Cohen about the culture, music, and textile history of indigenous Andean peoples. Gallery talks will also be offered for general audiences.

The exhibition is organized by Julie Jones, Curator in Charge of the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the Metropolitan Museum; with Ann Pollard Rowe, Research Associate, Western Hemisphere Textiles, The Textile Museum, Washington, D.C., who is curatorial consultant to the exhibition. Exhibition design is by Daniel Kershaw, Exhibition Design Manager; graphics are by Norie Morimoto, Graphic Designer; and lighting is by Clint Ross Coller and Richard Lichte, Lighting Design Managers, all of the Metropolitan Museum's Design Department.

It will be featured on the Museum's website at www.metmuseum.org.

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March 1, 2011

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