Radiance from the Rain Forest

The exhibition was made possible by the Friends of the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.

Radiance from the Rain Forest

Featherwork in Ancient Peru

February 26–September 1, 2008

"The gloss, splendor, and sheen of this feather cloth is of such exceptional beauty that it must be seen to be appreciated," wrote Europeans who arrived in Peru in the early sixteenth century. Astounded by the grandeur and fine quality of the textiles worn by Inka nobility, they particularly admired the luxurious cloth covered with plush, brilliantly colored feathers of birds from the Amazonian rain forest. In pre-Columbian Peru, feathers were highly valued for their magnificent colors, silken texture, and perhaps also for their symbolism. Known in ritual contexts as early as the third millennium B.C., feathers served various ceremonial and secular purposes among Andean peoples throughout preconquest history. On the Pacific south coast in the early first millennium A.D., the Nasca peoples buried feathered garments and precious cloth figurines only a few inches tall, which were dressed in miniature clothes embellished with feather tufts, as offerings. In the seventh and eighth centuries the Wari people of the southern highlands covered impressive numbers of large panels with radiant macaw feathers, perhaps for display on festive occasions or as offerings. Farther north in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Chimu royalty rode in feather-decorated litters and wore feathered tabards and luxurious accessories in iridescent blues, yellows, reds, and greens. The conquering Inka are said to have "paved" the streets in their imperial city, Cusco, with colored and feathered cloth on the occasion of royal weddings.

Ancient Peruvian featherwork has not been extensively studied. As these fragile objects only rarely survive burial in good condition, the full repertoire may never be known. This is the first exhibition at an American art museum to focus exclusively on the subject.

On view in the Museum are about seventy works, graciously lent by museums and private collections, illustrating the wide range of items embellished with this luxury material—garments, crowns, personal ornaments, accessories, and ritual objects. Additional impressive feathered textiles from the Museum's permanent collection may be seen in the adjacent South American gallery.

More about the Exhibition