Twelve spectacular feather panels—probably hangings—made by the Wari peoples of southern Peru between about 600 and 1000 comprise this installation. Made of finely woven cotton cloth and measuring about seven by two feet on average, the panels are completely covered with the small iridescent body feathers of the blue and yellow macaw in an arresting design of large rectangles. They rank among the most luxurious and unusual works created by textile artists in Peru prior to the Spanish conquest in 1532.
The panels were reportedly part of a group of ninety-six excavated in 1943 by local people near the village of La Victoria in the Ocoña Valley, where it joins with the Churunga Valley on the far south coast of Peru. The find is considered the largest discovery of feather arts in ancient Peru. Said to have been found rolled up in large ceramic jars decorated with mythological imagery, many of the panels are remarkably well preserved.
In February 1943, newspapers in Arequipa, in southern Peru, reported that villagers had discovered an ancient "burial ground" in a field where the Ocoña and Churunga rivers meet. The site became known as Corral Redondo, probably in reference to the three concentric circular walls, all about three feet in height and built of rough fieldstone, that were its most prominent architectural feature (redondo means "round" in Spanish). The villagers excavated an unknown number of bodies and many offerings, among them miniature objects and male and female figurines, made by the Inca (15th–16th century).
The most spectacular objects, however, were created by the much earlier Wari people (7th–10th century): eight ceramic vessels, each three to four feet high, that together contained ninety-six large, rolled-up feathered panels. The vessels are thought to depict humans, perhaps Wari dignitaries or ancestors, with mythological imagery painted on their bodies. Most of the panels are completely covered with the fine body feathers of the blue and yellow macaw, laid out in rectangles; others are entirely yellow or blue and orange. The ties still attached to the upper corners of many of the panels suggest they were used as hangings designed to transform an interior space into a radiant ceremonial setting.
What was the function of this isolated site, which was important enough to attract offerings from two of the Andes' most powerful cultures? Answers are still elusive, but it seems obvious that Corral Redondo was a huaca, or sacred place. It is known that the Inca used their finest textiles to cover the walls of shrines. Perhaps the Wari hung the luxurious feathered panels on the walls of the circular enclosure while they performed rituals prior to burial. Centuries later, the Inca came to the site for special ceremonies and to bury offerings to honor their gods and ancestors.
Between 600 and 1000 A.D., the Wari people created what many scholars believe was South America's first empire, surpassed in influence and scope only by the better known Inca in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The Wari heartland was in the Andes Mountains of Peru, where they built impressive architecture at their capital, also known as Wari, and at several provincial centers. Gifted engineers, they likely connected these centers with road networks that the Inca later expanded; through labor-intensive agricultural innovations, such as terracing and irrigation, they transformed the dry highlands into fertile land.
The Wari also forged strong connections with peoples in the prosperous valleys of the Pacific Coast, an arid desert where many Wari and Wari-influenced artworks have been found in tombs and offerings. The feathered panels in this exhibition, from the far southern coast of Peru, are among these works. Feathers, particularly those from colorful birds, were a highly valued material in ancient Peru, and featherwork was likely one of the most treasured of Wari art forms, which also include other types of fine textiles, polychrome ceramics, exquisite personal ornaments made of precious materials, and small-scale sculpture.
Such portable luxury goods were markers of wealth and power, and because the Wari, like other ancient Andean peoples, did not use a writing system, they also played an important role in expressing, recording, and preserving concepts about the human, natural, and supernatural realms. The bold minimalistic design, striking formal sophistication, and superb craftsmanship of the panels have appealed to modern sensibilities, serving as inspiration for twentieth-century artists such as Max Ernst and his wife Dorothea Tanning, who acquired one of the works presented in the exhibition.
Each of the brilliantly colored panels on view in the exhibition was created from thousands of glossy body feathers, individually hand-knotted onto cotton strings and subsequently stitched, in horizontal rows, onto large rectangular plain-weave cotton panels. The feathers used are those of the blue and yellow macaw, a bird native to the eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains.
Feathers develop their vibrant coloring as they form within the skin tissue of the bird; both structure and pigmentation play a part. Scientists have determined that the yellow color derives from carotenoid pigments, while the iridescent blue and blue-green shades result from the interaction of melanin pigments and the feather structure itself, which alters light as it passes through or is reflected by the complex three-dimensional surfaces.
To create the all-yellow panel, individual feathers were first attached to two strings using a series of slipped overhand knots. One string was looped around the base of the vane; the other, around the bent shaft. The knots vary in appearance according to how the shaft was inserted into the loop and the knot tightened around the shaft.
Feather workers then stitched the feathered strings to a woven support, starting along the bottom edge and continuing to the top in overlapping parallel rows. In the case of a single-color panel, the horizontal rows generally run without interruption from one side to the other, while in multi-color panels, the strings are cut at every color change along the vertical axis, confirming that ancient feather workers followed a predetermined design based on an established palette of monochromatic feathered strings.
The exhibition is made possible by the Friends of the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.