Feathered Walls: Hangings from Ancient Peru

September 16, 2013–May 12, 2014

The Wari People

Feathered Hanging, 7th–8th century. Peru. Wari. Feathers on cotton, camelid hair. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.470)

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.