Ancient Textiles from the Andes – at the Whitworth

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Last Tuesday I had a meeting at the University in Manchester. Afterwards, I’d planned to meet my wife, grab a bite to eat and watch a film at Home (the venue on Tony Wilson Place, not our house!). Before that we had an hour to spare so decided to visit the Whitworth Gallery, just a few hundred yards from the building where I had my meeting, to have a look at an exhibition of ancient textiles from South America. The exhibition mainly features textiles from a collector, Paul Hughes, together with some examples from the Whitworth’s own collection.

The textiles are very old, created between 300 BC and 1400AD. Most of them were layers of cloth used to wrap dead bodies when they were buried, called “mummy bundles”. After excavation, due to the very dry conditions and lack of exposure to sunlight, the colours were amazingly bright. The patterns have a very modern look – some of them looked like they’d just come from IKEA! – reflecting the influence of ancient cultures on modern and contemporary art and taste.

We’re all familiar with the Incas and Aztecs and possibly the Tolmecs, but from the exhibition I learned that there were a number of other “cultures” in South America before the Europeans arrived and which also preceded the Incas.

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The oldest exhibits were these two pieces created by the Paracas culture

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The piece on the left, a painted fragment of textile, is from around 100 BC. The one on the right, a shirt, is even older from about 300 BC.

Most of the exhibits were produced by the Wari culture which I’d never heard of before, but they were a major civilisation in the south-central Andes and coastal area of modern-day Peru, from about AD 500 to 1000. They were, apparently particularly, adapt at creating colourful textiles as well as metalwork and ceramics.

Unfortunately, due to the lighting in the gallery (it can’t be too bright otherwise the colours and textiles themselves could be degraded) and as I was only using my phone camera, my photos really can’t bring across just how beautiful the textiles looked. However, here’s a few of shots

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These three pieces, again from the Wari culture, are aprons created from feathers. Again the colours are amazingly bright.

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It was a very interesting exhibition with incredible pieces on display. But it raises some difficult questions. In particular, is it ethical to remove the textiles from graves? Of course, archaeologists have been doing this for hundreds of years, but in recent years they’ve often come into conflict with indigenous peoples over the custody and handling of excavated human remains, associated grave goods and other sacred objects. No easy answers, I guess.

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