Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art
A wall hanging from the seventh or eighth century, made of cotton and macaw feathers. It was created by the Wari, a people of Peru’s southern highlands.
via NYTimes: Art Review:
'Radiance From the Rain Forest'
Objects From a Long-Vanished Peru, Parading All Their Magnificent Plumage
By KAREN ROSENBERG
Published: July 5, 2008
As Darwin wrote, brightly colored feathers give certain species of birds an evolutionary advantage. Ancient Peruvians adapted such plumage for their own purposes, adorning ritual objects and personal accessories with startling yellows, reds, greens and blues.
“Radiance From the Rain Forest: Featherwork in Ancient Peru,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is one of the few New York museum exhibitions ever to focus on this little-known art form. Organized by a senior research associate, Heidi King, it supplements the Met’s rarely displayed holdings of featherwork with examples borrowed from public and private collections, including those of the Brooklyn Museum and the American Museum of Natural History. It’s the kind of specialized yet accessible show that only the Met can pull off.
According to Ms. King, ancient Peruvians had no written language, and the symbolism is therefore somewhat arcane. Contemporary viewers can nonetheless appreciate the way feathers conveyed wealth, status and sheer animal magnetism.
Most of the works on view were made between the 7th and 16th centuries, before the Spanish conquest of Peru. They were objects for the elite, fashioned with feathers that were carried across the Andes from the Amazonian rain forests. The plumes themselves were considered luxury goods on a par with precious metals, shells and gemstones.
Well-preserved examples of featherwork are rare, because feathers are easily damaged and, like other organic materials, decompose. Among the most vivid works in the exhibition are two hangings with a simple abstract design of blue and yellow macaw feathers arranged in quadrants; they have retained their color and texture because they were stored in rolls within large ceramic urns. Made by the Wari people of Peru’s southern highlands, they are among the oldest works in the exhibition, dating from the seventh or eighth century, but they have a remarkably modern feel.
Macaws and other parrots supplied most of the plumage, but that of other species — Muscovy ducks, flamingos, egrets and the petite paradise tanager — was also prized. Some colors were produced artificially in a process known as tapirage. Birds with, say, green and blue feathers were plucked and then rubbed with frog secretions; the feathers would then grow back in an unnatural yellow-orange hue.
The Peruvians used several methods to attach feathers to a cotton or leather backing. To cover a large area, as with the Wari hangings, they often layered strings of feathers in horizontal rows. For smaller objects, individual feathers were glued on with a kind of mosaic technique.
On the large end of the scale are several richly patterned tabards, or open-sided tunics. The most spectacular of these has a blue semicircle, echoing the shape of a bird with extended wings, on a yellow background. On the smaller scale is a set of ear ornaments carved from wood and adorned with an intricate circular pattern of feathery wisps. Both examples date from the reign of the Chimu kings, who ruled the northern coast of Peru from the 13th century until the Spanish conquest in the 1500s.
The Chimu kings and other Peruvian royals favored luxurious accessories, including several different styles of headdress. Among the examples on view are conical helmets, a crown with flat plates in the front and rear, and a gladiatorlike tuft attached to waist-length earflaps.
Arguably the most beautiful object is a headdress from the late Moche or Wari periods (the 8th to the 10th century), patterned with curlicues, trapezoids and broad stripes of blue, chartreuse, red and black.
Not all Peruvian featherwork was intended for personal decoration. Peoples including the Nasca and the Inca used small feathered figures in rituals and as burial offerings. In a miniature family grouping, made by the Nasca in the first to third centuries, the figures have tiny parrot feathers tied to their wigs of braided human hair.
Other examples of ritual featherwork include a bag holding coca leaves made by Inca craftsmen within a century or so before the conquest. The covering of red and yellow parrot feathers remains intact, as do the bag’s medicinal contents.
Although the works in “Radiance” had social and religious currency in pre-Columbian Peru, their appeal transcends cultures. As the Rev. Bernabé Cobo, a Spanish missionary, noted in a chronicle of Peruvian customs, “The gloss, splendor and sheen of this feather cloth is of such exceptional beauty that it must be seen to be appreciated.”