All the threads of life united on one loom

Woven Stories
June 18, 2004

Textiles tell stories, and those from South America have epics to tell - visually coded accounts of myth, history and culture from before Inca times to the present. Perhaps no other medium is a more telling and vibrant mix of technical skill, symbolic thinking and world view. For the Quechua-speaking peoples of Andean Peru, weaving is an embodiment of culture, a microcosm of the universe, fashioned by women's hands.

In Woven Stories , we have an expert guide in Andrea Heckman, a weaver with a PhD who has spent 20 years living and learning among the Quechua of southern Peru. We journey with her as she explores the anthropology of textiles, the ancient Inca past, present-day festivals in stunning (and sacred) landscapes, and a hidden language of style and design that has defined Andean weaving for millennia. This is an author with a mission - to explain how, within the intricate beauty of Andean textiles, there lies a secret landscape of meaning so easily overlooked in the rush of modernity.

The book is divided into two parts: the first focuses on textiles, the second on Andean ritual life. The author adopts the time-honoured device of incorporating personal experiences to add spice to the larger theme. It mainly works because she knows the people, speaks their language and has a practitioner's eye for technical detail.

We meet a local shaman who petitions the ancestral mountain Ausangate with coca leaves on the author's behalf, and we join her on the dazzling "snow star" pilgrimage of Qoyllur Rit'i. This festival celebrates the appearance of the Pleiades star group that announces the new year - an Inca ritual Christianised in 1780 that entails pilgrims climbing a glacier and returning bearing crosses cut from snow and ice. Elsewhere, the author makes space for the role of conflict in pre-Columbian and colonial Andean history. She includes a section on arpilleras - hand-sewn appliqué collages made of cloth remnants that portray images of recent and contemporary violence in Peruvian society.

Many important names are "checked" in the author's acknowledgements of her intellectual sources. But I was left wondering what she would have made of Alfred Gell's Art and Agency , which speaks so clearly and powerfully to many of the interpretive issues raised here.

The narrative style can be stilted, and it sometimes shifts jarringly between popular and academic modes. Neverthless, this is a book that is full of information and insights, complemented with beautiful photographs.

It is a colourful and popular account of the interlocking and multi-layered worlds of weaving in the Andes - at once familiar and strange. By the book's end, Heckman's message has sunk in, and perhaps taken root, disturbing if not dislodging the judgemental categories in which Western art history is mired. These textiles are art, and they are decorative, but they are also social worlds, rich in metaphor, symbol and style. In these vibrant multicoloured arrangements of threads, the pre-Columbian and colonial pasts contend with each other yet blend imperceptibly into the future. Simply put, to weave is to be.

Nicholas J. Saunders is reader in material culture, University College London.

Woven Stories: Andean Textiles and Rituals

Author - Andrea M. Heckman
Publisher - University of New Mexico Press
Pages - 199
Price - $45.00
ISBN - 0 8263 2934 9

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