Neglected plumes

Arts of the Amazon

January 5, 1996

As Barbara Braun, the editor of this beautifully illustrated book, points out in her introductory essay, of all the creatures they encountered it was the birds of the Caribbean and South American mainland which most impressed the conquistadors, especially the parrot, macaw and toucan. Columbus mentions the parrot in his first letter, and Braun writes that "Brazil was often called the land of the parrots in the early 1500s". In probably the earliest known Portuguese map of Brazil (1519), parrots and red macaws and Indians with lavish feather head-dresses and feather cloaks, are the dominant feature of the cartographer's design. Nineteenth and early 20th-century scientists and travellers (including Richard Spruce, Alfred Wallace, Theodor Koch-Grunberg, Thomas Whiffen and Everard im Thurn), all remark on the magnificence of the Indians' featherwear, and yet subsequent allusion to or interpretation of this art is peculiarly deficient in the anthropological literature.

Adam Meckler, the Californian owner of the collection that is illustrated in this book, is justified in lamenting this neglect, especially of the aesthetics of ceremonial objects and the regalia and body ornaments fashioned from the brilliant plumage of tropical birds, stating in his preface that, "this total lack of recognition deprives these people of their humanity as expressed through their art". Recently, however, there have been a number of publications in the field of Amerindian feather art, such as the series of essays in The Gift of Birds (1991), and not least the book under review.

The 180 or so "specially commissioned" still-life photographs taken by E. Z. Smith are excellent, and along with Peter Roe's engaging extended essay "Arts of the Amazon", constitutes the bulk of the book. The objects depicted, and particularly the featherwork, are superb. The delicate earplugs for instance might make Cartier green with envy, as indeed were the European artisans and artists, including Albrecht Durer, when they first viewed the exquisite skill of the workmanship brought back from the New World by the early Iberian adventurers.

Perhaps Roe's text could have been more closely integrated with the plates, though allowing for the exigencies of modern publishing he may never have even seen these before completion. He also tends to generalise from Shipibo and Waiwai symbolism in the vertical ordering of feather ornamentation to the avian forest habitat, thus placing the high-flying harpy eagle atop the Amerindian feather crown, which in many cases it is palpably not. Nor does he develop the arguably better documented and equally fascinating symbiotic and religious association of the sun with feathers.

The suggestion that elaborate and colourful native American regalia results from combined native and western techniques, such as the use of dyes, fails to account for traditional "tapirage" - the capture by trapping or by blunted stunning arrows, the application of ointments, and the feeding of specific foods to these exotic birds in their subsequent semidomestic state - to alter the natural colouration of their feathers.

Nevertheless, Roe's essay makes fascinating reading and combined with the magnificent photographs of Meckler's fine collection, this book is a most attractive contribution to the study of Amerindian art.

Donald Tayler is a curator, Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.

Arts of the Amazon

Editor - Barbara Braun
ISBN - 0 500 824 5
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £12.95
Pages - 128

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