Textile Fragment from Chancay People, Peru
Andean textiles are some of the most intricate and technically complex textiles in the world, reflecting development over thousands of years prior to Spanish contact and continuing through modern times. Textiles were used in Andean culture as a form of mnemonic system, recording information in a symbolic language, based on analogy and metaphor present in oral traditions. Each section of the weave structure includes visual cues that impart information to those in possession of cultural knowledge. Individuals from outside cultures without this knowledge would not be able to recognize these cues, thus it has been claimed that Andean people had no written language. This false claim perpetuated classification of native cultures as primitive and was used to support colonialist narratives that encouraged assimilationist practices and disenfranchisement of indigenous Andean people.
While the URI Historic Textile & Costume Collection does contain contemporary weaving from Peru, many of the pieces contained within the collection came out of Peru in the early 20th century. Collecting practices during this period were spurred on by the notion that indigenous cultures were dying out and that cultural artifacts would soon disappear. As the demand for ethnic artifacts increased in the international art market, disreputable collecting practices became commonplace and untold numbers of archeological textiles were looted from burials. Some of the textiles in this collection contain evidence that they were cut into smaller pieces to increase their salability.
The removal of these items from the dry desert environment that had kept them in an excellent condition for thousands of years resulted in damage to the objects and created a deep psychological sense of loss for indigenous people from this area.
Katy W. O'Donnell