Detail of Dance Cape Depicting Ramón Castilla with Emancipated African-Peruvians, ca. 1930–40

A Joyous Spectacle: Making and Collecting Huancayo Dance Capes

Amy B. Groleau

The Huancayo region of Peru is well known for profuse embroidery in festival skirts, mantles, and sleeves; however, it is the reflective and high-relief dance capes from the Sapallanga and Huayucachi Districts that have captured the attention of collectors since the 1940s. This type of raised embroidery—sometimes called stumpwork—involves sewing closely spaced satin stitches over padding or layers of cardboard and then edging the raised designs with outline or backstitches to create dimension. This style of embroidery was popularly made in 17th-century Europe; in Peru it was mostly used in ecclesiastical garments from the 18th century, particularly chasubles with lavish metallic thread embellishments. Family embroidery workshops in the 20th century, such as the workshop of Santa Cruz Capacyachi, elevated these techniques to a masterful pictorial art form, earning them renown in their local communities as well as a place in museum collections and in the history of mid-century modern design.

These short capes, or esclavinas, are worn during the Negritos de Garibaldi dance performed by brotherhoods in honor of the Virgin of Cocharcas for her feast day on the 8th of September. The dance celebrates the abolition of slavery, declared by Ramón Castilla (depicted on some capes) in the city of Huancayo in 1854, and invokes the name of Giuseppe Garibaldi as a vocal opponent of slavery. The clothing worn for this dance is in the style of naval uniforms with the short cape as the centerpiece. The cape’s fabric, stiffened by heavy paper or cardboard, creates a nondraping panel across the dancer’s back, while the rigid crescent neckpiece sits atop the dancer’s shoulders, giving the effect of epaulettes.

As can be seen in the illustrated examples, it is common to mix visual elements of different historical moments and eras in the scenes depicted on such capes. San Martín, who declared Peru’s independence from Spain in 1821, is shown with an airplane flying overhead. Another cape features the medieval Saint George slaying World War II Nazi forces in the place of a dragon. The warships in the background and the fallen knight both bear swastikas on flag and shield while the skies are filled with planes. Rather than anachronism or a misunderstanding of history, it has been argued that these figures have grown beyond the bounds of their historical moment to achieve a status of immortality. The Virgin of Cocharcas is celebrated as a protector, and as such, she gives strength to those who fight for others; the persons depicted on the capes are military figures, presidents, and community leaders who have fought on behalf Peru. Where chasubles depicted the dove of the Holy Spirit with resplendent gilded rays of eminence as a marker of the eternal, figures such as San Martín are emblems of the enduring role of the heroic spirit.(1)
A few families have been making these capes by hand for generations, and dance groups become loyal patrons of favored workshops. Brotherhoods may commission capes with particular colors, but the labor- and time-intensive embroideries are generally not purchased but rather rented from year to year. In her study of the Fabián family embroidery workshop, Susana Navarro Hospinal found that many of the images on the capes are copied from historical paintings and popular illustrations reproduced in newspapers, magazines, and children’s history books.(2) While the posture and dress of the protagonist may echo images in wide circulation, the elaboration of surrounding scenery and floral elements are improvised and combine novel elements to create new contexts for historical figures. Based on stylistic and technical similarities to documented pieces in other collections—the banded satin stitch borders, including the bunting-like crescents that adorn the bottom of Saint George’s composition, and the use of small mirrors—the capes pictured here are likely from the workshop of Santa Cruz Capacyachi.
The designer Alexander Girard became enamored of this work and purchased numerous pieces from Capacyachi in the late 1950s, including a purple velvet cape depicting Simón Bolívar. When interviewed in 1975, Capacyachi remembered Girard purchasing his embroidered esclavinas for use in the iconic New York restaurant he designed in 1960, La Fonda Del Sol.(3) While their inclusion in the restaurant décor cannot be verified, Capacyachi’s work was featured in Girard’s redesign of the airline Braniff International in 1965. Girard’s signature design style blended midcentury minimalism with color and form inspired by his vast collection of international folk arts, and as with that for La Fonda del Sol, Girard’s design for Braniff included strategic placement of pieces from Latin America. For him, design was immersive and experiential, and with the slogan “the end of the plain plane,” the experience began in the airport lounge. Travelers were greeted by vitrines of Mexican dance masks, ceramic figures from Brazil, and Guna appliqué work from Panama—and hanging on the wall above a bank of Eames chairs, a detail photograph of Capacyachi’s Simón Bolívar embroidery. This particular cape remained in Girard’s personal collection and was later part of his gift to the Museum of International Folk Art, where it can still be seen on display as part of his 1981 installation Multiple Visions: A Common Bond.

Girard was preoccupied with fiestas and processions, profusion of adornment, and movement. Reflecting on the assemblages and installations he created with traditional arts, Girard mused that “it should all be part of a joyous spectacle, a dance.”(4) The objects he and others collected are those very items we see in the photographs of Pierre Verger’s book Fiestas y Danzas en el Cusco y en Los Andes published in 1945. While Verger attempted to capture a living practice in which these objects play a role, Girard tells us he was creating “an abstract symbol of Latin America, a special ‘stage world’ and not a historically or realistically accurate reproduction of any given place.”(5)

Girard was not the only one to put these dance capes to corporate use. The cape of San Martín (above) spent decades gracing the walls of the Neutrogena Corporation headquarters under Lloyd Cotsen. Cotsen, an avid collector inspired by Girard, meant these pieces to transform the experience of being at work: “The word pleasure has had no place in the vocabulary of work, and pleasure is one of the keys to being human.”(6) His curator, Mary Hunt Kahlenberg, validated Cotsen’s idea when she reminisced: “I would always smile as I passed a sequined portrait of a Bolivian hero while working at the Neutrogena offices….”(7) For both Cotsen and Girard, the absence of historical context was the key to allowing the artworks to be properly experienced. Girard found labels to be a distraction, preferring instead a visual presentation “that will disturb and enchant the eye, rather than cram the viewer full of facts,”(8) while Cotsen believed that removing historical context would encourage creative thinking.

The term “folk art” or arte popular has largely functioned to advance the notion of anonymity and to partition works as community craft rather than understanding them as visual arts with named makers. With the elite of Lima looking to European fine arts as emblematic of sophistication, pieces produced in Native and Mestizo communities were dismissed as acts of manual labor rather than artistry. Works such as these dance capes became items of interest in the 1940s largely through the efforts of Indigenist artists and intellectuals such as Alicia Bustamante, José Sabogal, and José María Arguedas who undertook projects to catalogue, rescue, and promote regional traditional arts as Indigenous aesthetic heritage. This dovetailed with growing interest in Latin American regional handwork traditions in the United States fueled by international political maneuvering. With the aim of keeping Nazi and Axis influence at bay, Nelson Rockefeller’s Inter-American Development Commission looked to raise the standard of living in rural areas by creating markets for the work of regional artisans. While many of these projects trained artists to re-create home fashions familiar to the United States consumer, by the 1950s collectors like Alexander Girard worked to develop consumer tastes for the folk traditions themselves. Rather than highlighting the work as that of particular artists, when these capes became part of collections, the focus shifted to the identity of the collector, the viewer, the consumer.

Strong push-back has continued against recognizing arte popular as equal to fine arts. The controversial awarding of the National Culture Prize for Art to Joaquín López Antay in 1975 for his retablos sparked a public debate and threw class and ethnic/racial divisions that are inherent in this distinction into sharp focus. This may be starting to change. In the last decade or so the Ministry of Culture is making stronger efforts to promote individual traditional artists; the work of particular families is becoming the subject of masters and doctoral theses; and pieces are entering more and more museum collections. This style of high-relief hand embroidery continues to be produced, and the capes continue to be danced in honor of the Virgin of Cocharcas. With recognition of mastery and authorship, may they continue to be danced for generations more.