A troupe of pilgrims make their greeting upon arrival at the sanctuary that is their destination in the Cuzco region, Peru. The snow-covered Qollquepunku glacier is in the background. Photo by Javier Orós Vengoa, 2006


Paul R. Davis

The Menil Collection possesses a small number of works from the Andes—textile fragments, ceramic wares, and other examples of visual culture including photographs—that date from the region’s earliest civilizations to the 20th century. Some, such as three blue-and-yellow macaw feathered panels associated with the Wari civilization (ca. 600–1000) and a double-panel fragment of the monumental “Prisoner Textile” from the Chimú civilization (ca. 1150–1450), are among the most iconic examples of visual culture from the Andes. Occasioned by the exhibition Enchanted: Visual Histories of the Central Andes (July 30–November 14, 2021), this publication affords a fresh opportunity to study and extend access to these works—most of which have not been exhibited since the museum opened in 1987—and to foster a better understanding of Andean visual histories: multifaceted accounts of people embedded and layered in the places they have inhabited and the objects and other forms of material culture they have produced.

Focusing on particular works from the museum’s collection and their associated historical contexts, the essays gathered here are authored by anthropologists, art historians, curators, and conservators to highlight different aspects of a vibrant Andean world. The first grouping of texts, To Know the Andes, endeavors to establish a framework that introduces this vast mountainous region and the historical periodization generally used by archaeologists and art historians to delineate its ancient civilizations. Topographical and climatic diversity are rightly cited as distinguishing features of the Andes, and so are the ways in which people have moved and flourished across the landscape for millennia. A prominent scholarly voice is that of anthropologist Zoila S. Mendoza, who has published extensively on the annual religious and folk festivals of the Andes. Continuing a recent direction in her scholarly inquiry, Mendoza explores how Andean people continually reinvent and solidify cultural knowledge through embodied rituals involving music, dance, and community. For her, the drama and sociocultural dynamics of the festivals are productive spaces in which Andean personhood can be negotiated, contested, or reaffirmed. Mendoza also provides a short video feature that captures this process during a multiday pilgrimage from one village to the sanctuary of the Lord of the Shiny Snow (Señor de Qoyllor Rit’i) high up on the mountain of Ausangate near Cuzco.

The study of the museum’s collection of works from the Andes reveals decisive moments in its formation by John and Dominique de Menil during the mid-20th century and the lasting contributions of other key figures. The publication focuses on this history by exploring the intellectual and curatorial impact of Jermayne MacAgy, John de Menil’s position as a board member of the Museum of Primitive Art, and events that motivated the de Menils’ collecting in this area, particularly exhibitions of Andean material in North American museums. One of the de Menils’ earliest introductions to the visual culture from the region was their meeting French photographer Pierre Verger while visiting Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1941. Struck by his ambition to return to the Andes, the de Menils supported Verger’s travel to Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador between 1942 and 1946. Nearly 200 black-and-white photographs of Andean religious festivals by Verger that are now part of the museum’s collection were among the de Menils’ first representations of Andean visual culture. During the 1960s, John de Menil’s position at the Museum of Primitive Art in New York connected him to then-prominent scholars and connoisseurs of art from the Andes, such as archaeologist Junius Bird and art dealer John Wise. Bird, Wise, and other Andean specialists who were part of the de Menils’ network facilitated acquisitions of important Andean works and advised on the interpretation of their growing collection of ceramic ware and textile fragments.

The second section, Weaving the World, presents a closer look at examples of this art form in the museum’s collection. The sociopolitical and aesthetic power of such textiles in the Andes cannot be overstated. Touching every moment of an individual’s life, intricately designed and handwoven textiles were worn, exchanged as tribute, and used to wrap bodies for burial. Sadly, the pervasiveness of looting in the Andes and the lack of archaeological provenience (findspots) frequently make the determination of their original purpose impossible. Heidi King’s essay on the blue-and-yellow macaw feathered panels from the Wari culture begins with their discovery in the 1940s by huaqueros or artifact hunters, who then quickly sold them to local agents. Although their materiality and construction has been thoroughly studied and, as King discusses, the feathers indicate long-distance trade and symbolic exchange that crisscrossed the ancient Andes, the clandestine digging and sale of these incredible featherwork pieces has limited definitive interpretations of their function and the complete understanding of their abstract design.

Another authority on Andean textiles, Susan E. Bergh, contributes an essay discussing one of the most significant extant works of the Chimú (also Chimor), a Late Intermediate Period civilization centered in the ancient city of Chan Chan, near present-day Trujillo, Peru. The Menil’s large, two-panel fragment was once part of a monumental 13th-century painted textile composed of at least 10 known fragments and, possibly, several others now missing. The ten known fragments, three of which consist of two panels, have never been reunited, but the complete textile has been estimated to measure at least 75 feet (22.9 meters). Commonly referred to as the Chimú Prisoner Textile, it pictures a procession of captives with ropes around their necks, surrounded and attacked by zoomorphic beings in alternating painted colors. The ominous scene evokes the history of warfare among factious early Andean civilizations, but the imagery and size emphasize the supreme importance of textiles. Bergh’s study and contextual history of the Chimú textile is complemented by Menil conservator Kari Dodson’s essay on the Menil’s panels. Applying technical imaging and instrumental analysis, Dodson’s preliminary study of pigments and their application adds new information to existing studies of other fragments in other museum collections and advances efforts to understand how these now-separated fragments originally composed one monumental textile.

The final section, Movement and Meaning, explores the enduring transformations in the visual arts and culture of the Andes following the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. Essays by the University of Houston Fellow Ana Girard provide closer looks at the Menil’s group of colonial-era keros (also q’eros), ceremonial vessels typically associated with drinking chicha, or maize beer, and a religious icon painting that depicts the Virgin of Bethlehem (Virgen de Belén). As Girard details, these baroque works epitomize the complex layering of local and colonial visual histories in the Andes. Similarly predating the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century are Andean dances and music that persist to this day and embody a long history of diverse cultural practices mixing with new visual and religious traditions imposed from outside. Here, Zoila Mendoza’s extensive experience and study of festivals in Peru are especially welcome. Her essay on the related music, dance, and organizations demonstrates how different traditions are strategically engaged. Finally, Amy Groleau examines the examples of heavily-embroidered short capes (esclavinas) from the Huancayo region of Peru, in the collections of the Menil and Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe. Worn during festivals celebrating a Virgin of Cocharcas and dance processions recognizing the abolition of slavery, their ornate imagery and symbolism intentionally conflate different periods in the history of Peru and its national figures.