Maureen Mullarkey: featherwork, Peruvian featherworking, rain forest, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Rain Forest Couture
Pre-Columbian Peruvian featherworks at the Met

A CHARACTER IN MARIO VARGAS LLOSA’S “DEATH IN THE ANDES,” a Dutchman, says of Peru: "It's a country nobody can understand. And for people from clear, transparent countries like mine, nothing is more attractive than an indecipherable mystery." Add to the enigma an airbrushed mythic past plus the exotic cravings of contemporary aestheticism and you have a museum display that reaches into the heart of darkness only to come up with “luxury items from ancient Peru.”

Nazca feather fan (100-600 AD) 

“Radiance from the Rain Forest: Featherwork in Ancient Peru” exhibits more than 70 specimens of an art developed over more than 2,000 years among Andean peoples. Several works date to the threshold of the common era. Most were made between the 7th and 16th century when traffic in feathers flourished and feather-working techniques were well established. Featherworks followed their owners to the grave or were buried as sacrificial offerings; consequently few historic pieces have survived intact. Well-preserved items like these are rarities.

The exhibition presents personal ornaments worn by high-ranking tribesmen: delicately worked earplugs and radiant pectorals covered with fine feather mosaics; ceremonial garments with geometric designs; intricate headdresses; litter fans, hangings and ritual offerings. All are made with the magnificently colored, silken, often iridescent plush of feather cloth.

Taken as spectacle, it is a handsome show. Featherworkers, like Peruvian weavers and embroiderers, excelled in the subtleties of pattern-making. Asymmetrical motifs, balanced with color, alternate with symmetrical ones that use color to create variety within the unity of the larger design. Pleasure in variation is everywhere evident. And Inka nobility knew how to dress.

Approached with some courtesy to anthropology, however, the exhibition becomes something quite different. What comes into view is the indecipherable mystery of art’s utter indifference to distinctions between civilization and savagery.

Less mysterious is the museum’s flirtation with anachronism, portraying ancient cultures in terms more suitable to its own patrons. It stages a facile crowd-pleaser by projecting back into time “Lives of the Rich and Famous.” References to luxury, status, power and wealth appear repeatedly throughout while the content of pre-Columbian rain forest culture, emblematized in featherworking, is ignored. Day-trippers reading the tutorials might think the Andean jungle was full of big spenders and high-end clothiers.

Pre-Columbian peoples were not good neighbors. Child sacrifice, slavery, ritual cannibalism, endless warfare and headhunting were features of the same cultures that produced exquisite textiles. Featherworking developed into a high art because feathers — like body tattoos and severed heads carried as trophies — conveyed divine potency to their wearers. Feathers were charged with supernatural energy, a conduit for spiritual and martial strength.

In omitting reference to Andean belief in the magical properties of feathers, the museum drains substance from its own display. It provides careful descriptions of family-friendly details yet goes silent on the crux of it all: the vital significance of feathers to the peoples who made such exquisite use of them. Accompanying commentary refers to featherworking solely in terms of voluptuous embellishment (“lavish,” “impressive,”), more like Gucci eyewear than densely symbolic talismans.

The exhibition gladly names the species that supplied the feather trade: primarily parrots and macaws, but also Muscovy ducks, curassows, flamingoes, egrets, cotingas, honeycreepers, tanagers and more. Particularly prized was the spectacular Paradise Tanager which came, obligingly, in five different colors. Labels note minor points such as differences in the knots used to tie feathers together by color. But curatorial interest stops with incidentals. Claim to seriousness evaporates with the comment: “Feathers probably were chosen as a motif for their elegant forms and reference to birds, which may have had symbolic meaning in ancient cultures.”

May have?

Ethnographic literature provides no shortage of perspective on the lust for plumage. Eighty years ago, Rafael Karsten, a pioneering expert on South American scalping and head hunting cultures, wrote: “The magical power ascribed to feathers depends on a very natural consideration: the feathers are the hair of the bird, and they have the same magical power as human hair.” No surprise, then, that much of the finest featherworking came from enthusiastic decapitators: the Chimu, Nasca and Wari peoples whose art is on show here.

A 3rd-7th century Nasca fragment decorated with parrots prompts the information that parrots and macaws, admired for their colors, were kept as pets. Not a word appears about their potent meaning to male-centered Andean cultures. Among many tribes, birds were bipedal symbols of maleness. To dress like a bird, look like a bird, was an important and absorbing male pursuit. This explains why menswear — those elaborate tabards and crowns — dominates the exhibit. Miniature dresses are here but they were not made as functional clothing. Use of these miniatures was widespread; though their import is uncertain, they were most likely made for votive purposes only.

Museum pedagogy tells us that feathers served “ceremonial and secular purposes.” The word “secular” applies nicely to modernity but what does it mean in relation to ancient Andeans? They inhabited an enchanted world, one infused with supernatural significance. Their art served the dead, propitiated a galaxy of gods and spirits, and glorified tribal lords who ran priestly interference with divinity. These were sacral, not secular, purposes. The distinction is entirely modern.

Over the last few decades, reams have been written on the affinities between ancient Peruvian textiles and modern art. And, yes, that 7th-10th century Wari ceremonial vestment does look like Kenneth Noland’s “Tondo.” It is good to be reminded, now and again, how late 20th century painting, in its exhaustion, rediscovered geometric abstraction and returned to flatness. But what really matters here is that a major museum risks its authority for easy box office appeal.


“Radiance from the Rain Forest: Featherwork in Ancient Peru” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, 212-570-3951).

A version of this review first appeared in The New York Sun, March 6, 2008.

Copyright 2008, Maureen Mullarkey

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