From the street, the pieces on the walls of Scottsdale's Bentley Gallery look like large, somber, color-field paintings of the mid-1950s to late 60s. Pivotal Mark Rothkos, maybe. Or early Frank Stellas.
But those mysterious, striped "paintings" happen to be 18th- and 19th-century ceremonial Aymara textiles from the Andean highlands of what are now Peru and Bolivia. In pre-Peruvian Conquest times, textiles such as those gracing the gallery's walls were more treasured than gold by the indigenous peoples of the Andes. This was not an uncommon phenomenon in ancient American cultures; take the Azteca or Mexica of Mexico, for example--they prized jade (chalchihuites) above gold and silver, believing that those precious metals were merely the excrement of the sun and moon.
Spanish chroniclers of the Conquest report that while the Incas, conquered by the Spanish in 1532, would hand over weapons, prisoners, gold, silver and prized llamas and alpacas, the source of wool for their cloth, they actually burned entire warehouses of these ceremonial textiles, just so the Spanish couldn't get to them. Even Pedro Pizarro, brother of the rapacious conquistador responsible for the fall of Peru to Spain, was dazzled by the look and feel of the cloth he found, which often resembled silk fabric in texture and appearance.
According to Bentley Terrace, owner of Bentley Gallery and an impassioned collector of pre-Columbian textiles, the Aymara were extraordinary weavers who supplied textiles to the Incas as tribute after they were subjugated by that powerful group.
"It's believed the Aymara are descendants of the Tiahuanaco culture," says Terrace. This culture flourished in the bleak Andean Altiplano until 1200 A.D. and just as mysteriously disappeared. It is from the striated topography of their homeland that the Aymara drew their major design motif of stripes, which are called, appropriately enough, pampas or plains.
"The warlike Incas pretty much left the Aymara alone, even after conquering them, for several important reasons," Terrace explains. "First, the Aymara lived in the mountains, which were basically difficult to get to. And, second, the Aymara were the ones who had large herds of sheep, vicuna, llamas and alpacas, the source of wool for weaving--and they had the skills to keep these herds going."
Once the Spanish fully appreciated the religious and cultural significance of textiles to the indigenous peoples of Peru, who passed down these weavings from generation to generation, they outlawed the wearing of traditional native garments, including the tunics and mantles shown in the exhibition. This, they found, was a highly effective way to suppress Indian cultural identity and keep the natives in line. Indian men were forced to dress like Spanish peasants in pants, shirts, jackets, vests and ponchos, instead of llacota (mantles) and tunics.
Only those people living on the high, windswept steppes of the Andes, like the Aymara, were able to continue dressing in traditional costumes and to maintain textile-related rituals, including ceremonies for rain, fertility and good crops.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Terrace minces no words when she declares that the textile pieces on display represent "the end of the greatest weaving tradition in the world." "The patterns you see today are ones that have been used for centuries; from their designs, which are basically stripe patterns, and the color combinations used, you can identify the village or town the weaving came from. And any piece using synthetic aniline dyes can be dated to the 1860s and after, since that's when these dyes were introduced to the Aymara from Europe." She continues, "Until recently, anthropologists never bothered with these people. In the 1960s and 70s, American hippie types started traveling in South America and began to collect these beautiful Aymara textiles. Unfortunately, they didn't document where they got the textiles; in the 1980s, scholars began to do research into the provenance of these pieces. But even today, less respect seems to be given to textiles than to other native art forms. The attitude seems to be, 'They're only textiles.'" New Jersey born and bred, Bentley Terrace is driven in her quest to educate the public about textile arts. Her obsession with fabric and cloth began early; she started collecting seriously when she was a teenager.
"I really can't explain my fascination with fabric," she says. "My mother used to dress me in couture when I was a kid, so I was always exposed to beautiful fabrics. I will buy scraps of antique fabric that other people won't look twice at. I have chests of fabric that I plan to sew with when I retire." She remembers one purchase in particular. "In the mid-'60s, when I was 16, I got all my relatives to chip in a total of $16,000 so that I could invest in what later turned out to be an 18th-century Spanish altar cloth at Sotheby's in New York. I decked myself out in a big-brimmed hat and gloves, looking very self-assured when I was actually terrified. I got that piece for only $600, and I was hooked." One of the country's first woman steel brokers, Terrace started collecting pre-Columbian textiles as she could afford them, and now gathers them with the help of her husband, Roy Dillard. She continues to run her multimillion-dollar steel-brokerage business, as well as the Scottsdale gallery, a division of her New Jersey gallery and a successor to an art-and-antiques gallery she started in New York in the 1970s. Her present personal collection, which she regularly makes available to researching scholars, centers on elaborately embroidered pieces from the Paracas and Nasca cultures of coastal Peru; most are between 1,500 and 2,500 years old, and are of such superb quality that museums such as the Chicago Art Institute and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art have borrowed them for exhibitions. And her collecting is so pervasive that she has already donated 1,200 pieces of both pre-Columbian and contemporary ethnographic textiles to the recently expanded Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana, California.
"Pre-Columbian textiles is a very tough area to learn, because so little research has been done," says Terrace, "mainly because most cultures don't give a damn about textiles. "You can't call museums for information, because they don't even know much about these pieces. You have to appreciate that in the 1930s, these beautiful weavings were wrapped around tractor wheels for better traction; some of them survived only because grave robbers hauled away plunder from burial sites in textiles found in the tombs they were looting."
Terrace laughs as she describes the high maintenance her collection demands. "I don't have the luxury of putting these pieces in my living room and staring at them. They have to be put in Plexiglas frames that 'breathe' in a room with no windows, since ultraviolet light fades them. The room has to have a dehumidifier; I have to worry about rain and mildew, and we have to check monthly for insects. God forbid that a cricket or moth should find its way into the room."
For her, the bother is worth it. "I'm amazed at how technically phenomenal, artistic and practical textiles are, like good architecture," says Terrace. "People need to learn to look at cloth as having merit. I want to educate people as to textiles--I want them to consider weaving a real art form." Her gallery's current Aymara exhibition is as good a place as any to start this educational process.