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The Essex Collection of Art from Latin America is supported in its work by academic staff and students at the University of Essex, as well as external researchers. This community contributes texts and papers to our online catalogue and to other ESCALA publications.

Valerie Fraser

Narrative Threads: recent work by Warmi

This text is a longer version of one which was originally published to accompany the exhibition Textile Sculpures at the Portable Gallery, Embassy of Peru, London, 19-30 March 2012.

In Holguín’s great Quechua dictionary, the Vocabulario de la Lengua Qqichua of 1608, his definition of ccorihuan qqellcak is ‘embroiderer’. Unpicking the elements of this phrase it is clear that for Holguín, or at least for his Andean informants, embroidery was associated with gold (ccori) and with writing (quellca), and so was a precious system of record-keeping. Warmi is a modern-day ccorihuan qqellcak who uses traditional ideas and techniques to tell stories of Peru, and to celebrate the wisdom and skills of the weavers and embroiderers of the region, past and present. Combining fragments of fabric, woven bags, belts and straps produced by contemporary craftspeople with her own knitted, knotted, woven and embroidered elements, Warmi builds overlapping layers of history, geography and culture to suggest the complexity of modern Peru where the cultures of the Andean highlands, the Amazonian lowlands and the Pacific coast are in ever closer contact, but where the past also permeates the present in often surprising ways.

The Khipus are Warmi’s most specific re-creations of an ancient practice: the knotted strings, the khipus or quipus, used by the Inca to manage their economy and also, as the 17th century Andean chronicler Guaman Poma tells us, to record their history. In these works Warmi has chosen to focus on the symbolic moment of transformation in Peru’s history, the moment when ancient systems of knowledge were challenged by Pizarro’s arrival in Peru in 1532, when quipus and quellcas would be replaced by the in many ways so much more limited European skills of numeracy and literacy. She has developed two modern quipus and using a decimal system in one and a binary in the other, she knots the strings of both to record the number 1532: dozens of strings, hundreds of knots, reiterating, like an incantation, the moment when everything changed.

The Quillqa is the golden embroiderer, the skilful storyteller: part self-portrait, part parody, part celebration of cultural diversity. This doll-woman’s body is formed of layers of coloured fabrics in reference to Peru’s many superimposed layers of history and culture, and to the layers of skirts worn by the women of the Andes. The veil is that of the tapada, the glamorous woman of 19th century Lima, but here interrupted by an element of embroidered fabric from the Shipibo culture of the Amazonian lowlands and fixed with a pin from the altiplano region around Titicaca. The apron is again Shipibo, and the antique coca bag is from the Andes while the contemporary commercial world provides the shoes, the hat and the doll’s head, the head of the doll Dora the Explorer, of US origin but popular throughout Latin America as Dora la Exploradora. For Warmi women are at the centre of Peruvian cultural production: they are skilful, wise and adaptable; craftswomen, businesswomen and artists; but they can also be seduced, and this figure’s apparent multi-cultural confidence may sometimes wobble, as her long neck and flirtatious pose suggest.

If some of Warmi’s women occasionally appear frivolous or naive, others have also been exploited and abused. AQV is a very different piece made up of a series of knitted dolls that whirl around involuntarily when someone switches on the machine: they dance to another’s tune. The title of this work refers to a system introduced by President Fujimori of what was euphemistically referred to as voluntary surgical contraception, Anticoncepción Quirúrgica Voluntaria, but which was in fact a form of forced sterilisation aimed particularly at women from minority groups and often performed post-partum, at a time when a woman was powerless to resist. The dolls have no bodies beneath their clothing: they are empty, helpless puppets.

In a different vein, in Mañapakuq Warmi addresses the dark side of the enormously powerful mining industry in Peru, but does so with a delicacy that renders the irony of the piece all the more pointed. Mañupakuq refers to the giving of alms, a voluntary donation from one person to another, or perhaps to a good cause. In Peru under the regime of President Alan García, it was agreed that the taxes on international mining companies should not be increased, but that they would instead make a similar voluntary donation, an óbolo, to the country of as much or as little as they wished. Warmi devotes a book to this practice, a book with embroidered pages (precious golden writing) dedicated to some of the mining companies who enrich themselves while the local communities struggle in poverty. She draws attention to the contrast with the traditional Andean system of reciprocity whereby goods and services are exchanged on equal terms. The repeated crossed arms that represent this idea of quid pro quo, give and take, toma y dame, is a familiar motif in Peru and can be traced back to what are perhaps the earliest sculptures in the Americas, the Temple of the Crossed Arms at Kotosh near Huánuco, of c.2000 BC.

Manta / Kepi draws attention to the centrality of textiles in the daily life of the Andes. Lengths of woven, netted, knitted or embroidered fabric, of different sizes, materials, textures and colours serve as shawls and ponchos, as hammocks, fishing nets and bed covers, as wraps for infants and winding sheets for the dead, and as containers for carrying things. The manta (mantle) for carrying a baby, an ‘unkhuña’, is very different from the sort used for carrying goods, the ‘kepi’. In this kepi Warmi bundles up textile items she has gathered during her many visits to Andean communities, and in so doing emphasises the traditional mobility of Peruvian culture, the diverse range of uses for textiles, and the extraordinary skill of their construction and design. By encouraging the visitor to open up the bundle and explore its contents she invites us to share in a re-making of the work, and to experience the different textures through our own fingers.

Encadenado is a magnificent map that combines fragments of textiles, ancient and modern, with elements that Warmi has constructed herself to create a vivid visualisation of cultural diversity. To the south is the altiplano, with Lake Titicaca and a llama, while to the north- east the sun shines over the tropical wetlands. The way Amazonian culture penetrates up into the highlands is neatly illustrated by a sharp-cornered rectangle of Shipibo design, just overlapped by a miniature quipu that sprouts over the Inca heartland. The coast is partly invaded by iconography from the highlands, but there is also a fragment of the red spotted fabric typical of African-Peruvian culture. Warmi’s contributions are in chain stitch, which gives its name to the piece: ‘encadenado’, in a trans-lingual pun, implies that Peru is enchained, and as other pieces in this exhibition indicate, enchained by both multinational and local companies and often by its own government. It is enchained too perhaps in its own past, but more importantly it is enchained within a system of coding alien to the traditional understanding of spatial and power relations (a map); enchained within a world view not of its own making, which classes the exquisite textiles of the region as ‘craft’, and innately inferior to ‘art’; and enchained within the perceptions of the Peruvian urban elite who, while they may be willing to accept that the ancient Peruvians produced beautiful arts as well as crafts, with sophisticated methods of recording information involving threads, knots and weavings, they are very much less open to accepting that the contemporary textiles produced by Aymara and Quechua speaking women in rural communities deserve to be taken seriously as ‘art’, and as a form of knowledge that can encode complex meanings about society, geography and cosmology. But then this is work produced largely by women, and women of course are not to be trusted. After all, they are always spinning yarns.

Valerie Fraser, 2012

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