A Wari tunic

Tunic, Wari, c. 600–850 C.E., wool and cotton, 219.7 cm long, Peru (Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design)

Additional resources

This work at the RISD Museum.

Andean Textiles” on The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art.

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”waririsd,”]

More Smarthistory images…

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re standing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the Golden Kingdoms exhibition. We’re looking at a tunic made by the Wari people.

Dr. Sarahh Scher: [0:13] This is a tunic that is made from two pieces of fabric that were woven on a loom and then taken off as whole pieces and seamed together in the center, leaving a space at the top for the person’s head to go through.

Dr. Harris: [0:25] That was also sewn up a little bit on the sides, but leaving room for the arms.

Dr. Scher: [0:30] And because the people of the Andes during this time were quite small, this is something that actually would have looked like it had sleeves, and would have gone down, probably past the knees on an adult male. This was probably meant for an elite man.

Dr. Harris: [0:43] We live in the industrialized world, where we create fabrics with a machine. We’ve lost the sense of how much human labor and skill goes into the creation of fabric like this.

Dr. Scher: [0:56] The warp threads, that is, the supporting skeletal threads that we can’t see, were made out of cotton. The weft, the threads that we see, is made of camelid fiber, fiber from either a llama or an alpaca.

Dr. Harris: [1:09] You have to care for the animal, to shear the animal, you have to clean the wool, you have to comb it, you have to spin it and then dye it.

Dr. Scher: [1:18] Sometimes the dyeing itself is also very complicated and requires either trading for or gathering other exotic materials.

Dr. Harris: [1:25] Someone that is highly skilled and highly educated about these processes has to be in charge of this. We have to imagine a workshop of artisans who are working on these.

Dr. Scher: [1:36] We can see that among the colors are a deep red and a turquoise-y blue color. Both the red and the blue are very high-status, difficult to obtain or difficult to use, dyes. You would have somebody who knew how to work with the red that comes from the cochineal beetle.

[1:53] You have to gather a huge number of these dried bugs and you have to mix them with the proper chemicals in order to get this luxurious red that takes in the wool. The blue comes from indigo. It doesn’t actually turn blue until the very end of the dyeing process, and so you don’t know what you’re going to get until that is exposed to oxygen.

Dr. Harris: [2:13] These colors are so vibrant.

Dr. Scher: [2:15] But if you look at the things that look sort of muddy green, brown, that have some gold in them, that’s probably not the original color. That one unfortunately is not what we call fast. That is, it doesn’t maintain its color over time.

Dr. Harris: [2:29] So some areas where the browns seem very close in tonality, we can imagine them at one point being more distinct from one another.

Dr. Scher: [2:36] Oh, a lot more distinct.

Dr. Harris: [2:38] The forms that we see here are familiar in Wari art. We see them repeated in hats and ceramics, for example.

Dr. Scher: [2:44] At first, it just looks like geometric shapes, and when you start to look at it, you can see that there’s actually faces all over this piece.

Dr. Harris: [2:53] That’s easiest for me to see by finding the circular forms that have both a black and a white area.

Dr. Scher: [3:00] That circular form is the eye itself, and the black and the white is meant to indicate the iris and the white of the eye. Then around that you have this circular frame, and then a long line coming down, and that long line may indicate face paint underneath the eye.

Dr. Harris: [3:14] Then we have another repeated form next to the eye that resembles an N, sometimes a backwards N, sometimes a frontways N.

Dr. Scher: [3:21] But what it is is a very highly abstracted image of an open mouth with two fangs, one pointing up and one pointing down.

Dr. Harris: [3:29] One of the things that’s so marvelous to me about this design is this combination of rectilinear forms with softer curving forms. For example, we have this stepped pattern that’s sometimes referred to as a “stepped fret,” but often it ends in a curling form.

Dr. Scher: [3:47] That is a common set of forms in Andean textiles even long before the Wari. It is interpreted as standing for the mountains in the step and the sea in the curl.

Dr. Harris: [3:59] We have this repeated profile face that is situated within this overall grid pattern.

Dr. Scher: [4:06] The basic nature of a textile lends itself to a grid. You have vertical threads, you have horizontal threads, and as you weave, you are creating essentially pixels in a grid.

Dr. Harris: [4:16] These fibers are so tightly packed together. We’re talking about miles and miles of thread.

Dr. Scher: [4:22] That adds up to well over 100 threads per inch. You get what is essentially a high-density image.

Dr. Harris: [4:30] The patterning is so complex.

Dr. Scher: [4:32] Yes, not only do we have this abstraction, but we have upright faces and then you’ll have a flipped upside-down face, but it’s also mirror-image so it’s looking in the same direction as the face that’s next to it. You’ll also find that the colors don’t always repeat in the way that you expect them to.

[4:49] So there’s this feeling of randomness, almost. It’s thought that this was a way of showing that the Wari were in control of chaos. By deliberately creating a little bit of chaos, they were showing their power over it.

[5:00] When you look at the overall piece, that abstraction starts to completely break up the surface of the textile. As you go from the center to the sides of the textile, we can see each one of those blocks becoming compressed. It becomes smaller, narrower.

[5:15] We’re looking at this flat in a museum exhibition, but originally somebody wore this around their body. One of the things it’s going to do is make them look not a hundred percent human.

Dr. Harris: [5:24] It’s important to think about not just the wearing of this, but what else was worn.

Dr. Scher: [5:29] Let’s say a hat with a similar pattern, and also maybe face paint in a similar kind of pattern, would create an otherworldly-looking person. With the elites of many of the Andean cultures, it was very important to have contact with the spirit world, but it’s not necessarily that this person was a ritual specialist.

[5:45] It may just be that they’re claiming that kind of power for themselves. This is something that is so finely made, the threads are so thin, that this is for someone with a lot of influence and power.

Dr. Harris: [5:57] The hundreds and hundreds of hours of skilled labor that went into creating this.

Dr. Scher: [6:01] That time and that intentionality is something that creates a textile that is not just a beautiful object, is not just a luxury object. It is an object that has its own existence.

[6:13] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Sarahh Scher and Dr. Beth Harris, "A Wari tunic," in Smarthistory, February 7, 2023, accessed June 19, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/a-wari-tunic/.