Cusco, Peru

View of “Ser Pallay,” 2021–22. Kunan Pallaykuna (Contemporary Andean Textile Iconography) (detail), 2021. Photo: Miguel Palomino.

View of “Ser Pallay,” 2021–22. Kunan Pallaykuna (Contemporary Andean Textile Iconography) (detail), 2021. Photo: Miguel Palomino.

“Ser Pallay”

Vigil Gonzales

In Latin America, as elsewhere, Indigenous-made objects such as ceramics and textiles have typically been excluded from contemporary art spaces and relegated to the category of folk art. This situation has shifted in recent years, as the region’s most visible museums and galleries have turned their attention to Indigenous arts, echoing global calls to decolonize the art world. Long before this shift, Quechua weaver Nilda Callañaupa created the Centro de Textiles Tradicionales del Cusco (CTTC) in Cusco to highlight Indigenous arts’ multilayered histories and their renewal. The recent show “Ser Pallay”—whose title, the first word of which is in Spanish and the second in Quechua, translates to “Being Design”—featured two large installations made by eight weavers associated with the CTTC (Luz Clara Cusihuaman, Hermelinda Espinoza, Alipio Melo, Norma Ojeda, Celia Sab­­ina Pfoccohuanca, Miriam Quispe, and Cintia and Cristina Ylla) and contributions from two independent artists, María José Murillo and Verovcha. While all the weavers ground their practices within their respective communities’ traditions, they applied to participate in the show as individual artists through an open call organized by Murillo, Verovcha, and the CTTC. Curated by Florencia Portocarrero at contemporary art gallery Vigil Gonzalez, the exhibition intersected Indigenous and non-Indigenous aesthetic frameworks in productive, illuminating ways.

The show’s centerpiece was Telar Columna Comunal (Communal Column Loom) (all works 2021), an approximately thirteen-foot-long woven textile and a backstrap loom supported by a rock evoking a weaver’s body. The loom traveled through the communities of the eight weavers, with each creating a pallay and then sending it on to the next one. The artists responded in exquisite-corpse fashion to posit a dialogue between shared references and singular subjectivities. The ten artists’ idiosyncrasies were highlighted in Kunan Pallaykuna (Contemporary Andean Textile Iconography), a constellation of thirty-two twelve-by-fifteen-inch textiles hung from the ceiling. Although Kunan Pallaykuna is considered a single, collectively made installation, each piece was made by a specific artist, as revealed by the distinct patterns and iconographies. Moreover, by being installed parallel to the walls and in a spread-out manner, the textiles echoed canvases in a white cube, thus distancing themselves from the clothing items (such as ponchos or berets) where pallays are usually deployed.

Far from being an imposition foreign to the weavers’ views, the conceptualization and curation of “Ser Pallay” resulted from a series of workshops and meetings. The most visible outcome was the collective choice to show the textiles attached to the wooden looms and sticks used in their making, thus underscoring the bodily labor and skill behind backstrap-loom weaving. This is becoming an ever-more-common way for Andean weavers to show their works. The CTTC’s museum, for example, presents textiles in this form to show researchers and tourists that Andean weaving is not a mere repetition of patterns, but an embodied knowledge shared by generations of women. And, increasingly every year, makers from regions such as Cusco and Puno have stands at tourist fairs where, likely aware of contemporary audiences’ interest in unfinished works and processes, they sell nonutilitarian textiles still attached to sticks.

These display strategies beg the broader question of how Indigenous arts enter non-Indigenous spaces. If mediation is required to appreciate these shows, who are their audiences? And who benefits? Indeed, while contemporary art galleries and museums have much to gain from displaying Indigenous arts and knowledge, what do artists and their communities get from these exchanges? “Ser Pallay” struck the right balance by starting from the ten artists’ visions and concerns, as evidenced in its iconographic diversity, astute curation, and equal acknowledgment and compensation of all artists and the curator. In the end, whether at a tourist fair or an art gallery, Andean weavers know how to assert the craft and the contemporaneity of their fiber arts. The art world’s recent interest in Indigenous arts from Latin America—which one hopes will be sustained—is secondary to their autonomous efforts.