Tracing landscape in textiles of the colonial Andes


The Andean landscape is striking and breathtaking for the dramatic scale and range of its geographic features. In the north-central plateau of present-day Bolivia, within the span of hours one can travel from vast Lake Titicaca’s shores, which edge onto eastern Andean mountains peaking at over 20,000 feet, and descend some fifteen thousand feet into subtropical forests and valleys. Both in its natural formations and in its shaping by human activity, the landscape has long imprinted itself on the identities of native communities and practices.

condoriri-lagunesMy research into Andean visual culture looks at the Andean landscape as a site of resonant meaning during the early colonial period, when new claims to land were reshaping identities, and examines the woven textile as a representation of ties to landscape.  I have many questions rather than firm positions on how to understand textiles in relation to land but my hope is that visualizations of data regarding textiles will help bring my questions into a clearer orbit.


Textiles in indigenous Andean cultures are as layered with meaning as is the Andean landscape. In its attributes, a textile can reference gender, status, wealth, community ties, agricultural productivity, local topographies, as well as belief system.  Partly, what I want to do in creating visualizations of textiles according to sites of origin and attributes is to begin to understand the corollaries between certain design features and specific regions or communities. Can we trace the way a textile pattern of a lake, for example, corresponds to local features of the landscape and how far do such associations between textile representation and landscape feature reach within a region? Where does one landscape feature take prominence over another in a textile representation and for what possible reasons? Where and why did certain features of landscape construct identity, to be seen in the textile as it was worn on the body as a second skin? An offshoot of these types of questions is to see to what extent it is possible to trace the movement of textiles between communities, storehouses and centers of power in the Inka Empire and then in the colonial period.

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During the Inka period textiles were strongly associated with their sites of production but they were also highly mobile objects. Not only were textiles moved and exchanged like currency within the tribute system but they were also active as objects worn on moving bodies, and can be understood as representations of landscape that moved through landscape.


In certain cases and as a facet of Inka imperial strategy, certain communities would be moved across the landscape but would have to maintain dress that identified them with their place of origin. In the colonial period the Spanish would become very involved in the production and movement of textiles as well and would exploit indigenous weaving while simultaneously harnessing notions of landscape to a European understanding.  Within this scope the questions then revolve around how the Spanish reshaped the landscape and how this came to be represented, perhaps in contrast to the indigenous textile with its representational significance. Can I use spatial visualizations to pose these questions in ways that lead to deeper investigations of the visual culture of the colonial period?

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Source: Tracing landscape in textiles of the colonial Andes