Early images of the peoples of the Americas produced for European audiences often depicted their subjects wearing little more than a loincloth. The lack of clothes was meant to imply a sense of wildness, inferiority, and lack of sophistication. Unsurprisingly, these pictures were extremely far from the truth: For many Indigenous groups in what is now Latin America, textiles and garments were among the most valuable materials in daily and sacred life. The European invasion set off complex negotiations between cultures for whom textiles and clothing conferred social status, ritual meaning, and political power.
Painted Cloth: Fashion and Ritual in Colonial Latin America at the Blanton Museum of Art is an expansive exploration of the vital but little-understood roles of fabric and its representations across the Americas during the 17th and 18th centuries featuring more than 70 objects, including elaborately crafted textiles, paintings, sculptures, prints, and furnishings from Bolivia, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela.
Some of the most surprising and fascinating objects on display clearly encapsulate the complicated ways that Indigenous and European traditions cross-pollinated through textiles and accessories. One object, a silver pin called a ttipqui or tupo used to fasten Andean women’s dresses, is carved with a double-headed eagle, which was a major symbol of the Spanish empire. “The woman wearing this was trying to make a statement that she was bicultural, and that she was able to navigate these two systems and codes,” curator Rosario I. Granados explained on a recent exhibition tour.
In another gallery, a large painting made in 18th-century Cusco shows an Indigenous noble dressed in European-style clothing at the foot of a large statue of Our Lady of Bethlehem, which is itself draped in ornate gold and scarlet robes. Posing with his hands together in prayer, the donor signals his adherence to the Catholic faith, a position which likely afforded him some privilege within the Spanish Colonial political structure. Other commentaries on race, class, and gender identities appear in Mexican and Peruvian casta paintings, where women of various castes create textiles through spinning, sewing, and lacemaking.
“When we see the art of the Colonial period, we have to be mindful that these objects were made for an environment that is definitely not an art museum. Rather, they’re part of a ritual experience,” Granados noted. With its intricate weavings, passionate devotional paintings, and glittering period garments, the show provokes a vividness that brings the Colonial era to life for today’s viewers.