Weaving Songs: Telling the Tale of the Andes

A brief review of weaver Edwin Sulca’s biography goes a long way in explaining why his tapestries are infused with such hope and pain. Sulca is a native of Ayacucho, the Peruvian city which bore the brunt of the violent conflict between the government and the guerrilla movement Shining Path during the 1970s and ’80s. After surviving more than twenty years of civil war, Sulca has created a series of weavings that contribute to the resurgence of color and song.

Sulca works in a medium still considered by his countrymen more a tourist craft than an art. Gordon C. McCord ’02, Sulca’s adopted son, says that his work has a better chance for serious consideration in the United States and Europe than in Peru.

“American audiences intellectualize the work, they really try to get into it. But in Peru, people come into the gallery and shrug and say ‘that’s nice’ and leave. Latin Americans don’t value this sort of art as much as they should,” McCord said.

Sulca never considered his work to be of secondary value. The tapestries are not picturesque, but are epic; they either tell a sweeping history, or offer metaphors for love, work, transcendence, and God. Sulca turns these ideas into landscapes covered with a network of symbols. This is not just an exhibit for ethnographers and Latin Americanists, but the works do demand that you step into a set of symbols and stories specific to Ayacucho and its traditions.

Sulca was one of three artists out of more than a hundred whose submitted work was chosen for display this year at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. According to exhibit curator and third-year graduate student Jose Luis Falconi, the Rockefeller Center gallery seeks to expand common conceptions of the scope of Latin American art.

“What we are trying to do is take Latin American art out of the Peabody Museum. We want to get beyond the anthropological view, and beyond Frida Kahlo and [Diego] Rivera,” he says, referring to the painters who appear in every beginning Spanish textbook.

Stepping into a room hung with Sulca’s tapestries, you’ll first notice your eyes being pulled in all sorts of directions: backward, forward, in spirals and in steps. Sulca emphasizes depth and movement, and every tapestry has its unique geometry. In “Folding the Past,” a panel of colorful cloth cuts through the top half of the black background and then starts to fold like an accordion at the bottom. The series “Past and Future in ‘S’” consists of panels which fold in and out like waves.

Most of the tapestries show upward movement as a metaphor for lightness and hope, especially in “I Wish to Be Like the Wind,” where a face and reaching hands burst out of an upward rising spiral. This tapestry is set to a poem which reads as a direct response to the disillusionment of the Shining Path years:

I wish to be like the wind

that runs over continents,

and drag all evils,

and smash them among rocks.

I wish to be the brother

who gives his hand to the fallen one,

and, strongly embraced,

seek the peace of the world.

A major aspect of Sulca’s response to modern violence is the revival and vindication of culture. Sulca seems to be in constant dialogue with Inca and Aymara weaving traditions, which date back at least 1,000 years. He works in punto arwi, an Incan weaving technique revived by his grandfather Ambrosio in the 1920s and only uses hand-spun wool and native Andean dyes. With this technique, Sulca weaves together modern and ancient symbols. Some are easy to decipher: notes on a staff to represent music, for instance, and an easel signifies art in “Gracias a la Vida.”

The symbols may also be recurring shapes of different colors or certain animals that have significance in Inca mythology. The mystery of pre-Hispanic textiles resonates in many of Sulca’s tapestries; “Folding the Past” is really a tapestry of a tapestry, in which symbols fade into the folding cloth like history disappearing into time.

Many of the tapestries in this exhibition have an accompanying story, song, or poem. The closest Sulca gets to literalism is probably “Weaving Life,” which uses the legend of the spider-storyteller to depict the major events of Peruvian history as symbols in a web. In this tapestry the correlation between the story and the symbol is clear and beautifully executed—but not as compelling as when Sulca uses symbols to build a metaphor. Such is the case in “For a Better World,” based on the artist’s own poem, which locates womanhood somewhere between the Christian concept of Eve, and the Andean ideal of a woman whose spirit comes from the mountain.

Sulca’s work is mysterious, but not secretive. If for nothing else, the tapestries succeed for their alluring shapes and colors, but their real beauty is in the stories they carry. Every tapestry displays a drive for the universal, without generalizing the circumstance of tradition. They are clearly meant for sharing.

visual arts

Woven Testimonies: The Andean Tapestries of Edwin Sulca

David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, 61 Kirkland Street, Cambridge

Through June 14, 2002