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.