Immortalized in Alpaca Thread: Tapestries from the Atacama, Chile

Tapestry, created by an artist in the region, depicting the desert and the Southern Cross in the night sky. Father Le Paige Museum, San Pedro de Atacama. Artist: Jenny Cárdenas Pérez.

I studied Art History in Canada, and I remember a professor once warning us – as art historians, scholars or critics – to be skeptical of an artists’ agenda. Contemporary artists, it seems – at least in North America – are often guarded and secretive about their work, perhaps wary of how others will treat them or their work if they are too open about it, or perhaps using their guardedness as a part of the art as a whole. (Yeah, I know, this can sound a little nuts… but stick with me.) The point is, we, as observers, can therefore never take the meaning of their work at face value, even if they describe their work to us. Indeed, at a gallery I often visit in Montreal, artists frequently exhibit semi-abstract or abstract work that is obscured with layers of (what seems to be) meaning, offering no descriptions whatsoever of what it stands for or where their inspiration comes from.

How refreshing, then, to discover that many of the artists and artisans here in northern Chile are the polar opposite: from my experience, they seem very open about the meaning of their work and the inspiration behind their pieces, often describing in detail the significance of their work and its place within the larger context of their culture or society. This straightforwardness has allowed me to understand their history and the region of the world they call home with that much more clarity.

During my most recent trip to San Pedro de Atacama, I was pleased to stumble across a special exhibit at the Gustavo Le Paige Museum on embroidery from the region. The small exhibit had about a dozen embroidered pieces by women from the region. It was an exhibit to reinforce the significance and importance of the artistic contributions that this region of the world has offered for centuries.

Table showing some of the materials used in creating the natural dyes for alpaca yarn. Gustavo Le Paige Museum, San Pedro de Atacama.

All of the pieces were made using traditional methods and designs. (Supposedly none of the works reflected techniques or influences after the Hispanic era – that is, after the Spanish and other conquerors infiltrated the land and culture.) The exhibit included a small, informative section describing how the materials are made. The women (all of the artists were women) begin by harvesting the soft wool of alpacas and spinning them into a yarn. The yarn is dyed by hand using natural, plant and animal-based pigments gathered from the desert. (I was surprised that so many colours can be harvested from what on the surface appears to be a mostly barren, orange-red desert!) The use of natural materials and dyes is no modern organic gimmick: it really is how the art has been made for centuries in this region of the world.

Alpaca yarn coloured with natural dyes from the Atacama desert. Gustavo Le Paige Museum, San Pedro de Atacama.

The female artists then use the colourful threads to create spectacular tapestries. Placards next to each work were descriptions, written by the artists, of the significance of their work. Many of the pieces were inspired by their love and pride for their home, native land and communities.

Wandering through the exhibit, I realized what a social and learning activity these women participate in by creating these works of art. In addition, I as a viewer was effectively educated not only on the process itself but of the significance that the land and community holds for these people.

I was enthralled by the unique pre-Hispanic patterns and combinations of shapes and lines. The patterns, which have a surprisingly “modern” feel to them, seem to take on a life of their own as they wind their way through the works.

When imagining each artist painstakingly dying the thread and stitching the design, I felt each work speaks to a careful and thoughtful process, calculated and distinct. It is a craftsmanship and process that is painstakingly learned and passed down through the generations. The significance of the overall result, I felt, was well summed up in the following excerpt by one of the artists on a placard in the exhibit:

“The nicest thing for me is to be a part of the collective… I feel that when I embroider, knit or dye, it opens up a space and time for meeting and shared learning…. We introduce plants in the fabric; plants are medicines, they give us dyes for wool, the earth gives us beauty and colour all of the time… the Water, the life.”

Lo más lindo para mi es el hacer colectivo… siento que cuando bordamos, tejemos o teñimos, se abre un espacio, un tiempo de encuentro, de aprendizaje compartido.… En el tejido están presentes las plantas; las plantas son medicinas, nos dan los tintes para las lanas, la tierra está dándote color y belleza todo el tiempo… el Agua, la vida.

– Veronica Moreno Fernández

Tapestry. Gustavo Le Paige Museum, San Pedro de Atacama. Artist: Carmen López Espinosa.

Tapestry. Gustavo Le Paige Museum, San Pedro de Atacama. Artist: Verónica Ramos Yáñez.

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