Wari: Pre-Inca Lords of Peru is the first American museum exhibition devoted to a little-known culture that flourished between 600 and 1000 AD. If its uniqueness is not reason enough to visit the Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale, the exhibition’s beauty and intelligence surely are.
More than a millennium ago, from their capitol near modern-day Ayacucho — midway between Lima and Cuzco — the Wari established the first empire in Peru, pre-dating the much better known Inca by 400 years. They left behind textiles, ceramics, ornaments and small-scale sculptures that demonstrate their esthetic sophistication and speak distinctly to modern sensibilities. But with no written records, their meaning and use are subject to scholarly inference.
“The remarkable artistic and cultural accomplishments of the Wari haven’t received the attention they deserve,” says Susan Bergh, curator of Pre-Columbian and Native North American Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art, who organized the exhibition. Her goal: “to jump start scholarship about the Wari, especially among art historians” to a level comparable to what archeologists have been doing since the 1960s.
The story the exhibition tells is how art, in lieu of writing, was used to communicate ideas about the natural, human and supernatural worlds as well as to foster Wari dominance over what is now Peru. Organized thematically, the exhibition focuses on the tools — trade, gift giving, religion, war — the Waris used to build and maintain a multifaceted society.
The first thing a visitor sees on entering the galleries is a three-foot-high ceramic vessel, elaborately decorated inside and out with images of a major deity. It may have been used by Wari elites at lavish feasts, which likely helped them forge alliances with important guests—and created reciprocal obligations.
Smaller ceramics finely sculpted and boldly decorated, ornaments and figurines intricately inlaid with stones and shells, and a few silver and gold artifacts, all possibly used for trade and as gifts, are beguiling in form and design.
One of the more fascinating items in the show is a coca bag made from llama or alpaca leather, one of few such objects to have survived, but also one that encapsulates the Wari’s sculptural and weaving skills. Made of hardened hide, a three-dimensional human face is stitched onto a decorated textile panel, with tresses of still lustrous human hair falling from beneath a cap. The youthful face gazes out us, lips slightly parted as though about to speak.
The sumptuous tunics on display, however, are the most outstanding and complex objects that Wari artists created. They have been remarkably well preserved by relatively even humidity at the burial sites where they were found. Whether finely woven from alpaca fibers or tie-dyed or created with macaw feathers, their abstracted geometric designs have a distinctly modern look.
The quality of the textiles and the standardization of size, format, color and design of the tunics suggest they were produced in state-sponsored workshops, thus emphasizing their importance to the Wari. The intricate designs are woven into the fabric, not embroidered on top of it. The exorbitant amount of time and effort required — up to 18 miles of hand-spun thread could go into a single tunic — attest to the central role textiles played as symbols of authority for Wari elite and as highly valued gifts to strengthen political bonds. A weaver’s sewing basket is also on display, a reminder that the textiles were all laboriously made by hand.
Bergh emphasizes that the Wari expended “huge intellectual energy” in creating the spectacular artwork on display. Her careful selection of diverse and beautiful artifacts, their pristine display in the museum’s installation, and informative interpretative panels and brochures make this a not-to-be-missed exhibition that fills an historical gap for museum-goers.
A small selection of Andean art from Peru is fortuitously on display at the University of Miami’s Lowe Art Museum and complements the Wari exhibition.
One of the highlights is an Inca head dress woven from human hair that has not been on public display in over a decade. Its style and technique are similar to one in the Wari exhibition, although they’re 400 years apart.
It’s a subtle lesson in the continuity of artistic creation among the people that dominated the Americas before the Spanish conquest.