In the past, most tourists stopped in Cusco, Peru, simply for a quick visit before ascending the peaks of Machu Picchu.
By ELISABETH KIRSCH
Special to The Star
That has changed. Cusco is now a destination for artists and collectors around the world.
The current exhibit at Mattie Rhodes Gallery, co-curated by textile artist Catherine Joslyn and Peruvian-based Nilda Callanaupa Alvarez, shows why.
The hand-spun, natural-dyed, woven and knitted mantas, ponchos, chuspas (traditional bags), chalinas (scarves), lluchus (caps) and other items installed at the art center are examples of the expert, dazzling textiles now synonymous with the Cusco region.
At their best, the striped and/or patterned fiber works rival the aesthetic punch of contemporary paintings hanging in any art gallery. A bonus: You can touch these textiles, which feel extraordinary.
In 1996, Callanaupa Alvarez, a native of Chincero, a village outside Cusco, founded the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco. Slowly but insistently, she initiated a renaissance of traditional weaving, spinning, dyeing and knitting in her country that continues to grow with each generation.
Joslyn said that Nilda tended sheep as a child, but at 13 she realized that fiber art was her calling. She was taught by her mother and grandmother, who used synthetics. She realized that nobody was learning the historical traditions practiced by the older women, and she wanted to change that. She visited communities and studied what the elders were doing.
Nilda knew that these women were carrying on an ancient tradition of exquisite textiles going back thousands of years, before the Incas, Joslyn added.
Indian peoples had no written language then; ideas were expressed in their art. She could see that all this was going to be lost. She then got a degree in tourism from the National University of San Antonio Abad in Cusco and used that as a springboard to found CTTC.
As the director of the Cusco Center, Callanaupa Alvarez continues to teach and travel throughout the region to help rural communities that have established their own textile workshops. She also flies around the world representing fiber artists from her country and gives knitting and weaving demonstrations. (She recently conducted workshops in Kansas City and at the University of Kansas and spoke at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art on Jan. 9).
Callanaupa Alvarez has also published three books on weaving, including Faces of Tradition: Weaving Elders of the Andes.
Joslyn grew up in Johnson County and received a bachelors degree in art from Colby College in Maine. She learned to weave on her own and also took classes in fiber at KU and at the Kansas City Art Institute.
She owned and operated the textile gallery Woven Images at Crown Center from 1973 to 75 before relocating to the University of Indiana at Bloomington for her master of fine arts degree. (Joslyns mother continued to work at Woven Images for four more years.)
Joslyn taught in the fiber department at the Art Institute in 1978. In 1979, she moved to Pennsylvania, where she was a professor at Clarion University, eventually becoming the art department chair. She retired last year.
I went to Indonesia to study textiles and loved it, Joslyn recalls. But after talking to a friend at Surface Design Association (a national organization for textile artists, where Joslyn was on the board), I decided to go to Cusco. My friend said I had to meet with Nilda. I wanted to go for inspiration for my own work. CTTC offered workshops, but I needed a letter of invitation, which I got.
Joslyn, who speaks Spanish, subsequently took students to Peru three times and co-authored Engaging History: Continuities of Textile Traditions in the Andes with Callanaupa Alvarez.
The exhibit at Mattie Rhodes includes work by women and men from rural towns surrounding Cusco, demonstrating stylistic differences. What all the artists have in common is a mastery of their craft and a color sensibility that is profoundly rich. A chart on the wall explains how the different dyes are made and shows examples of the wool that comes from sheep and alpacas. Art this vibrant, however, could come only from inspiration that is centuries old.
The knitted caps, made for children and men, all have round little bobbles (gurpus) on them. Although charmingly decorative, they are actually added to protect heads from contact with machus, or malignant spirits.
All the patterns in the textiles are symbolic, even if some of the original meanings have been forgotten. What ultimately makes these textiles interesting is that the artisans do not just replicate ancient designs. They have all developed artistic avenues of their own, and one cannot predict what the next generation will create.
Weaving Lives: Engaging History continues at the Mattie Rhodes Art Center and Gallery, 919 W. 17th St., through Feb. 28. Hours are noon-5 p.m. Thursday and Friday and noon-6 p.m. Saturday. For more information, call 816-221-2349 or go to MattieRhodes.org.