Q’ero Textiles: Conquest and Resistance
Published: Thursday, February 21, 2013
Updated: Friday, February 22, 2013 03:02
Exploring Portsmouth photographer Carl Austin Hyatt’s “Sacred Landscapes of Peru” exhibit at the university art museum, I found myself entranced by the contents of a particular display case containing a collection of Q’ero textiles.
On one side lie three women’s cloth pieces crafted between 1900 and 1920. The interwoven dark reds seem to speak for the creators, and to the mystical, festive and timeless South America that never was and always will be. To their left lie modern pieces: in the center a flamboyant Shaman’s ceremonial hat and on the far left two purses of different sizes. These modern pieces do not reflect the Q’ero culture in the way the other set of textiles do. Perhaps, I thought, these pieces were manufactured to attract tourists seeking to acquire them: the woven equivalent of a tourist trap. Then my eyes wandered to a remarkable mask between them.
“There is nothing, from the colors to the shapes to the arrangements, which does not hold meaning” read the placard. The collection’s most political piece seemed to demonstrate this point. The un cucua ritual hat of the Qoyllurity Festival is a mask that captured my attention and imagination.
This black pullover mask possesses two eyes, a nose, a mouth, and ears outlined in a blood red thread. These basic features of the mask seem to represent the body and blood of the Q’ero people. The Q’ero are the last descendants of the Inca. According to the Q’ero mythos, their ancestors escaped Spanish conquest with the aid of mountain gods who led them to safety.
Though the Q’ero escaped Spain’s conquest, they could not escape its overwhelming influence. Therefore, this Q’ero face is complemented by Spanish facial hair in the form of white thread: stylized eyebrows and a Dali mustache (a peculiar find on the faces of a native people who are genetically predisposed to little facial hair). In this same white thread, a cross is imprinted on the mask’s forehead. Though Spanish Catholicism has certainly influenced the spirituality of the Q’ero, Christ is but another god created by a greater deity. Such are the features of the first European conquest.
In the cerebral region that holds the cross, a rainbow band stretches around the head like a corona civica. What is the meaning of this multicolor? The rainbow is the official flag of the city of Cuzco, but this symbol itself is a corruption, an attempted rehabilitation, of the Inca Wiphala. The Wiphala, with its many colored squares, is a symbol distinct from the rainbow made up of stripes. In ancient Peru, rainbows were thought to be carriers of pestilence. The rainbow, then, is not a symbol traditional to the Q’ero culture but an attempt to reconstruct their culture by those outside of it.
Today, the descendants of the first conquerors are attempting a second conquest, one less brutal but more degrading than the first. The anthropologist with his tape recorder has replaced the conquistador holding his sword; the post-colonial studies scholar with her MacBook replaced the Dominican with his rosaries. Still, the Q’ero endure. They endure despite objectification. These austere villagers refuse to worship at the altar of cultural relativism, cultural anthropology, and multiculturalism. Perhaps their culture endures because some gut impulse tells the Q’ero that these contemporary pieties and ironic morals will soon be as relative as all modes of earlier thought have proven to be.