I was meant to have left the city the night before but my failure to read the small print of my car rental deal, combined with my having cut up my credit card, made it so that I was driving through New Haven, Connecticut mid-morning on a Wednesday. Reminded that I was on vacation, I stopped in at an exhibit at the Yale University Art Gallery, “Weaving and the Social World”, where I was sent up to the fourth floor to view this collection of woven textile works from the ancient Andes. Immediately upon arrival I was greeted by the warm smile of James Blake, the attendant to the exhibit. “You can call me JB”, he told me, and I began my way through the four rooms of works that varied in design but not in mastery.
“You look like you have an eye for detail”, JB said to me, as I peered at two sculptures of deities, the only non-textile work in the show. When he asked me what had brought me to the exhibit, I told him that I too, was a weaver. Mind you it may be a bit of a stretch relate my own projects to the level of skill and precision on display in the four rooms. A novice tapestry weaver, I’ve finished one full-sized project thus far, meanwhile an entire wall of flying creatures floated on a tapestry that took up an entire wall.
Then there was the tunic with flying condors that emerged from the woven piece as if they were climbing out of the imagination of the weaver, and into the physical world. Each bird's head popped up and out, on its way into this dimension where the condors could spread their wings and fly.
Tunics and mantles abounded, and a sense of meaning, purpose, and spirituality imbued with each pass of the weft thread came through these animate objects to confront the viewer. The textiles come from a time when days were spent weaving, when deities flew through the sky and people depended upon them, called upon them, and worshipped them, purportedly to give bountiful harvests and protect against the elements. As the exhibit states ""Andean peoples first produced textiles around 10,000 BC... Lacking written languages, Andean societies used clothing to define a person's gender, status, occupation, wealth and community affiliation." Depending upon status, individuals were buried with luxurious textiles, wrapped in the layers and given clothing that they could wear in the afterlife.
In a time when now, mass-produced cheap garments are readily bought, worn once and tossed, creating a more than 11 million tons of textile waste from the U.S. annually, the idea the garments could have meaning, could be worn ceremoniously, or could be created over the course of months, seems almost fantastical. Sure, high fashion is still big business, with collections being worked on by skilled artists and artisans for months at a time, and bought and worn by royalty and cultural icons. Yet the pieces in this show are not just technically astute, or evoking of latent spirituality. They are also playful, intellectually engaging, and seem to have been created by hands whose minds were actively and acutely engaged in the process. Like monks' robes that might have been designed by Schiaparelli, or what could have resulted if Kandinsky had been asked to weave his theories on synesthesia into timeless textile.
While thousands of years old, some of these pieces brought to mind Sonia Delaunay's Orphism movement.
Others, created completely from feathers, could easily have been designed recently, for a Chinese New Year celebration, or as accessories for an haute couture shoot.
A stunning collection of works, I was grateful to begin my vacation with such a welcome respite from the modern world. People always ask me why I weave. Even if they don't ask explicitly they'll query "don't machines do that now?", in a not so subtle quip of wonder at my dedication to such an outdated tradition. If I could, I would simply answer each one of these naysayers with a visit to this show.
If they still wondered, well, that would be on them.