MAGIC FEATHERS


Pathways to the Sun
Decorative panel, perhaps the ceremonial covering for a breastplate
Nazca culture, south coast of Peru
c. 400-800 AD

97 x 76 cm (38 x 30 in), cotton, gyssypium barbadense, with applied feathers of the macaw and Muscovy duck, with lateral vertical panels of dyed natural cotton, and with small wooden cylindrical decorative ornaments embellished with flamingo feathers beneath the bottom dark border.

The composition combines circular, triangular and extended rectangular shapes, with the circle dominating. The use of the circle in ancient Peruvian feather textile art occurs in three primary design formats: (a) as a colour field circular form; (b) as a composition of expanding concentric circles that resemble a "target" with a bull's eye in the centre; (c) as a bisected disk; (d) as a "dartboard" configuration, of the type illustrated here, or a "wheel " image, with a central axle shape and forms resembling radiating spokes.

The origin of this motif is unclear. However, the elongated triangular forms emanating outwards from the small central yellow circle may suggest pathways leading to the sun, with the tapering form of each triangle (from a broad base to an ogival point) possibly being an intuitive representation of three-dimensional spatial perspective. Similar designs of elongated triangles are found in the earth drawings of the Nasca Plain.

In ancient Peruvian feather art, the sun is most commonly represented with facial characteristics, with six or eight rays. However, in this composition, design imperatives may have suggested the use of a simple colour-field yellow circular symbol to represent the sun. The concept of pathways leading to the sun is commensurate with Andean awe of, and veneration for, this heavenly body. The probably inexplicable disappearance each day of the sun, so indispensable for agricultural growth in a land with relatively little fertile terrain, must have been as disquieting as the sun's appearance on the ensuing day must have seem miraculous.


Text and illustration © Textile & Art Publications 1997:
not to be reproduced without permission.

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