For most of human history, cloth has not only been used to cover nakedness or lure a mate, it has been deeply symbolic and often connected to rituals. If you lived in Bolivia, for example, in the 20th century up until the last few decades, you might have a special woven bag for carrying your coca leaves, which were used in ceremonies and as a medicinal tea. The patterns and colors hand-woven into your coca bag were important signifiers of your region and ancestry. And if you were female, your textile skills even indicated your suitability as a mate. Very fine spinning of the llama or vicuna wool contributed to a young woman's success in finding a very fine man. Then, a marriage was performed with a woven mantle.
The ritualistic use of cloth is rapidly disappearing in Bolivia, just as it is everywhere on the planet. Fortunately, a few intrepid travelers collected a lot of the ceremonial textiles before the people with skills to make them severely diminished in number. The Bolivian Textiles exhibition at University of Michigan-Dearborn's Alfred Berkowitz Gallery offers a chance to see a few of these rare weavings mostly ponchos, bags, skirts and belts. Selected from the Bradley Cross Collection of 1,300 objects, the 68 hand-woven works on view, including belts, bags, headbands and head cloths, slings, saddle blankets and more, date from the 18th century all the way into the 1970s. Cross, who is an Ann Arbor-based metal artist, collected the textiles and crafts native to South America while on a Peace Corps stint in 1972.
If you are more accustomed to looking at modern art than indigenous textiles, you'll be struck by how rich and vibratory a stripe can be when the pattern is actually woven in, rather than merely on the surface. Much of traditional weaving is marked by a pronounced stripe of intersecting yarns. In the back of the gallery, a display case holds the best example of yarn imagery on the poncho-like garments known as aksus or as capotes. One capote has four wide vertical bands of figures within a lush red-striped background. There are few human figures, mostly just animals, such as llamas, cattle, vicuna, reptiles and rodents. When people are represented, they are diminutive and often positioned upside-down or sideways, rendered flat like paper dolls, and a few circles or stripes separate them from the animals on parade. On this capote, a tiny dashed line in purple and fuchsia, woven at the edge of the garment where cloth meets fringe, is a beautifully subtle artistic choice.
Another exquisite capote features two wide bands with red figures, woven into a deep greenish-black background. Llamas, fanciful birds, rodents and tiny stick figures exit an animal's mouth. An aksu has decorative patterns of monkeys and diamond-shaped sun symbols called intis.
Other displays contain garments and bags grouped by style or purpose. There are rare coca bags in one glass case, while another case shows the range of color in undyed natural wool yarns a variety of deep blacks, rich grays, whites and off-whites to dark browns, copper browns, tans and beiges, depending on the animal it comes from. There are textiles featuring similar styles as well narrow vertical bands of reds, purple and whites with patterns of zigzags, diamonds, hooks and curls, and an occasional center band woven with a pattern of animals.
The finest, most intricate abstract designs are found in two 19th century pieces, an ahuayo (mantle) and rare urcu (folded skirt). That display has a photograph of a woman spinning yarn on a drop spindle, a reminder that these weavers didn't buy their yarn at the store; delicate weaving depended on their ability to make tiny threads with ancient expertise and equipment.
The best reason to see this show is that you probably don't realize how drop-dead gorgeous cloth can be. The only thing better would be to have a room full of Bolivians wearing the garments, their bodies wrapped in dense patterns of meaning. While the Peace Corps is ostensibly about sending Americans to help out impoverished regions, the most valuable byproduct is that its volunteers can be changed forever. Bradley Cross is their poster child. The gods, dreams, visions and myths of Bolivia live on in his fine collection.
Bolivian Textiles runs through Feb. 3 at the Alfred Berkowitz Gallery, third floor of Mardigian Library, 4901 Evergreen Rd., Dearborn; 313-593-5400.Gerry Craig writes about art locally and nationally. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org