Openwork Headcloth with Bird and Snake/Feline Motifs

South America, Central Andes, Central Coast, Chancay. Late Intermediate, AD 1000-1450.
Cotton. 30 x 30 3/8 in.
Gift of William C. and Carol W. Thibadeau

Perhaps one of our finest ancient Andean textiles, this Chancay woman’s headcloth is made in a technique known generally as openwork, in which a grid of fine threads was embroidered to fill in certain squares more than others. The diagonal design bands are made up of two patterns, the wider a series of interlocking birds and the narrower a motif that can be read either as a feline or as a snake head, depending on your point of view. The birds have long, squared beaks, and the intersection of their tails creates a pronounced zigzag effect. The feline version features pointed ears, which become the open snake mouth upon inversion of the textile. These motifs are prevalent in the art of this Late Intermediate period, ca. A.D. 1000-1470.

A particularly intriguing aspect of reading these motifs is that when the headcloth was worn – rather like a headscarf, but not tied under the chin – the grid of threads would draw in, as they do at the corners, only more so. Off the loom the kinky threads would pull together into an illegible mass; it is only when under tension, being woven and now being displayed, that its symbols are perceptible. It is characteristically Andean to create a very complex image that does not cater to the human viewer. Works of art were first and foremost complete and meaningful in and of themselves, since they were often directed towards supernatural powers. The headcloth designs seem to sanctify or protect the wearer, rather than make themselves clear to the viewer.