- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 20, 2002

"Hidden Threads of Peru: Q'ero Textiles," an exhibit of brilliantly colored cloths from the Cuzco area of Peru, holds the fruits of one man's 40-year love affair with the Q'ero people.
He is John Cohen, 70, a retired professor of visual arts at the State University of New York at Purchase, who first went to Peru to research contemporary Indian weaving in 1956.
The show of 35 textiles draws upon the collection of 25 fabrics Mr. Cohen gave to the Textile Museum in 1999. Others were lent by the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Mr. Cohen's interest in Peruvian weavers developed when he was studying for a master's degree in fine arts at Yale University from 1956 to 1957 and studying with former Bauhaus painter Josef Albers. Mr. Albers' wife, Anni, was a weaver. He found that his own aesthetic interests tied in with pre-Hispanic Peruvian weavers who used designs from 2,000 years earlier.
"The repeated sequences of colors and the deliberate interruptions to these sequences raised questions that could not be answered in the books of that time," Mr. Cohen writes in the colorful and fascinating exhibit catalog. He felt compelled to go to Peru to study with the weavers' descendants. It was the beginning of many trips spent researching Q'ero textiles, recording the community's music and filming the often hard lives of the people.
Q'ero is an isolated community on the eastern side of the Andes Mountains, about 100 miles east of Cuzco in southern Peru. Visitors must travel 30 miles on foot or horseback from the nearest passable road to reach it, and that takes two days. The people can live self-sufficiently because the community contains three distinct ecological zones: alpaca pastures at 12,500 to 15,000 feet, potato fields at 10,000 to 12,300 feet, and maize fields at 6,000 to 6,900 feet.
Mr. Cohen happened on the remote indigenous community almost accidentally. The American Museum of Natural History in New York had given him funds to research weaving techniques and collect textiles and looms for the museum while he was researching his master's thesis. He had seen Q'ero fabrics in Cuzco stores and was hooked. He was able to travel to Q'ero with the son of the local Q'ero hacienda owner.
Visitors to the exhibit at the Textile Museum will find that the progression of colors and variations of hues will intrigue them, as they did Mr. Cohen. Exhibit curator Ann Pollard Rowe, museum curator of Western Hemisphere Collections, traces the colorful and often intricately designed Q'ero weavings from the "ch'unchu" (tropical forest Indian) images to more abstract ones in the introductory gallery. The Q'ero people weave with wool from alpacas and llamas.
On one wall, viewers can begin with a stunning photograph of ch'unchu dancers celebrating rituals. The dancers wear tall, bright-red headdresses made from the tails of macaws. The exhibit label tells visitors that "ch'uncho" is a derogatory name for the tropical forest Indians. Women's shawls nearby show how the stylized ch'uncho figure gradually dissolved into geometric patternings.
Visitors then progress from the photo to a late-19th-century "Woman's Shawl (lliklla)" with narrow design bands filled with ch'uncho figures. Mr. Cohen bought the weaving when he first went to Q'ero. The wide black areas, reminscent of Ad Reinhardt's "black paintings" of the 1950s and also of some of Mr. Albers' work, give the shawl a strikingly contemporary look.
Although the design bands are narrow, the weaver created full ch'unchu figures with complete bodies and V-shaped feather headdresses. The colors suggest the shawl was made earlier from natural dyes. The curator believes the red probably is relbun, from the roots of a plant that grows in the area, and the blue is indigo obtained from traders.
The "Woman's Shawl" next to it, probably woven 50 years later, is a transition work for the textile at its right. The weaver used synthetic dyes to create the ch'uncho figures with taller headdresses and smaller bodies. These patternings subsequently became designs with pairs of heads placed chin-to-chin and small faceted diamonds and triangles. Weavers made design bands so wide that the black stripes almost disappeared.
Chin-to-chin ch'unchu designs evolved into "inti" designs, symbolic of the sun. This characterizes most ch'unchu weavings made since the mid-20th century.
Visitors can identify and savor the designs in the exhibit's many handsome and varied shawls, men's festival ponchos, tunics, cocoa bags, carrying cloths for lunch and knitted caps.
The isolation and indigenous cultural preservation of Q'ero has worked well for anthropologists and artists. Mothers hand down loom techniques and patterns to daughters over several generations. A particular Q'ero technique is hiding threads behind certain areas of the cloth. Hence the exhibit's title "Hidden Threads of Peru: Q'ero Textiles," which also refers to the community's "hidden" location.
Mr. Cohen explains in a telephone interview from his home in Putnam Valley, N.Y., that every aspect of Q'ero life the rituals, textiles and music is an offering to mountain gods. "As each woman begins to weave, she makes a small offering to the gods," he says.
Mr. Cohen, a photographer, documentary filmmaker and musician, knows Q'ero as few others do. He made the film "Q'eros: The Shape of Survival," which is for sale in the museum bookshop. Unfortunately, the film doesn't play in the exhibit.
In fact, the show although informative cries out for additional context in the form of Mr. Cohen's recordings of Q'ero music and photomurals made from his magnificent photographs.
It's also regrettable the museum didn't choose a larger space for the weavings and present the show with more exciting display techniques. This rich and unusual exhibit of Q'ero fabrics deserves it.

WHAT: "Hidden Threads of Peru: Q'ero Textiles"
WHERE: Textile Museum, 2320 S St. NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 18
TICKETS: Free with suggested donationof $5
PHONE: 202/667-0441

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