Art review: ‘Wari’ displays art of Peruvian civilization

By Dorothy Shinn
Beacon Journal art and architecture critic

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Tunic, 6001000. Peru, Wari. Camelid fiber and cotton; 86.5 x 122 cm. The Textile Museum, Washington, DC, Acquired by George Hewitt Myers in 1941 91.341

For the last 20 or more years, the Cleveland Museum of Art has had a respectable and inspiring number of exhibits on Mesoamerican art and artifacts.

The Blood of Kings, for example, the 1986 groundbreaking Maya exhibit curated by the late Linda Schele, inspired a group of enthusiasts at Cleveland State University to form the K’inal Winik Festival (now Cultural Center), which boasts a 20-year history of scholarship, public programs, lectures, exhibits and conferences exploring Maya art, language, and culture.

Now comes Wari: Lords of the Ancient Andes, another groundbreaking exhibit, organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art and curated by Susan E. Bergh, museum curator of Pre-Columbian and Native North American art.

This is said to be the first North American exhibition to explore the art of the Wari, a cosmopolitan society that existed in the Andes Mountains of Peru between 600 and 1000 A.D., widely regarded today as ancient Peru’s first empire.

On view through Jan. 6, the exhibit presents current knowledge about Wari material culture through 150 breathtaking and masterfully wrought works of art, mainly in the form of ceramics and textiles, with some wood and metal objects providing variety.

South American civilization long predates the better-known Inca of the 15th and 16th centuries. Not surprisingly, works of art are crucial to understanding these early civilizations.

Works of art served not only as practical objects for providing food, drink and warmth, they also served in more conceptual ways, communicating ideas about the Wari’s cultural, natural and supernatural realms, as visitors to the exhibit will see.

The show is organized thematically, focusing on some of the mechanisms the Wari used to build and sustain a complex society.

Elites seem to have hosted lavish feasts and beer-drinking events that involved finely made ceramics decorated with images of deities, among other things. Such events likely helped the Wari to forge alliances with important guests.

This exhibit contains superior examples of artwork selected from more than 40 public and private collections in Canada, Europe, Peru and the United States.

All major Wari media are represented: ceramics; ornaments made of precious inlays or gold and silver; small stone and wood sculptures; and intricately woven textiles that are among the finest ever made in the Andean region.

The objects are of the highest aesthetic quality and cultural significance, and many have never or only rarely been seen outside the countries where they now reside. This is the first time the Wari have received the attention they deserve in the United States, according to Bergh.

The exhibit contains two new items recently acquired by the museum for its collection and for this exhibit: Bag with Human Face, made of animal hide, and Figure in a Litter, ceramic and slip.

Some of the works are quite large, such as the Urn with Staff Deities, decorated with slip painting on its exterior and interior with images of the deity who was the focus of Wari state religions. Another large urn, decorated only on the outside, brackets the first in the show’s opening gallery.

These two objects beg the question: how were they made? Not much is offered by way of explanation in the exhibit, or in the lavishly illustrated, 300-page catalog ($37.80, hardback) although quite a bit of information is offered about how they were used.

Ceramics have been found in huge pits, smashed to pieces, suggesting to researchers that these objects were used in feasting rituals. Early Andean peoples believed that objects were animated and could substitute for living sacrifices.

“Among the Wari,” writes Mary Glowacki in the exhibit catalog, “pottery vessels were the offering of choice, typically used with libations, ritually smashed and then buried in the ground.

“The ceremonial practice of smashing ceramic vessels is much broader than Andean Wari culture,” Glowacki continues. “Societies throughout time and across continents have associated pottery vessels and the human sustenance served in them with offerings to the ancestors and the energy of the afterlife …” requiring the ritual “killing of the pottery vessels, breaking them to engage symbolically in an experience with the supernatural realm.”

Similarly, the textile garments are discussed in detail in terms of the symbolic decorations that enhance them, but there’s almost nothing on how they were constructed; researchers may not yet know that, but they do know, or think they know, quite a bit about how they were used.

This is a free show, so no tickets or timed entrances are needed. Programming for this exhibit has been dense, and there are still several events available:

The Material Sublime: Wari Tapestry — Woven Tunics, 7 p.m. Nov. 28, Recital Hall. Free. Bergh discusses Wari tunics’ supernatural imagery and complex color.

Peruvian Feather Arts: 2,000 Years of Tradition, 2 p.m. Dec. 2, Recital Hall. Free. Feathers were considered precious and their use was the privilege of the elite. Heidi King of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York discusses the techniques developed by ancient Peruvian featherworkers.

Khipu: The History of Record-keeping in the Ancient Andes, 2:30 p.m. Nov. 10, Education classrooms. Dr. Carrie J. Brezine will hold a lecture and workshop on the Andean khipu, recording devices made from strings or thread. Materials fee $15, members $10. Registration required at 216-421-7350.

Weaving in Action with the Oncebay Family, 1 to 4 p.m. Nov. 16-18, KeyBank Lobby. Free. Meet Saturnino and Vilma Oncebay, weavers from Ayacucho, Peru, who will give demonstrations.

Art Cart: Wari, 1 to 3 p.m. Dec. 2, KeyBank Lobby. Free. Touch genuine art objects for a hands-on experience. Art Cart experiences can be organized for groups for a fee; contact Karen Levinsky at 216-707-2467.

Project Tunic, 7 p.m. Jan. 4, Atrium. Free. Judges Valerie Mayen, former Project Runway contestant; Cleveland Fashion Week founder Donald C. Shingler; and fashion blogger Jessica Noelle choose the best Wari-inspired designs.

• Free docent-led tours are Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 p.m.; Wednesdays at 7 p.m. Meet in the atrium.

Dorothy Shinn writes about art and architecture for the Akron Beacon Journal. Send information to her at the Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640 or

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