The pre-Columbian Wari built the first South American empire, yet few people recognize their name.
They are not as well known as several of the other great pre-Columbian nation states. Yet what they did, they did without precedent.
On a before-the-Spanish timeline, the Wari are somewhere in the middle. They were after the Olmecs (1500-400 B.C.) and Maya (2000 B.C.-A.D. 250) of Mexico and before the Incas (early 1400-1532) of South America and the Aztecs (1300-1532) of Mexico and Central America.
“The Inca left an artistic heritage, and a great architectural monument, Machu Picchu,” says Jennifer Casler Price, the Kimbell’s curator of Asian and non-Western art. “But they also continued traditions of the Wari in their textiles, religion, ideas of warfare, keeping records and empire building. The Wari had no blueprints; they did this all on their own.”
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The building of the Wari nation began in A.D. 500 along the western regions of Peru and eventually stretched from the high-altitude Andes to the Pacific Coast. It flourished for 400 years but was rubble by the time the Spanish arrived in 1532.
There was no Wari welcome for Francisco Pizarro, who destroyed the Inca. The great Wari civilization was already buried under the fallen walls of its cities.
Centuries later, archeologists found the architectural footprint of Wari strongholds and began excavations. They found a civilization that was rich in textile and ceramic arts, but also one that did not leave a written language. All that is known about the Wari people is what can be deciphered from their accomplished art objects — polychrome ceramics, complex textiles, mosaics and objects sculpted from wood and stone.
“Wari: Lords of the Ancient Andes” contains more than 140 of these artworks. The exhibit, only the second traveling exhibition of Wari artifacts and the first for North America, opens Sunday at the Kimbell Art Museum.
There is no way to decipher Wari history (unlike the Maya, who left a record) and since all of the Wari were dead by the time of the Spanish landing, there isn’t even a secondhand account of their religious beliefs or civic structure.
All that can be gleaned must be interpreted from the architectural remains and artifacts, including where they were found and the images on them.
What has been ascertained is that the Wari partied hearty. Their nation-building was cemented on the reciprocity engendered by feasting. Huge vessels that held gallons of chicha (corn beer) were found buried in the city centers. Smaller vessels, or a home-version size, were used for the same purpose and were found in burial chambers. Some of these two-spout vessels are adorable. With feline faces or alpaca bodies, they are reminiscent of souvenir teapots that are sold at tourist destinations. The urns, used for public feasting, could hold as many as 53 gallons of chicha . But there is also a small vessel that holds only 6 cups, perhaps a single serving.
On the ceramic vessels are images of what is believed to be the Wari’s chief deity: the staff deity, seen full frontal, and two winged attendants that are usually seen in profile with one knee bent. The threesome are known as the staff deity complex. A fourth personage, the sacrificer, is often used as well. (Yes, the Wari were known to throw a few humans in with their sacrificial offerings, but only for very special occasions, Price says.)
Broken ceramics seem to fill most of the pits. The staff deity complex figures have certain commonalities such as vertically divided eyes, elaborate headdresses and streamers emanating from their mouths, belts, chins and feet.
The staff deity only appears on ceramics; his sidekicks, the attendants and the sacrificer, are used frequently on the textiles. The tunic-type garments worn by the Wari elite were woven in two rectangular lengths, then sewn together with a hole left for the head and room for the arms on the sides. Folded in half, the tunics are about 40 inches square, plenty long enough to cover a 5-foot person from shoulder to knees and over the elbow.
The intricacies of the woven patterns and the quality of the fibers, a combination of camelid wools and cotton, are well beyond the European textile works from the same time period. The Wari textiles were obviously considered very important for the glorification of the wearer, as they were extremely time-intensive to make. All the fibers had to be spun, dyed and woven, and a basic Wari tunic would necessitate about 7 miles of yarn. One extremely complex design required 18 miles of yarn.
The Wari textiles are breathtaking. The geometric interpretations of the figures, which become almost indecipherable in the pattern, look amazingly modern. The quality of the weaving — both sides of the cloth can be the right side — and the intense colors are remarkable.
Even more astounding is the use of distortion. The center panel design is compressed as the panels move to the side of the garment. This manipulated distortion gives the illusion of dimension to an otherwise flat garment. The sides seem to recede and the front panel to advance. There doesn’t seem to be any symbolic reason for this other than as an aesthetic contrivance, one that complicated the weaver’s art tremendously.
There are some bits and bobs used as decorative accessories — flat plumes made of gold or silver on needles that could either pierce the cloth or be woven into hairdos, and elaborate silver ear plugs. There are personal items from burial tombs — snuff boxes, and two hand-held mirrors, one decorated with a mosaic of stone and shell and the other carved wood with an image of the sacrificer — but these are inconsequential to the glory on the vessels and textiles.
Research into the Wari has been irregular. In the past 200 years, there have been flurries of interest and archeological excavations followed by fallow periods. Without a text record, it is difficult to make much headway in learning about the Wari.
More pots and ponchos won’t further the scholarship, but there are interested parties, and work continues, so one day there may be a breakthrough that helps translate their beliefs. When that time comes, the Wari could become as famous as the Incas and Maya.