The Blanton Museum of Art at The University of Texas at Austin presents “Painted Cloth: Fashion and Ritual in Colonial Latin America,” an ambitious and timely show that explores the production, meaning, and representation of fabric and garments as they were experienced in civil and religious settings across Latin America during the 1700s. Opening August 14, 2022, “Painted Cloth” will feature over 70 objects produced in five countries from the Blanton’s growing collection of art of the Spanish Americas, alongside key loans from distinguished institutions and private collections around the world. The exhibition will remain on view through January 8, 2023.
“The elaborate fabrics, fashion, and other richly textured works in this show are not only a feast for the eyes, they also will give our audiences a good look into everyday life during an era of dynamic cultural exchange and show how clothing—then as now—is so intertwined with our identities,” Blanton director Simone Wicha said. “Equally beautiful as it is insightful, ‘Painted Cloth’ is sure to inspire conversations about race and colonialism’s complex legacies and offer a greater understanding of this period in Latin America’s history.”
An unquestionable marker of identity, clothing distills complex relationships between race, gender, religion, and class. ‘Painted Cloth’ reflects on the social roles of textiles and their visual representations, emphasizing how aesthetic traditions of Indigenous and European origin wove themselves into civil, religious, and artistic life at a time when the Spanish monarchy imposed their rule in the region.
As the title references, the exhibition foregrounds not only beautifully crafted garments and textiles, but also explores how the practice of depicting textiles in paintings, sculptures, prints, and furnishings created a visual artifice that captured their aesthetic, ritual, and commercial value. This interplay between objects and images courses through five visually striking sections: “Cloth Making,” “Wearing Social Status,” “Dressing the Sacred,” “The Holiness of Cloth,” and “Ritual Garments.”
“Collectively, these groupings address how cloth and their representation in other media articulated narratives of social privilege and survival of cultural traditions, while also highlighting the mixed identity of colonial Latin America,” Rosario I. Granados, Marilynn Thoma Associate Curator, Art of the Spanish Americas, said. “Garments are a lens by which we can recognize the many inequalities and societal contradictions that characterized the social fabric of this contested era, which altered the lives of so many Indigenous communities, but also the beauty of the Spanish America’s artistic production and thereby the diverse cultures of its peoples.”
“Painted Cloth” begins with the manufacture and artistry of textiles in the 1700s. In the first section, titled “Cloth Making,” works underscore how various kinds of European and Indigenous garments were manufactured, emphasizing the role persons of different social status played in the industry. Included are works from the only series of casta paintings (a Mexican artistic genre that documents mixed-race couples and their children according to a caste system defined by Spanish elites) to prominently showcase women as integral to the production of textile arts, from spinning and weaving wool to their work as seamstress and tailor’s aids. In one example of this series by Mexican painter José Joaquín Magón, a woman makes bobbin lace, a costly material that was commonly imported from Europe and adopted in local attire.
The interlacing of foreign materials and traditions with local practices is also present in a set of silk swatches from Mexico. Sent with official reports to the King of Spain, these rare fabric samples show the production of block-print patterns inspired by textiles from India that signal the presence of highly skilled silk weavers in the New Spanish (Mexican) capital. The Cuzqueña painting Virgen de los Sastres [Virgin of Tailors] gives evidence that tailors, many of whom were of mixed-race descent, producedliturgical vestments made from imported European silks and brocades—examples of which are seen inthe last section of the exhibition.
Many of the works in this section also address how Indigenous and Christian notions of the sacred were combined. Christian missionaries in the Andes popularized iconography that linked spiritual devotion with the labor involved in manufacturing cloth, circulating paintings that depicted the Virgin Mary or Holy Family undertaking artistic or industrious activities. By depicting Mary embroidering and spinning, the two paintings La Casa de Nazareth [The House of Nazareth] and La Virgen niña hilando [The Child Mary Spinning] make a connection between Christianity and the Indigenous cultures’ regard for the sacred nature of textiles.
Wearing Social Status
The second and largest section of the exhibition, titled “Wearing Social Status,” explores how fashion codes determined social interactions and collective identities in terms of gender, race, and class. This is particularly visible in Mexican casta paintings and a unique series of Peruvian mestizaje paintings, on view in the U.S. for the first time, as well as in commissioned portraits—an increasingly popular genre in this period. Since few garments from the era have survived, such paintings, although ripe with artifices, serve as an invaluable source for the study of fashion and its social significance.
One of the most memorable features of this section is the pairing of painted garments in portraits with actual garments. Paintings of well-dressed Latin American sitters by Miguel Cabrera, one of the most celebrated and prolific artists of the period, demonstrate a desired social prestige, as evident in the great attention paid to the subject’s dress. These costly dresses and elegant three-piece suits are in dialogue with similar European costumes, illustrating the influence of global trade as well as French fashion.
Clothing is also relevant in the portraits Indigenous elite commissioned to assert noble ancestry. The figure in Inca Noblewoman, notably dressed in an intricate anuca, or women’s dress, resembles the first queen of the Inca dynasty, Mama Occllo. Such motifs and codes of dress establish the sitter’s connection to Inca royalty and, as the inscription makes clear, her status as the first Christian Inca woman. In conversation with this portrait is a late 17th-century camelid wool anacu embroidered with mermaids, Inca queens, and traditional Andean geometric patterns, accompanied by a silver fastening pin known as a ttipqui or tupo incised with the imperial double-headed eagle. These artifacts offer examples of fusing Incan and European motifs to negotiate identity in a colonial environment.
Dressing the Sacred
The exhibition’s third section, “Dressing the Sacred,” exemplifies how religious material culture enhanced the experience of the holy for all social sectors. The use of fine materials in sacred objects amplified an object’s visual appearance, and with it, its sacred aura, thereby facilitating conversion and enhancing devotional practice. This is particularly true of the fabrics placed on imágenes de vestir, or “dress images.” These simple wooden structures were explicitly made to be clothed in rich fabrics, like the satin mantle on view, embroidered in gold and silver threads for a statue of the Virgin Mary.
In other instances, real fabrics were imitated by modeled silver, as in an example of a devotional sculpture from Guatemala, a practice that continues in the Central American country today. Fabrication of reality was likewise achieved by replicating golden embroideries and brocade fabrics using estofado, a technique that involves applying gold leaf to wooden surfaces. In two paintings from the so-called Cusco School, respectively depicting St. Lawrence and St. Jerome, gilded details emphasize the richness of saintly garments.
Brimming with golden brocades, the large painting Nuestra Señora de Belén con un donante [Our Lady of Bethlehem with a Donor] bookends this section. The work, a brilliant example of a verdadero retrato, or “true portrait,” depicts the 16th-century cult statue of Our Lady of Bethlehem of Cusco placed on a processional platform. Displayed in a dimly lit gallery that alludes to the painting’s original display, viewers can get a sense of the effect such objects were intended to evoke.
Holiness of Cloth
The fourth section, “Holiness of Cloth,” illuminates how the actual depiction of fabric was central to images that were believed to be of miraculous nature. Cloth could provide material substance to help elucidate abstract notions of the divine, as in examples from the Cusco School of painting, which introduced Andean renditions of Catholic subjects.
The painting Virgen del Carmen salvando a las almas del Purgatorio [Virgin of Carmel Saving Souls in Purgatory] depicts the Virgin Mary with an open cloak—a familiar iconography across the Spanish Americas that symbolized protection. In a disparate work that renders the iconographic Presentation of the Virgin Mary at the Temple, tunics and mantles are gilded with brocateado, elaborate gold-brocade decoration, a technique characteristic of the Indigenous artistic production of Cusco.
In some cases, cloth becomes the divine itself, such as in Mexican painter José de Alzibar’s two works, united and on display together for the first time in history. The first, a representation of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the national patron of Mexico, depicts the cloak of an Indigenous man where the sacred image was thought to have been miraculously imprinted. The second, La Verónica, depicts the Veil of Veronica, one of the most recognizable images in which cloth is represented as a vehicle for the holy.
The final section of the exhibition, “Ritual Garments,” focuses on the use of fabric in church interiors and ritual ceremonies as well as in the formation of clerical identities. Since much of the material used was extraordinarily delicate, prone to damage and decay, paintings of the era help reconstruct an understanding of the use of cloth.
The hierarchical position of Catholic clergy could be recognized by distinct, standardized liturgical clothing. A small glass painting from Bolivia details the repertoire of garments and accessories worn by priests, bishops, cardinals, and the pope, whereby the particular use of colors functioned as a key signifier of rank. In the case of the chasuble, the outermost vestment worn during the celebration of the
Eucharist, four seasonal colors were used to represent the passage of time in the liturgical calendar. Although the chasuble was worn by the lowest rank of priest, the artifact on view from Mexico is crafted in fancy silks and embroidered with silken threads covered in silver and gold.
In the context of the Catholic church, the altar is an important ritual site; in the Spanish Americas it was lavishly decorated, as visual depictions like Misa frente al Cristo de los Temblores [Masses before Christ of the Earthquakes] convey. Like many works that depicted ideal Masses, this painting was created for a private home and painted from the view of a churchgoer to direct focus to the fine textiles and silverware covering the altar. On occasion, a less costly “painted cloth” instead decorated the altar –exemplified by a canvas altar cloth with floral designs that mimic actual textiles. In contrast, a Guatemalan processional banner created entirely from silver emphasizes the use of even valuable materials to imitate cloth and create visual artifice.
“’Painted Cloth’ rejoices in the artifice of the visual arts to uncover the complexities of human nature,” concluded Granados. “Together, I hope these stunning artworks and artifacts encourage reflection on values of the past and shed new light on the factors that have shaped contemporary Latin American experience.”