The exquisite handwoven Q’ero textiles offered on the Heart Walk Foundation Tribal Store are more than beautiful art. The rich and complex Q’ero textile tradition conveys much about ancient Andean culture and its mystical cosmovision. Learning to “read” this chief artistic expression of the Q’ero people can provide a glimpse into an ancient pre-Hispanic culture in which knowledge, stories, meanings, and relationships are integral to life.
Q’ero textiles are rooted in the Inka era weaving traditions of using imagery as a form of visual language to record knowledge, data, and events. Pre-colonial Inka record keepers even “wrote” using knotted strings called khipus. Contemporary Q’ero textiles still use fields of color, symbols, and organizational layout to record and convey concepts concerning seasonal time, agricultural practices, mythic history, and world view.
“Andean weavers are modern scribes who use thread as opposed to pen and ink, to produce motifs in a true pictoric dictionary.”
– Gail P Silverman, Ch’unchu pallay (Awana Wasi del Cusco), 1993, p. 14
All elements in Q’ero textiles represent the inherent balance and harmony of the universe. Some elements even reflect the community’s ideas about fertilization, growth, death and regeneration.
A few of the major motifs used in Q’ero textiles include:
Inti is generally known as the Inka sun god, but Inti is more appropriately viewed as a cluster of stages of the sun – sunrise, sunset, noon, and midnight – which are frequently represented in Q’ero textiles.
Inti is more than an ancient god. Inti can also be understood as sacred light and as a metaphor for the illumination of understanding. Inti textiles tell the story of the gift of light to the world.
Inkarri / Ch’unchu
The mythical figure of Inkarri is represented as the ch’unchu dancer in Q’ero textiles. Inkarri is a cultural hero, the last Inka king. The Q’ero weave several variations of Inkarri, including some that show him as decapitated. After being executed by the Spanish the last Inka’s body parts were buried in various locations. Q’ero stories tell that when his head and body are reunited, Inkarri will return to save the people from colonial domination.
The q’ocha design is another predominant motif in Q’ero textiles. The Quechua word q’ocha refers to a lake, mountain lagoon or pool. It can even refer to the ocean. The live-giving element of water is depicted by symmetrical zig zag lines, usually in contrasting colors.
The chili design is named for a red flower that grows in the Andean jungle. This flowing pattern lined with small shapes evokes what Cohen calls, “a visually charge field of active energy rather than a single isolated symbolic representation.”
Behind the simplicity of design in an Unkuna or Wayaqua despacho cloth is a style of weaving only highly skilled weavers can achieve. Representing the four sections of the Taywantinsuyo or Inka Empire, the Q’ero use these carrying cloths to hold coca leaves, to use in coca leaf readings or stone divination, and for carrying a lunch of potatoes across the steep Andes mountainsides. The four sections can also be used for offerings to the apus (sacred mountains); Pachamama or Mother Earth; the powers of nature, such as lightning or water; and the spirits of the ancestors or huacas, the powerful places.
One of the most unique characteristics of Q’ero textiles and their symbology is that the primary patterns are carefully composed in order to appear the same on both sides. There is no right or wrong side on a Q’ero mestana.
Other symbolic representations in Q’ero weaving begin with the concept of ayni, wherein the two panels of the mesa cloth or mestana represent the complementary duality of male and female. The zig-zag line of thread holding the two panels together represents lightening. Wide bands often represent essential agricultural fields of corn or potatoes. A close series of colorful narrow bands reflects the Inka use of color to record tubers, corn, animals, water and soil types.
You can learn more about the complex meanings inherent in Q’ero textiles and culture from the following resources:
A Woven Book of Knowledge, Gail P. Silverman, 2008.
Discovery May Help Decipher Ancient Incan String Code, National Geographic.