Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 17, 2023
Rosario I. Granados, ed. Painted Cloth: Fashion and Ritual in Colonial Latin America Exh. cat. Austin: University of Texas Press and Blanton Museum of Art, 2022. 248 pp.; 140 color ills. $45.00 (9781477323977)
Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, TX, August 14, 2022–January 8, 2023
Painted Cloth, installation view, Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, TX, August 14, 2022–January 8, 2023 (photograph provided by the author)

Setting the stage, deep red curtains mark the entrance to Painted Cloth: Fashion and Ritual in Colonial Latin America. Thoughtfully curated by Rosario I. Granados, the Marilynn Thoma associate curator of the Art of the Spanish Americas, this exhibition highlights the significance of cloth in the Spanish Americas, where it was a marker of social identity and a key facet of religious ritual. The works in the exhibition are predominantly drawn from eighteenth-century Peru and New Spain and span a variety of media, from paintings, sculptures, and prints that include textiles in their subject matter, to material culture related to cloth, such as clothing, tapestries, and sewing boxes. This is the first large-scale exhibition with a focus on colonial Latin America to be developed and displayed at the Blanton. Richly illustrated, the catalog includes essays by Julia K. McHugh, Ana Paulina Gámez Martínez, and Ricardo Kusunoki Rodríguez that explore the significance of cloth and fashion in viceregal society, while Granados, Patricia Díaz Cayeros, and Maya Stanfield-Mazzi link cloth with various arenas of religious expression.

Anchoring the exhibition, Conversion of an Indigenous Nobleman by Intercession of Our Lady of Copacabana, painted in Cusco in the early eighteenth century, reflects the use of cloth as a signifier of both identity and the sacred. On one side of the canvas, a statue of the Virgin is shown atop an altar. The Virgin’s body is obscured by a conspicuous mantle embroidered in gold that creates a flattening effect in contrast to the rest of the composition which is shown in a more illusionistic manner. An Indigenous nobleman kneels beside the altar. He wears a traditional Inca tunic, or uncu, decorated in repeated patterns called tocapu, which hearken back to the Inca past though they have lost their original communicative meaning. Flanking the man are two friars dressed in plain dark robes, marking their religious order just as the uncu marked the convert’s Indigeneity. While other religious figures are included on the canvas with garments highlighted in gold, none outshine the Virgin. The gold that ornaments this canvas and elevates its figures to a sacred status is seen elsewhere in the exhibition, creating a dazzling impression through the galleries.

The exhibition begins with a consideration of the materiality of cloth, a theme that crosses the worlds of the human and the divine. One painting, The Child Mary Spinning, from Cusco circa 1750, depicts the Virgin as a young girl at work spinning thread. Though the Virgin is surrounded by flowers, opulently dressed, and glowing with a sacred light, the work she does is no different than that being carried out by an Indigenous woman shown in another, more subdued painting placed beside it. This work is taken from a series known as casta paintings, which detail the different racial mixtures of the Spanish Americas. In this piece, a rare example of a casta painting from Peru, the Indigenous woman is shown spinning thread while supporting her sleeping child in a woven kaypina, or carrying cloth, revealing the centrality of textiles to daily life. The pieces that follow continue to focus on the production of cloth in both the sacred and earthly domains. An exuberant work, from eighteenth-century Cusco by an unknown artist, shows saints embroidering golden details onto a mantle for the Virgin, while a trio of casta paintings by José Joaquín Magón of Puebla, Mexico, shows families of different races and statuses, but all attending to textiles at various stages of production.

An array of religious works follows and explores the link between fabrics and sacrality. One particularly engaging piece is Our Lady of Sorrows, a small painted sculpture from early nineteenth-century Mexico. The figure’s upper body is fully sculpted and articulated while her lower body is a simple triangular wooden frame. The sculpture is undressed, giving viewers a better sense of the materiality of the dress statues seen throughout the exhibition. Called imágenes de vestir, these figures are typically attired in rich fabrics and placed atop altars as objects of worship. True portraits of such figures flourished in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Latin America in various media, including the paintings, prints, and books included in the exhibition. While many of the textiles seen in the exhibition cover sacred figures, they could also be sacred themselves, as exemplified by José de Alzibar’s painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe, created in Mexico City in 1790.

Other objects and their placements encourage viewers to question the nature of imitation. For example, a real chasuble is placed in front of painted representations, while a silver processional banner gives the illusion of soft fabric. An altar from Cusco appears to be covered in a fabric with rich colors and a sumptuous design. However, upon closer inspection, it is revealed to be a painting imitating a textile, a less costly alternative that signals the importance of fabrics to religious expression in the Andes. Another work, Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene, from the eighteenth century, tricks the viewer again. Its artist, most likely from Cusco but whose identity is not currently known, depicts Mary Magdalene behind a transparent cloth that is so precisely painted that it appears to be an actual cloth stitched onto the canvas.

Acting as a climax to the religious works is a monumental piece that Granados explains in the catalog was a primary motivation for the exhibition. The painting, Our Lady of Bethlehem with a Donor, created by an artist working in Cusco in the late seventeenth century, is another true portrait of a religious statue, this time placed on an extravagant altar filled with floral details. Her body is shown in the typical flattened style and covered with a triangular mantle covered in gold highlighting. A man praying at the base of the altar is painted in a contrasting three-dimensional manner. The man’s visage suggests an Indigenous identity, but he wears opulent European-style clothing decorated with hidden figures that call for closer study. While a religious work, the patron’s presence and fashionable attire affirms his high social status, which is the focus of the final galleries. Examples of clothing from Indigenous and European traditions are included, as are portraits and additional casta paintings that further link fashion with race, class, and gender. While the people portrayed in these works exemplify the different races that lived in the Spanish Americas, the portraits make it clear that wealth and power were primarily in the hands of those of European descent.

Painted Cloth offers an impressive and expansive view of late colonial Spanish American society. The resplendent nature of this show could be seen as a means of packaging a problematic era in fancy clothes, but the exhibition is careful to highlight power imbalances at work in colonial society. Indeed, one final painting calls for viewers to more deeply question how colonization worked to other and infantilize Indigenous peoples to the benefit of Europeans. The work was likely painted in Spain towards the end of the eighteenth century, but it memorializes Toribio de Mogrovejo, a man of Spanish descent who was born in Lima in the sixteenth century and became its second Archbishop. He is presented with two Indigenous children. One child grasps a book offered by the bishop, perhaps one of the catechisms he had translated to Quechua or Aymara, Indigenous languages of Peru, while the other holds a similar book and looks to the audience. The books point to the colonial project, wherein religion and new systems of knowledge were imposed on the Americas, but the use of children obscures the forceful nature of this imposition. Moreover, the children are shown in a stereotypical manner, wearing skirts of feathers that were often used to express Indigeneity in colonial works. The feather works created by Indigenous artists were one of their most treasured artistic expressions, but here they are devalued and signify otherness.

A series of questions are posed on a wall just before the exit to the exhibition. One asks, “How can we make a more inclusive history of colonial Latin America?” Painted Cloth successfully shows the role museums can play in achieving this goal. It also points the way to a more inclusive history of art more generally. Throughout the exhibition, the entwined nature of textiles is used as a metaphor for the social fabric of the Spanish Americas, where people of Indigenous, European, African, and Asian descent laced together a complex society in which fashion was a key sign of identity and religious expression. Through the seemingly simple theme of “painted cloth,” Granados lifts a curtain, so to speak, onto this world, dazzling viewers with the artistic productions of colonial Latin America while highlighting how its diverse residents actively used this common medium to fashion their own identities under colonial rule. 

Lori Boornazian Diel
Kay and Velma Kimbell Chair of Art History, Texas Christian University