By Camille Myers Breeze
I am off to Peru for 10 days, leaving the studio in Cara's capable hands. This is my first trip back in 4 years, after teaching there every year from 2001-2009. I also spent the first three years of my life in Lima, where my parents were teaching, and then pursuing Doctoral studies.
I've decided to share with you some images that my parents gave me when I chose to write my MA thesis on their collection of pre-Columbian textiles, some of which may be disturbing to readers. The slides depict two separate visit they made to a friend's hacienda near the town of Chancay, about 2 hours drive north of Lima. Chancay lends its name to the culture that lived there during the late-intermediate period, from 1000-1490 A.D. The ceramics in the above photo are typical of Chancay.
What my parents were doing that weekend in Chancay was taking part in the popular past-time of huaqueando. Land owners with likely burial sites on their property would hire their laborers to dig for soft spots where the sandy ground was once disturbed. Although it seemed like a harmless pastime, my parents have since realized that they were contributing to the world-wide phenomenon of grave robbing.
My parents retrieved not only ceramics but also textiles during their two visits to their friend's hacienda. They tell me it was unusual in the 1960s to pay attention to the textiles found in graves but they were intrigued by their amazing preservation. They chose to collect a large striped cotton mummy wrapper and a fragment of brocaded cotton with bird images that had been wrapped around a mummified infant. They later purchased 24 additional textiles from shops in and around Lima.
My parents brought their modest collection of pre-Columbian art back to Chicago in 1969, the same year that I was born. This was just before the UNESCO Treaty (or the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property) was signed in November, 1970. Article 2, Section 1 says that, "The States Parties to this Convention recognize that the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property is one of the main causes of the impoverishment of the cultural heritage of the countries of origin of such property and that international co-operation constitutes one of the most efficient means of protecting each country's cultural property against all the dangers resulting there from."
My parents safeguarded the ceramics and textiles that they collected during their decade spent in Peru until my sister and I became adults. When I became a conservator in the late 1980s, they bequeathed their textiles to me, explaining how bad they still felt all these years later for having participated in acts of desecration. They implored me to do something positive with the textiles and to research and preserve them.
I have endeavored to live up to the promise I made to my parents when I became the owner of these textiles and the images they took while grave robbing. The slides were recently scanned for me by my friend Chris, who is the slide librarian at a college where I lectured on the topic of museum controversies. I share them with you despite the fact that they are a testament to a time that my parents would rather forget.
As I head back to Peru I am looking forward to visiting friends and former students, and discussing a possible book on pre-Columbian textile conservation with my colleague Rommel Angeles Falcon, Director of Huaca Malena Museum. My parents never could have imagined this 22 years ago when they first shared this story with me.