Four years in the making “Painted Cloth: Fashion and Ritual in Colonial Latin America” is a lavishly packaged gift at the Blanton Museum of Art. A sense of the drama and spectacle of Colonial Latin American fashion is just beyond a pair of velvet curtains at the exhibition’s entrance. Passing through, avails more than pretty clothes. Woven throughout the exhibition are conceptual threads highlighting aspects of identity, such as race, religion, social standing, and gender.
Rosario I. Granados, the Blanton’s Marilynn Thoma Associate Curator of Art of the Spanish Americas, has assembled over 70 objects from five countries — from the Blanton’s collection of art of the Spanish Americas, as well as private collections and institutions.
Launching “Painted Cloth” is an 18th century oil on canvas painting on loan from Peru. By an unknown artist “Conversión de un curaca por inspiración de la Virgen de Copacabana [ Conversion of an Indigenous Nobleman by Intercession of Our Lady of Copacabana]” depicts several religious figures positioned hierarchically. On the right is a Virgin Mary elevated on a platform under representations of the Holy Trinity, a Bishop (or “man of the cloth”), a ghostly figure and an angel. In the lower left-hand corner are two black-robed members of the Augustinian monastic order flanking a kneeling man. The man wears a traditional Incan tunic called an uncu. Its specific decorations denote his status as an Indigenous nobleman.
His clothing coupled with his positioning may seem at odds and the labels begs the question; is he “devoutly accepting Christianity or is he being subjugated by an abusive system?” It’s unclear, but the work and others in the exhibition point to ways in which dress can help negotiate one’s circumstance, in this case, presumedly for the Indigenous elites of the colonial Andes.
After such an introduction, the exhibition’s focus turns to “Cloth Making.” The appearance of textile art traditions — embroidery, sewing, spinning, tailoring weaving and knitting — are acknowledged in Spanish American visual arts traditions. Hung in alignment with the curtained entrance to the show, is an oil and gold leaf painting of the “Virgen de los Sastres [Virgin of Tailors]” framed herself by curtains of the same ruby color. From Cusco, Peru, this work reminds viewers of the importance of tailoring in a region known for sheep, llama, alpaca, and vicuña wool. The mostly Indigenous tailors worked with embroiderers on making extreme luxury sacred garments like those seen throughout the exhibition.
Another prominent feature of this exhibition is the appearance of Casta paintings. A popular genre produced in 18th century Mexico, a Viceroyalty of New Spain, these works take on race as a subject, documenting people of mixed ethnicities. Typically in sets of 16, Castas depict a father and mother of different races — Spanish, Indian, Black, or some combination thereof — and their offspring. Race was categorized and social status conveyed through accoutrement, activities, setting and clothing cues.
A group of three independent Casta paintings by Puebla artist, José Joaquin Magón, active between 1751 and 1800 is on view. The images are rare in that they look at the role of women as active producers of textile arts including a woman making bobbin lace, known in some Latin American regions as mundillo (literally, little world). In Magón,’s center canvas, “De Yndio y Cambuja nace Sambaiga [From Indigenous and Cambuja — of Black and Indigenous Descent — a Sambaiga is Born]” a female figure uses a spinning wheel while her husband and child handle wool.
The elaborate detail found in Catholicism’s sacred clothing is inescapable. While taking an artwork out of its original setting of a candlelit church might diminish its power to swell emotion of the faithful, still present is the opportunity to appreciate a trompe l’oeil level of detail in the painted figure’s liturgical vestment, noticing every gold and silver stitch.
Also offered is a chance to consider the relationship between painted image and three-dimensional counterpart. Sculptural artworks known as imágenes de vestir (dress statues) wear intricate ornamental clothing and are displayed in cases and on pedestals. Devotional aids for believers, holy statuettes too were dressed to impress, like the Blanton’s silver and oil on wood sculpture, “Immaculada Concepción [Immaculate Conception]” from Guatemala.
Not only religious apparel shines, but that of the rich and famous. Miguel Cabrera’s “Portrait of María de la Luz Padilla y Gómez de Cervantes” made in Mexico City circa 1760 is on loan from the Brooklyn Museum. The picture depicts and serious and elegant woman dripping with the trappings European-inspired court life (including “chiqueadores” or glued false beauty spots). Wealthy “criollas,” women of Spanish descent born and raised in the Americas, liked their fashion à la française. Period French style dictated the dress’s pannier, or side hoop, to be noticeably wide, leaving the front and back areas available for elaborate decoration and embroidery. A label states that “since very few such dresses have survived, it is difficult to know how many of these court dresses were actually worn in Mexico City, or if these outfits were imaginary and aspirational.” They likely acted as aids in securing profitable matrimonial unions or documenting fortunate family lineage. (A case of “fake it till you make it,” perhaps?)
Like a photoshopped headshot, these portraits projected the subject’s best self, and reflected an awareness that judgements based on superficial signals affected one’s treatment in the world. Clothes “made” the man and in this case, the woman.
Writes curator Granados: “Garments are a lens by which we can recognize the many inequalities and societal contradictions that characterized the social fabric of the contested area, which altered the lives of so many Indigenous communities, but also the beauty of the Spanish Americas’ artistic production and thereby the diverse cultures of it peoples.”
While fashionphiles will come for the show, they should stay for the complicated story of conquest. After all, appearances can be deceiving.
This sumptuous exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue befittingly covered in rose-colored fabric with matching slipcase distributed by Tower Books, an Imprint of University of Texas Press.
The exhibition “Painted Cloth: Fashion and Ritual in Colonial Latin America” will be on view at the Blanton Museum of Art through Jan. 8, 2023. See blantonmuseum.org
The Blanton and Austin’s Salvage Vanguard Theatre will present a performance entitled “Casta,” by Adrienne Dawes. Inspired by the painting genre, performances will take place Oct. 20- 30. See blantonmuseum.org/event-type-2/casta/