Researched and Conserved by Jonathan Kohlhorst and Sophie Grus
These two figures, known popularly as “Chancay dolls,” are not ancient objects but 20th century and contemporary figures made by Peruvian Mestizo (mixed Native and Spanish ancestry) artisans using scraps of ancient Chancay textiles. The Chancay were an Andean culture that flourished from 1000 to 1460 CE in what is today the country of Peru, and they are celebrated for their highly developed textiles. As did many other ancient Andean cultures, the Chancay buried their dead with rich offerings including fine textiles, pottery, and fabric items such as soft sculpture figures of humans and animals. These soft sculptures are very different in style, however, from the figures made by contemporary Peruvian Mestizo cultures. Among other features, the ancient figures have woven faces and wear simple, loose robes, unlike the embroidered faces and the closely wrapped garments of contemporary figures.
Unfortunately, because the dry climate of the Andes preserves the ancient artifacts of ancient Andean burials, many of these ancient cemeteries have been terribly looted, and the burial grounds of the Chancay have not escaped this fate. Looters do not dig carefully, however, and they often destroy the art that they seek, as well as destroying the context of the artifacts that would allow us to learn so much more about these cultures. The scraps of ruined textiles are often found on the ground near Peruvian communities, and local artisans gather these small fabric pieces in order to make folk-art dolls from them to sell to tourists and thereby help support their families.
The finely woven fabrics used to make these two 20th-century “Chancay dolls” attest to the diverse textile-making skills and talents of the ancient Chancay textile artists, who were traditionally female in Andean cultures. One figure wears a vertically striped skirt, a lace headdress, and a diamond-patterned, tie-dyed blanket over her baby, while the other figure wears a horizontally striped ombré skirt, a lace headdress, and a vertically striped, multicolored blanket over her baby. The figures themselves serve as a testament to the creativity and resourcefulness of contemporary Mestizos, who have not only created a contemporary form of folk art from these discarded fragments, but also a new way to spread knowledge and appreciation for the textiles of their ancestors.