The textiles are woven in earth and jewel tones forming geometric patterns, processions of nobles and elites, and nature motifs. They were crafted by ancient peoples in what is now modern-day Peru and are hundreds if not a thousand years old. Arrangements have now been made to return them to their rightful home.
“With consideration for best practices and what is ethical, the textiles should return to their nation of origin,” said Sara Boivin, M.F.A., fine arts curator at Siena.
Siena acquired the textiles through the NYS Education Department to aid a museum that was closing its doors. Based on style and materials, the textiles may have been looted from Peru before the protection laws of 1970. Removal of items from ancient burial sites from that country was often done illegally and sold to collectors or on the black market. International laws have since gone into effect to reduce and prosecute these practices.
Officials from the Consulate General of Peru in New York, including Ambassador Marita Landaveri, came to the Standish Library on February 7 to view the textiles and make plans for their safe shipment back to Peru.
How did these textiles come to be at Siena? After the Fine Art Museum of Long Island closed, the collection arrived on campus where previous curators sorted through it, took photos, matched up intake forms, and found storage for it. It was a challenging task, which Boivin took over when she came to campus in 2015. After creating a searchable database complete with images of the collection, she began to build research files on each work of art.
Boivin took special note of more than 20 textiles in the collection that appeared to have South American origins. During research, it became evident that a number of the textiles were not only pre-Columbian (a blanket and now unfavored term to describe indigenous peoples before 1492) but were likely Paracas Peninsula in origin, an area with varied indigenous cultures from the coast to the mountains of modern Peru that thrived between 1,000 B.C.E. and 800 C.E.
She enlisted the aid of faculty members, including Lisette Balabarca-Fataccioli, Ph.D. associate professor of Spanish, to discuss their possible return. A native of Peru, she reached out to her home country to make connections with museum, cultural and government officials to proactively start the process for returning the textiles.
“Their cultural ministry authenticated the textiles by their standards and are pleased that Siena reached out to them,” said Boivin. “They have been working in lockstep with us as this process unfolds.”
Balabarca-Fataccioli explained that the Nazca, as well as Paracas, Chavin and other cultures were known for their advanced irrigation systems and their textile production. Weaving was part of their cultural and artistic life and woven items were used for religious activities, ceremonies, rituals and burials. They showed harmony with the land by obtaining colors from different plants and seeds that grew in the region. The single and double thread work in cotton and alpaca wool has the look of brocade.
“This artistic tradition has been maintained by new generations in Peru who continue to produce these textiles using more modern techniques, as a way to preserve their heritage,” she said. “I’m very proud that Siena is helping to return these artworks to my motherland. It’s the right thing to do, and the initiative teaches our students the value of other peoples’ culture and heritage.”
Since Siena is voluntarily and willingly returning the textiles, the Peruvian government can bypass formal repatriation proceedings as the two parties work together to bring this culturally significant art back to its country of origin.
Margaret Madden, Ph.D., provost and senior vice president, presented the Peruvian embassy officials with a letter formally stating they are the rightful owners of the textiles at a meeting regarding the packing and secure shipping of the works. Before the textiles are released, they will be properly authenticated, assessed, and photographed and professionally prepared for shipment.
Siena students from various classes and majors have viewed the textiles since they have been on campus, and Spanish classes were brought to the library’s Digital Scholarship Center this week to get a last look at them before they are packed for their return. A reception was held in the Yates Gallery afterwards to celebrate the ambassador's visit.
“The event with the Peruvian ambassador and her delegation exemplified the importance of cross-cultural collaboration, right here on Siena's campus,” said Michael Averill ’22. “It is impressive to see the College setting a high ethical standard in academia for returning items in its collection that belong to the cultures and peoples of other regions of the world. The Peruvian government will now be able to showcase these cultural items in the country's new museum of culture based in Lima.”
Nathaniel Kim ’22 supports Siena’s decision to return the textiles.
“I think it's awesome that Siena is taking the lead in returning the Peruvian textiles. They are amazingly preserved and provide a unique look into ancient Peruvian cultures,” he said. “The Peruvian ambassador was very friendly and excited to talk with students about Peruvian culture and cuisine.”