Curated by Nicola Sharratt the BGC–American Museum of Natural History postdoctoral fellow in museum anthropology and a research associate at the Field Museum in Chicago.
By contextualizing chuspas in space and time, Carrying Coca: 1,500 Years of Andean Chuspas not only presents these textiles as traditional woven forms but also considers them as objects central to cultural practice. This fascinating exhibition features thirty-three coca bags, fiber samples, looms, and spinning implements alongside stunning documentary photographs taken during important twentieth-century expeditions to Peru and Bolivia-all drawn together to explore how essential to social relationships, ritual activity, and political negotiation. Juxtaposing chuspas from the South American textile collections of the American Museum of Natural History that were made more than 1,500 years ago with bags produced as recently as 2013, Carrying Coca presents a story of tradition and transformation.
The exhibition displays both archaeological and ethnographic chuspas-many of which have never before been exhibited. The archaeological pieces represent approximately 1,000 years of the pre-Hispanic past, beginning with the Nazca culture, which flourished on the coast of southern Peru as early as 100 B.C. The ethnographic chuspas demonstrate the ongoing production and use of a particular form of textile directly related to the cultural practice of coca chewing. Collected in the twentieth century from communities scattered across the Peruvian and Bolivian highlands, these pieces reveal the diversity and dynamism of Andean textiles.
The basic appearance of chuspas produced in the twentyfirst century is strikingly similar to those recovered by archaeologists from pre-Hispanic burials. The range of materials and variety of techniques used to produce these bags indicate the impact of environment and local and global economies on materials and the development of weaving technologies. A diverse selection of exemplary pre-Hispanic coca bags from the Nazca Valley and Chancay, Peru, as well as twentieth-century bags from the Island of Taquile and the Department of Q’ero, present the differences in decoration and illustrate how individual communities craft their own traditional forms. In addition, bags produced today for tourist consumers demonstrate how the portability and utility of chuspas make these objects particularly suited to the thriving souvenir trade in the modern Andes.
As carriers of coca leaves, chuspas are much more than aesthetically pleasing and technically sophisticated pieces of art. For millennia, coca (Erythroxylum spp.) has occupied an essential and unparalleled place in the daily lives, social customs, and ritual practice of Andean communities. A mild stimulant, chewing coca leaves suppresses hunger, relieves the effects of altitude sickness, and acts as a curative for various ailments. Yet the cultural significance of coca equals its adaptive functions. By sharing coca, friends and relatives become entwined in ongoing bonds of reciprocity, as the act of chewing coca symbolizes and mediates social relationships. However, worldwide reactions to the plant and legislation of its uses have affected Andean traditions surrounding coca leaves since the Spanish conquest of the Andes in the sixteenth century and continue to do so even today. Now, as in the past, coca is a substance that is produced, consumed, and understood in multiple ways.
Carrying Coca will also include a digital media interactive that explores the historical and cultural networks of coca from the pre-Hispanic period to the present. Through this dynamic interactive and the stunning textiles and weaving technology on view, Sharratt illustrates the complex historical record-of coca and chuspas-as one of social depth, economic and political change, colonialism, and global interaction.