The Textile Mirror: A Visit to the Penn Museum

Miranda: walking-to-museum-(me)C

Sheila and Ingrid walking toward the Penn Museum.

“Lucy,” Ingrid says, “you’re living my Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler fantasy!” We are in the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and Keeper Lucy Fowler Williams, who specializes in American textiles, keeps bringing out the most extraordinary things from behind the poker-faced doors of numbered cabinets: fragments of thousand-year-old tunics, cactus spine needles, a tie-dyed Anasazi blanket. The comment might seem strange coming from a curator like Ingrid, who seems to practically live in ICA, our own museum; but the Penn Museum is a different animal: vast and historical rather than bright and emphatically new. ICA doesn’t have a permanent collection, but the Penn Museum’s collection, like a great tree, grows larger every year. There are 300,000 objects in the American collection alone!This special tour is occasioned by the presence of artist Sheila Hicks, whose fabulous survey exhibition,Sheila Hicks: 50 Years, is on view at ICA through August 7. Sheila knows everything about textiles, and so does Lucy, though their two everythings don’t always exactly overlap. On the way in they talk about the magic Sheila performed at ICA’s benefit a few nights earlier. Subscribers brought her items of clothing—ties and shirts and underwear-and she wrapped them in layers of thread, transforming them into containers for memory. Sheila says the podium from which she worked was like a confessional: people brought their stories—both of their objects and of themselves—hoping for the absolution of art. We walk past an ancient bull with lapis horn tips and a headdress of gold. Sheila stops to admire a figure from Guanyin, China (900 – 1279 A.D.)—how the folds of the drapery are rendered in wood and stone.
Miranda: Sheila-looking-at-statueA

Miranda: Sheila-looking-at-statueA

We pass through a private hall where people are setting up for a dinner, clothed tables overlooked by stone sphinxes. Sheila and Lucy reminisce about potlatches.

It’s chilly in the white collections room. Lucy has pulled out some boxes for us, each one divided into smaller compartments, each compartment holding some small but extraordinary fragment: a 15th-century loop of a thread, or a bit of cloth, or a spiny needle, all from Pachacamac, Peru.
Miranda: Sheila-looking-at-boxA

Photo: Pam Kosty

“The soil is very oily there,” Sheila says in her Nebraska-bred, Paris-refined voice. She’s been there.

“These were buried with women,” Lucy says. “Textiles or cloth for these cultures were the most important thing—like gold might be somewhere else.”

“Because it’s the most difficult thing to do,” Sheila says. “These are the superheroes!”

Lucy shows us a stretch of vicuna wool cloth, dark red with green, brown, and mustard woven in. “A lot of recent scholarship relates these to the sky, possibly to time,” she says, explaining where the colors come from: the red from cochineal—tropical insects—the bluish green at least partly indigo.

“I’m very fond of these positive/negative shapes,” Sheila says, pointing.
Miranda: Sheila-looking-at-tunicA

Photo: Pam Kosty

Lucy takes the lid off a box holding a khipu—threads of knotted cords used as a recording device. Different styles of knots—different colors, different turnings—mark different characteristics of whatever is being recorded. Sheila bends over to see. She makes khipus, too.

“The word khipu is very fun to say,” Ingrid says.

“You can imagine putting it on your belt and walking with it,” Sheila says.

“Recording how many llamas were born last year.”

“That’s why we do shows, to have an excuse to get out some of this material.”

After the khipus, Lucy shows us two mummy bundles: ancient bodies wrapped in cloth. One is an infant, another an adult with a mask where the face would be. She asks us not to take photographs. The discussion returns to the wrapping Sheila did at the benefit, to how wrapping something is an ancient, natural way to make it sacred. “In the relation of the human and the spiritual,” Sheila says, “cloth plays such an important role.”

Why cloth? I ask.

“It’s worn on the body,” Lucy says. “It holds the memory of you.”

“The fluids of the body are in it,” Sheila adds.

“But we wrap our dead in wood,” I say skeptically.

“But cloth first,” Lucy says. “First we dress them appropriately.”

Sheila nods. She bends her head over the bundle, and so does Lucy. The maker of cloth and the keeper of cloth meet over this sacred object. For both of them, textiles are mirrors in which you can see—if you know how to look—a human face.

Sheila Hicks: 50 Years is on view at ICA through August 7.

To sign up for Miranda’s mailing list, email