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The Khipu is an object that provokes an effect of astonishment and strangeness in those who observe it, which has to do in part with our inability to understand it in its totality. By this I am not only referring to its functionality, but also to a deeper meaning. The historical framework we have gone through as a country leads us today to a scenario in which cultural diversity, despite some efforts, is not recognized with all the value it should be. It is necessary to account for the conceptual and cultural gap that has separated us for many centuries and the consequences this has brought about for the recognition of ancestral practices and traditions. As Peruvians, how do we approach the understanding of what a Khipu means? How do we relate it to any current practice, in order to identify and understand it better? What efforts can we make today to revalue pre-Hispanic practices and traditions in the different regions of Peru? At what level can we still recognize them as something that is part of our identity, despite the distance that separates us? How can we approach weaving, without wanting to make a formal appreciation, but rather trying to understand it at a deeper level, as part of a cosmovision and social order?

The first time we tried to explain in general terms, how the piece might look, to the warmis (women weavers) of Kackllaraccay, we showed them a drawing that had the shape of a knot. Ceferina pointed to each of the intersections of the weaving and said: “khipu, khipu, khipu”. At that moment I realized that the word “Khipu” had a much closer and everyday meaning for them.

The literal translation of Khipu is simply “knot”, while for non-quechua speakers it is only a word linked to the accounting instrument, from a westernized point of view. So I was interested in paying attention to the most basic meaning of the word and began to investigate the khipuy (knotting), awakuy (weaving), watay (tying) and paskay (untying) that arose during the very process of constructing this piece. The repetitive movements, the position of the body and the concentration, configured an atmosphere of intimate and at the same time collective care at the moment of weaving. It is from this doing and the presence of the body that we approach the ancestral knowledge contained in the practice itself. It is incredible to see how consolidated this practice is in each of the women. They all wear a hat, whether it is a sunny or cloudy day, always a hat, and on the ribbon that borders it they carry a brooch (for crocheting) and a needle. The technique I proposed was new to them and it didn’t take Gregoria’s six-year-old daughter ¨Normacha¨, five minutes to master it. Learning happened by observing, by trying out intuitive movements, without speaking, the final result of the knitting was the result of sharing knowledge and exploring new forms.

The ichu (Stipa ichu) is an Andean grass that grows mainly in high altitude areas. It is used for livestock fodder, as well as for the manufacture of thermal insulation and for handicraft constructions. The Q’eswachca bridge, recognized as cultural heritage, is a pre-Hispanic infrastructure built with ichu rope during the Inca empire. According to Vicente, from the Quehue district, every year in the second week of August, the four communities of the district (1,000 people) get together to renovate the 37-meter long bridge. Each family must make a number of meters in their house and then they get together to start the weaving, the construction lasts a week and is done on top of the old bridge, once knotted to the structure (the bulls), the old bridge is cut. Today, the bridge has a symbolic meaning, because less than 500 meters away there is another cement bridge used by the inhabitants of the area. The bridge continues to exist because it is a tradition of local identity and now also a source of economic income.

From the beginning Constanza and I wanted to use ichu, the “paja brava”, as the base material for the construction of the piece. We had researched its properties and it worked very well for what we were looking for. The process to build the rope consists of harvesting the ichu when it is still green and then letting it dry. Once it is dry, you wet it again to get more flexibility and start building the rope by rubbing the ichu between your hands.

Santiago Pilco, also from Kakcllaraccay, knew how to make rope; his grandfather used to use it to make the moorings in the construction of the house. Now the houses are made of calamine and they no longer need to use it. We told Santiago that we wanted to weave ichu rope and after two days he gathered men and women in Ceferina’s house to teach them the technique and when someone began to master it he said “you are already warmi”. “Warmi” means woman, but necessarily a weaver woman and all women are expected to be warmis. This exchange was interesting because the technique was formerly only known by men and that day all the women learned it, some even ended up making baskets with the rope.

In addition to ichu, we use alpaca and sheep wool dyed with natural dyes from the area; kjolle, chilca, quinchamalí and cochinilla. The group of women we worked with, “the mamay” (mothers) as we called each other, have already been working together for some time with Mater Iniciativa’s Sacha-Warmi project, making placemats and table runners with backstrap loom and natural dyes. We repeated the process to be able to add color to the piece.

The link and awareness of the territory is constant, all the activities and productivity of the community depend on the season of the year and the weather. This is very striking for those of us who come from the city and even more so from a city like Lima, where we are increasingly removed from this awareness of space and dialogue with the geographical particularities of the place.

In the community there is an implicit commitment to be and work together. Every day at lunch we shared the food, each one with a cup, which rotated to the right and the mote always in the center. The time to eat, the time to drink chicha de jora, the time to work, everything had an order that they all respected. Most of the time they spoke in Quechua, with time I understood more and what I could not understand, if it was very funny, they translated it for me. While we worked we laughed a lot, all the time, something that surprised me. It is the same on the farm, as far as you can see. Older people with a young and funny soul, present, active and wise.

Since they were not going to travel to Lima for the inauguration where the finished work was going to be shown, we proposed a closing and farewell activity. We met on the last day, with a lot of chicha and mote, and I proposed that they create something with these ropes, whatever they wanted, a figure or a sculpture, and this was the result:

“The inti, the apus Chicón and Moray and the mud house built by our grandparents with circular windows” – Santiago Pilco

Khipuy is an invitation to transfer the intuitive manual processes of the moment of weaving to a conscious body movement on a larger scale, exercising tactile sensitivity to knot and unknot, an act that takes us to a very primary sensory experience.

Cecilia Vicuña, argues that the pleasantness, and wisdom at the same time, of the contact with the strings and threads comes from the experience with the umbilical cord in the womb of our mothers, it is in us even before we are born. That is why the sense of knots in the Khipus is so interesting. Researchers like Gary Urton affirm that the system of knots that the Khipucamayoc (who made the Khipus) had was an exercise of mathematics in space, it is a very abstract thought that is difficult for us to understand, because we already use a code to be able to do mathematics, the numerical representation, something that the Incas did not have. It is also important to note that these ropes themselves carry information of this relevant geographical context, having dyed with plants of this harvest season, the colors in the piece are a sign of a specific space-time and collecting ancestral construction techniques.

Alejandra Ortiz de Zevallos
Mater team author

Plastic Artist Alejandra Ortiz de Zevallos is a sculpture graduate from the Faculty of Art and Design at PUCP. Her practice moves between public and private space; on the one hand, through weaving she delves into the act of repair and reconnection with the body and nature, using organic and recycled fibers as raw material. On the other hand, she develops collaborative projects that seek to generate dialogues with the other and the natural environment through weaving and participatory dynamics that undo physical and cultural boundaries. In the last 3 years she has developed different transdisciplinary collaborations around the Surco River, a pre-Hispanic channel buried under the city of Lima. He has participated in group exhibitions in Peru; the exhibition Khipu exhibited at MALI in 2020 and ¨La posibilidad de lo común¨ at Galería del Paseo in 2021, he is also part of the collective Entre Ríos at the University of Essex, England.

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