Funny that I found myself on the phone with an anesthesiologist talking about ancient Peruvian feathers after I saw Mood Indigo: Textiles from Around the World at Seattle's Asian Art Museum. Funny because Mood Indigo felt like a guilty pleasure, an escape, a pain blocker, even before I got there.
It's 89 pieces of cloth in every possible shade of blue from every time and every place. Given our excessively connected and visually saturated global existence, who wouldn't want Mood Indigo's calming, transhistorical promise of blue immersion and also the possibility of infinite information that it makes available? Mood Indigo is both a diversion from the world and an invitation to lunge back into it.
So I find myself on the phone with this man who puts people to sleep for a living asking him to bring the birds and people of ancient Peru back to life for me.
During my first visit to Mood Indigo, several things fascinated me. The first gallery is like a hall of banners lit with blue lights, but the banners are Japanese kimonos without bodies inside them, arms outstretched flat. Their fabrics crawl with decorations and creatures.
The next room has those same lights the color of Crayola Celestial Blue, but in here the textiles are abstract, a series of them draped overhead to form an area like a desert shelter. The patterns on these pieces from Nigeria, Sumatra, Cameroon, and Java are all about symmetry—about breaking it.
A gallery painted a dark maroon gives the feeling of being submerged in a glass of zinfandel, and three giant, crawling tapestries at the corners of the room are, in fact, drunk on every 17th-century European stereotype about Asia, America, and Africa. The tapestries were made in Belgium and eventually landed in the hands of California newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst in the early part of the 20th century. Did Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, Greta Garbo, or FDR ever lean on them at a party at San Simeon? I'm told Hearst couldn't unload them at auction so ended up giving them to Seattle Art Museum. They're sparkling, mad visions of imperialism. For Mood Indigo, SAM took them all the way back to Belgium to be cleaned. Their madness is cleanly, clearly visible, if you can unboggle your eyes.
Deviating from the historical material, the show concludes with a gallery where hundreds of dried leaves of the indigo plant are pinned in a rustling row that runs all the way around the room. The soundtrack, based on recordings taken from indigo fields, plays on speakers overhead. In the middle of the room, a quilt of sheer fabrics dyed various blues is hung in the shape of a silo. You walk in, and the silo becomes a lens that dyes your vision. The room is a work of farming, sculpture, and sound by Bloomington, Indiana, artists Rowland Ricketts and Norbert Herber.
In all this, there are many pieces to get hung up on. There's a Japanese firefighter's jacket as stiff and thick as a rug and dyed the color of black jeans, with two hissing dragons flying across it in a storm of smoke and lightning—a master dye job. The firefighter would dunk the uniform into water and then rush to fight the fire.
A coverlet with a kaleidoscopic pattern in red and blue was hand-woven by an unnamed woman on the occasion of General Robert E. Lee's surrender in the American Civil War. The buzzing pattern does not look at peace. Which side had she been on?
Swirling around in these galleries there are Ottoman Empire arabesques, Yoruban proverbs, Kashmiri shawls, Uzbek ikats, a quilt made in vanishing perspective in tribute to Star Wars, and a resist-dyed bedding cover decorated with the sails, flags, and smoking stacks of the Japanese military ship the Katori. You know: industrial might for the bedroom.
But on my first visit, I became obsessed with one piece: a miniature poncho made of feathers and buried 600 years ago in Peru, recovered sometime in the 20th century in pristine condition.
The little thing, hung in a Plexiglas case on a wall in the drunken room, is the brightest object in the show.
The feathers are iridescent. Ornithologists say they look like birds flying now; they're that well-preserved. They're red, yellow, orange, deep blues. Macaws, probably, burning with color.
A lone animal that looks like a seated dog decorates the poncho. He's the color of a lemon, floating on a blue sea. I looked it up: A certain kind of hairless dog comes from ancient Peru. This one's barking.
Featherwork was the gold and the art of its time in ancient Peru. Did this dog protect a royal child? Was it buried with the child or separately? If it was an independent offering to the gods, what was it meant to appease? I'd taken pictures on my phone. Searching online, I found few details. Desperate, I noticed two names on my phone picture of the wall label: "Loan from Dr. David and Marita Paly."
Collectors don't usually get on the phone with writers unless it's their idea. This time, I typed the Palys into a search engine and came up with an anesthesiologist in Puyallup with a textile hobby. Puyallup wasn't what I was expecting, I thought, as I dialed. I explained to the receptionist that I didn't need a doctor, I just needed to talk about buried ancient Peruvian feathers. She put me on hold for a while.
"Oh, it's looted," Dr. Paly said when he called me back from a number in Gig Harbor. He told me everything he knew.
He bought the piece in the 1980s from a Peruvian American man whose father had immigrated to the United States in the 1960s. The family had come upon it typically; buying treasures pulled out of the rich Peruvian desert ground for the purposes of sale rather than science wasn't a crime in Peru in the middle of the 20th century, when this was dug up. It had been part of a cache of a few dozen feather pieces buried near Nazca in southern Peru. It was probably wrapped in cloth for protection.
Dr. Paly says there are guesses, not answers, for my questions. He believes the poncho was never worn and buried alone as a sacred offering. He doesn't see a dog but a cat. He wonders whether the macaws were killed for their feathers or kept as a captive troop and fed certain foods in order to produce the brilliant colors. (Flamingos are pink from the shrimp they eat, for example.)
But blue is special. Blue feathers are a biological hack, not a pigment. When a bird's feathers look blue, as these do, it's actually an illusion created by the reflection of light on the surface of brown, black, and/or green feathers.
Dr. Paly explains there's no indigo in the poncho, just the illusory miracle of blue. In his mind, they relate. No one knows how indigo dye was discovered, in several locations around the globe, thousands of years ago. By rights, it shouldn't have been. It's anything but intuitive to produce.
"The indigo plant is not blue, it's green," Dr. Paly said. "You have to ferment the leaves at a high temperature. You need yeast. The dye is yellow-green, and only after you immerse something in it and oxidize it repeatedly—only then do you get blue. It's astonishing that anybody ever figured out how to do this, much less independently and in at least five different places."
Indigo was gold for a time, too. During the American Revolution, cubes of it were money. It drove slave labor on multiple continents. Now we are all citizens of the jeans nation. Indigo is a geopolitical phenomenon. Because apparently, like birds, we are wired to find our way to blue.