From Portrait to Play: The Making of the DAM’s Inca Ruler Costumes

From Portrait to Play: The Making of the DAM’s Inca Ruler Costumes

When I first moved to Denver nearly four years ago, one of the first things I wanted to see was the notable Spanish Colonial art collections of the Denver Art Museum. I will not forget the moment I first walked into the galleries because I was blown away by the brightly colored series of portraits of Inca rulers that covered the first wall of the gallery. When I heard they would be reinstalled for the Fashion Fusion exhibition the memories flooded back. Today, I work at the DAM and get to be inspired by these works on any given day.

It turns out, though, that I am not the only one that feels strongly about these portraits. I learned they are loved by our audiences, and they inspired our team in education to transform them into the new kids’ costumes in the Just For Fun Center for families. I recently talked to family programs coordinator Jodie Gorochow and designer Bree Angela to talk about how they turned colonial portraits into imaginative outfits children can wear.

The DAM’s costumes are always about being imaginative, and these portraits fit that goal perfectly, Jodie told me. While we call these “portraits” of Inca rulers, they were not accurate depictions. They were created by artists who never saw these rulers. The portraits were painted generations after their rule. Only the portrait of Pizarro, the Spanish conquistador at the end, was based on portraits made of him during his life. The artist(s) created images of what they imagined Inca rulers would have worn and looked like. Artists could only go by the example of traditions passed down, reflected in the styles of Inca nobility that lived during the colonial period. It was this creativity, Jodie said, that lent perfectly to the idea of the costumes. The artists depicted what they understood to be symbols of Inca power. Jodie focused on these symbolsthe crown, manta (cape), shield, tocapu (belt), and unca (tunic)and turned them over to Bree to envision the look and feel that kids would mix and wear.

Little did Jodie know, but Bree had a longtime passion for Peruvian culture and Inca textiles. She thought first about the kids’ experiences and then focused on making the design (like the details of the materials and patterns) clear for children. The clothes were made from fine materials, like alpaca and corequenque feathers, found in the surrounding Andean environment and symbols of rule. The design motifs showed the places where rulers came from, who they were, and what they accomplished. Conversely, Pizarro’s portrait represented conquest of the previous Inca culture. For Bree, when children put on the costumes, it is a deeper opportunity than to have fun at the museum.

Bree's Inca costume designs.

For her, putting on the costumes of rulers is fun, but more important, can give wearers “a sense of empowerment” that allows the kids to imagine “I can be anything.” Being a ruler is aspiring to greatness, and gives kids a sense of confidence in their lives. As she said, "Perhaps kids could even create peace between the rulers and the conquistador in ways that didn’t happen historically." Perhaps this is what is so intriguing about these costumes and portraitsyou can imagine the greatness of these individuals and share in that experience.

Madalena Salazar is the Latino cultural programs coordinator in the education department at the Denver Art Museum. Madalena has been at the DAM since 2011 and her favorite artwork that has been on view here is Mud Woman Rolls On. This piece reminds her of home, family, and community and serves as inspiration for her practice as a museum educator at the DAM.

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