Description

A ch’uspa (in Quechua) or huallqepo (in Aymara) is a bag used in the Andes to carry dried coca leaves since at least the beginning of the first millennium CE. [1] When chewed with lime, dried coca leaves are a mild stimulant. In the Andean highlands, it is used to stave off hunger, stimulate the heart and thin the blood in compensation for the lack of oxygen. [2]

A ch’uspa is typically made of a rectangular, four-selvage length of cloth woven in varying techniques, folded in half, and stitched along the sides to form the body of the bag. In most cases, the sides are securely held together with tubular edging made up of cross-knit loop stitches or hand-woven edge bindings sewn onto the length of cloth as it is being woven. Only in some cases is simple stitching used to attach the sides of the body. Straps of woven fabric, cords, or braided yarn are often attached to the body of the ch’uspa, to be worn across the chest. [3] Traditionally, women tuck their strapless coca bags (called istalla in Quechua in this case) into their chumpi (waistband or belt). [4] Beading, fringe, tassels, and other decorative additions may be incorporated according to local customs and the aesthetic choices of weavers and wearers. [5]

The history and evolution of the ch’uspa formed part of a strong network of gifting, exchange, and social relationships created around the exchange of coca for chewing and other ceremonial practices in the Andes. In fact, some ch’uspas have been used throughout history to carry offerings of coca in a variety of ceremonies.

The nature and construction of the ch’uspa seems to have changed little after the Spanish invasion. It remained almost unchanged throughout the colonial period (roughly 16th – early 19th centuries) and traditional textile values and tastes seem to guide the creation of ch’uspas even today. Nowadays, ch’uspas are also produced and marketed as souvenirs in Peru and Bolivia, particularly in important tourist destinations like Cusco, Arequipa, and La Paz. Machine stitching is increasingly used in the production of ch’uspas for the tourist market. [6] In sum, ch’uspas “constitute one of the most resilient and consistently present woven forms in the history of Andean textile arts.” [7]

Details

Appropriation and Influence

Photo of blue bag with strip with semi-abstract, multicolored motifs running down the center and a bundle of tassels on one side

Peruvian Threads Aztec Strip Hand Woven Peruvian bag

This bag resembles the structure of ch’uspas, including the fringed decoration. Like other products sold by Peruvian Threads, this bag is said to have been handmade, ethically sourced, and made with Peruvian fabrics and by “local artisans” in Peru. [8] However, Peruvian Threads merges the language of two completely distinct Indigenous groups: the Aztec from Mesoamerica and Andean cultures from South America. [9] This practice denies the individual cultural expressions of different Indigenous nations, thus relegating Native arts to a singular, and often stereotypical, realm of “Otherness.”

Image: Peruvian Threads.

Photo of backpack with stylized floral motifs and a thin, brown zipper running horizontally through the middle

Patricia Nash Nazca Backpack

This backpack was designed based on “a classic Peruvian pattern Patricia [Nash] found exploring Peru.” [10] While the shape is distinct from that of a ch’uspa, it is almost impossible to separate the textile traditions of the Andes from the garments that are made with these textiles. The designer is borrowing directly from Andean textile traditions and profiting from these designs, without crediting or even working with textile artists from the region. More importantly, while the backpack carries the Nazca culture in its name, the floral motifs in the textile used to create it are far from the more abstracted motifs found in Nazca textiles, which often included colorful, curvilinear figures. [11]

Image: Patricia Nash.

Photo of bag made with a striped textile and a leather pocket with the words "Peru" and "Cusco" inscribed on the front

Tinkuy Peru Bag with Andean Design

This is one of many examples of ch’uspa-style bags commonly made for the souvenir market in important tourist centers throughout Peru and Bolivia. The bag is said to have been “made in Cuzco, the capital city of the former Inca empire, and artisans there gave it the finish you can see on the photograph.” [12] The textile forming the body of the bag is said to have been woven using ancestral techniques, even though the leather pocket with the inscriptions “Peru” and “Cusco” is certainly a modern addition, especially made for the tourist market. Although these bags reflect some pride in the textile heritage of the Andes, they are entirely divorced from the context in which the ch’uspa originated and the social practices surrounding the chewing of coca in which ch’uspas originally participated. Moreover, the use of a Quechua word as the brand’s name also fails to recognize the importance of the term tinkuy in Andean cosmologies and worldviews.

Image: Tinkuy.

Photo of bag with stripes and geometric patterns

Aklla Aguayo Cloth Bag Chaski Model

Aklla is a brand owned by Peruvian entrepreneurs who aim to “promote the continuity of artisanal activity.” [13] Like the example above, the brand uses a Quechua word for its name but, in this case, the meaning and significance of the word are not even mentioned. Aklla was the name given to some of the most important female weavers in the Tawantinsuyu, who crafted the finest textiles while secluded in convent-like places maintained by a rigid structure for textile production controlled by the Inka. [14] Once more, we see the decontextualized use of a Quechua term to provide a more authentic character to the products being sold, but without really explaining its history or relevance to the cultures that have used this word as part of their social meanings and structures.

Image: Aklla.

Photo of bag with pompoms, tassels, and embroidered with colored threads and small, round mirrors

Muzungu Sisters Half Moon embellished shoulder bag

This bag has a similar shape to ch’uspas and, while more heavily decorated than some traditional examples, it is also adorned with tassels and embroideries. The bag was sold by Muzungu Sisters, a brand founded by Dana Alikhani and Tatiana Casiraghi. The word “muzungu” originates from the Swahili word for “traveler” or “wanderer,” and indeed the brand works directly with artisans from around the world and claims to “uphold respect and social responsibility” in their business. [15] However, the brand upholds some of the basic tenets of white saviorism with its claim that the production of their items “present the sole means of revenue for the artisans and others in their communities.” [16] Like some of the examples above, this bag is also divorced from the original context and practices associated with the ch’uspa, especially because the customers of this bag are very likely foreign, wealthy women interested in fashion.

Image: Matches Fashion.

Photo of multi-colored bag with decorative braids and tassels

Escvdo Mini Willow “Quince” bag

These “Willow” bags are “produced in one of Peru’s rural jungle communities [and] crafted from local palm fibre, employing ancient artisanal crafting traditions.” [17] The cultural identity of these Indigenous nations are left unnamed, however, once more erasing their faces, names, and cultural expressions from brand discourses. The brand, Escvdo, prides itself on its commitment to Peruvian cultural heritage while also offering high-end fashion products for an international market. While, at times, the brand indicates some of the specific elements of the Indigenous material culture that it uses as inspiration, many times the Indigenous identities of makers and design inspiration are left unknown. Moreover, the brand’s discourse often alludes to a romanticized idea of Ancestral craftsmanship that will be lost if the white colonizer does not support and encourage it.

Image: Escvdo.

Endnotes

[1] Nicola Sharratt, Carrying Coca: 1,500 Years of Andean Chuspas (New York: Bard Graduate Center, 2014), 30.

[2] Elena Phipps, Johanna Hecht, and Cristina Esteras Martín (eds.), The Colonial Andes: Tapestries and Silverwork, 1530–1830 (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004), 148.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ann Pollard Rowe, “Costume Under the Inca Empire,” in Costume and History in Highland Ecuador, ed. Ann Pollard Rowe and Lynn A. Meisch (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011), 87.

[5] Sharratt, Carrying Coca, 30.

[6] Ibid., 36, 38.

[7] Ibid., 23.

[8] “About,” Peruvian Threads, accessed May 21, 2021.

[9] “Aztec Strip Hand Woven Peruvian bag,” Peruvian Threads, accessed May 21, 2021.

[10] “Nazca Backpack: Peruvian Tapestry,” Patricia Nash Designs, accessed May 21, 2021.

[11] Rebecca R. Stone, Art of the Andes from Chavín to Inca (London: Thames & Hudson, 2012), 82–84.

[12] “Peru Bag with Andean Design,” Tinkuy, accessed May 21, 2021.

[13] “About Us,” Aklla, accessed May 21, 2021.

[14] Stone, Art of the Andes

[15] “Our Approach,” Muzungu Sisters, accessed May 21, 2021.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Mini Willow ‘Quince,’” Escudo, accessed May 21, 2021.

References

Phipps, Elena, Johanna Hecht, and Cristina Esteras Martín, eds. The Colonial Andes: Tapestries and Silverwork, 1530–1830. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004.

Rowe, Ann Pollard, and Lynn A. Meisch, eds. Costume and History in Highland Ecuador.  Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011.

Sharratt, Nicola. Carrying Coca: 1,500 Years of Andean Chuspas. New York: Bard Graduate Center, 2014.

Learn More
  1. Article: “Garment Traditions of the Andes: Construction, Gender and Identity” offers an introduction to the garments commonly worn in the Andes prior to the Spanish invasion and includes a short introduction to ch’uspas.
  2. Exhibition: “Super/Natural: Textiles of the Andes” offers an overview of Andean textile traditions throughout history and includes a number of ch’uspas.
  3. Book: Carrying Coca offers a comprehensive study of the ch’uspa and its intricate relationship with chewing coca and the social relationships formed around it.
  4. Refer to The Library for even more resources on the ch’uspa.