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Cotton sculptures 

Cotton belt, Museum für Völkerkunde, Vienna, Austria

Accession number 10.443

detail of beaded face on belt 

Cotton sculpture took many forms, including belts depicting cemís| – such as this fine example in the Museum für Völkerkunde, Vienna|.

Cotton was of great value among the Taíno, not only for elite objects such as elaborately woven and decorated belts, but for every-day items such as hammocks. It was one of the first items exchanged with Columbus when he first visited in 1492. 

The Taíno created three-dimensional sculptures out of what is essentially a two-dimensional textile art. Only three cotton sculptures survive to give us an indication of the richness of this tradition, including the cemí in the Luigi Pigorini National Museum of Prehistory and Ethnography| in Rome, and the belt in the collections of Vienna’s Museum für Völkerkunde. 

The third, in the collections of the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology|, University of Turin, is an elaborate reliquary containing ancestral remains woven into human form. It was recovered from a cave in the Dominican Republic, while other examples were documented in the 17th century from the Lesser Antilles, but have since disappeared. These cotton reliquaries were made to keep the deceased close and visible, where they could continue to play a role in the lives of the living.

front, side and back views of figure 

The Turin cemí| - an elaborate reliquary containing ancestral remains woven into human form.