The Topo of the Bolivian Woman: Between Weapon and Fashion

Clothes accessory, steak knife, mirror, spoon, sign of power and wealth, ritual object, weapon, political instrument (etc.): this Bolivian pin could replace the Swiss army knife as its use was (and remains!), full of meaning. Moreover, its history enriches South American anthropology. 

Particularly sophisticated silver topo. Prov. between 1700-1870, 98g, approx. 30 cm., MUSEF Sucre, Bolivia. © Museum Tales.

Basically, what is it? Very basically, it is a metal pin (usually in silver), used to hold the shawl of the daily dress of the woman on the chest. Just pinch the two sides of the fabric on the topo rod which then rests horizontally or diagonally (head up) on the brightly colored garment. Its use dates back (at least) before our fortified castles since such objects were found on sites of the Wari culture (South America, 600 AD – 1000 AD). And, unlike fortified castles, topos are still relevant today.

Pre-Inca tupus. © googleartandculture.  

Whether it is as simple and sober as possible or of great sophistication and metallurgical finesse, this brooch is most often characterized by an oval head adorning a straight and sober needle, about 15 centimeters long, ending in a more or less tapering point. However, other more extravagant forms exist!

Like any clothing accessory, it quickly became a way of standing out and showing one’s social rank or belonging to a given province, city or group. During the Inca period (1450-1532 – yes! 132 years only!) Andean women marked their rank less by the material of their clothes than by the pieces of metal with which they adorned their daily outfit, and therefore precisely by their topo.

Today, not only the object is a symbol of identity pride for women, but also for the indigenous and mixed population of the Andes.

Christianity? During the colonial era (1532-1825), the topos became symbols of the resistance and the resilience of indigenous customs and traditions against the Christian colonists. 

Topo post colonization. 
Before 1903.  
© Musée du quai Branly Jacques-Chirac. 

The brooch could also serve as an offering to the deceased or to the gods. Attested in rituals dedicated to Pachamama, it carried within all the indigenous practices. Since it was too widely connoted indigenous, pagan, anti-Christian, the topo was banned. (It was a way to save silver for other uses that would be more basic to society, such as… another set of crucifixes or a state-of-the-art Bible holder, for example.)

In order to circumvent the ban, the women hollowed out the oval head, giving it the clean appearance of a spoon! A spoon, though as enigmatic as the settlers could conceive, could not be dedicated to such a meaningful object and therefore did not lead to another interdiction.

Although they represent the majority in Bolivia and Peru, the indigenous and mixed-race population remains stigmatized. However, movements of identity pride are intensifying. In this context of promoting and safeguarding the Andean heritage, the topo of the women of the Altiplano offers itself as an emblem of choice.

Mamaota woman from Potosí (Bolivia) wearing three topos © Maria Soledad Fernandez Murillo / © musef

Feminist? With its strong value of resistance, the object sided more specifically with the women it symbolizes in the face of sexist oppression. 

“Talking about topos is talking about the history of women; they cannot be understood separately”, one can read on one of the explanatory panels of the Museum of Ethnography and Folklore of Sucre (MUSEF, Bolivia). The elegant multifunction brooch was indeed long perceived as the feminine ornament “par excellence”. Less widespread today than the bra, for example, it remains, in Bolivia, more used than the lace panties or the stiletto heels. 

Ornamentation, yes, but also political power of women: during the Inca period, the topos were part of the power expansion strategies of the city of Cusco (Peru) used by high-ranking women. By distributing their specific brooch in a village far from the center of power, the village went from « neutral » to « under Cusquenian domination ».

« When the women take out their topos, the men start to worry »

Later, in the last century, the towns of La Paz and Sucre (Bolivia) recorded several more or less serious cases of « topazo ». The fact of « wounding with a topo » (« topazo ») thus became a recognized legal fact. It is useful to specify that in the great majority of the inventoried cases, the brooch allowed its feminine owner to defend herself against a male aggressor who tried to steal or rape her. 

Note that at the same time, European women’s hat and bun pins were used quite similarly. So much so that, in the 1920s, the size and thickness of hat pins were limited to about ten centimeters.

If we come back to the American continent, it is impossible not to note how much the iconography of the topo in the form of a raised fist presented by the MUSEF (Sucre, Bolivia) seems similar to the rallying sign of feminists, largely graffitied in the current South American streets.

On the left, a silver topo from the MUSEF collections (Sucre, Bolivia) / On the right, a feminist symbol adorning one of the walls of the Santa Teresa Convent, Sucre, Bolivia. © Museum Tales.

Today, Mapuche women (southern Argentina and Chile) continue to wear it in its sober and simple form, because “using it is like feeling that the Moon incorporates you. »

What else ?

  • In addition to the practices of offerings, power, fashion, or political resistance, topos are a good indicator of the use of silver by the Andeans. The periods during which the topo was mostly made of brass or poorer alloy (tumbaga, nickel or copper) coincide with those of impoverishment of the area or the kingdom, for the benefit of the settlers, for example.  
  • Once again the identical use of this object throughout the northern zone of Chile and Argentina, in all of Bolivia and Peru, up to the southern half of Ecuador, shows that these zones correspond to one and the same broad cultural area, always united in the extension of one and the same mixed-culture, in spite of the borders. [Cf. the article: « These capricious fellows: the ékékos » ].
Josefina Reynolds Ipiña (1923-2014), Pastoral, 1948, Charcas Museum, Sucre, Bolivia. © Museum Tales.

© Museum Tales / Writer : Lou Desance / Reviser : Emma Dechorgnat.

Sources :

  • Esteras Martín, Cristina, Platería del Perú virreinal, 1535–1825. Madrid et Lima: Gruppo BBV, 1997.
  • Fernandez Murillo Maria Soledad, Prendedores, topos y mujeres, MUSEF / Fundación Cultural del Banco Centra lee Bolivia, 2015.
  • Gruzinski, Serge, La colonización de lo imaginario Sociedades indígenas y occidentalización en el México español Siglos XVI-XVIII., Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1991. 
  • Guamán Poma De Ayala, Felipe, Nueva corónica y buen gobierno. Tomos I y II.., Biblioteca Ayacucho, 1980 [1615].
  • Guardia, Sara Beatriz, Mujeres peruanas al otro lado de la historia., Biblioteca Nacional del Perú, 2013.
  • King, Heid, Peruvian Featherworks: Art of the Precolumbian Era., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012.
  • Phipps, Elena, Johanna Hecht, et Cristina Esteras Martín, The Colonial Andes: Tapestries and Silverwork, 1530–1830. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004.
  • Vetter Parodi Luisa, « La evolución del Tupu en forma y manufactura desde los Incas hasta el siglo XIX », in Metalurgia en la América Antigua, Institut français d’étude andines, 2007.
  • Vicuña Guengerich Sara, « Virtuosas o corruptas: Las mujeres indígenas en las obras de Guamán Poma de Ayala y el Inca Garcilaso de la Vega », in Hispania, Vol. 96, No. 4, 2013.

Publié par Museum Tales

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