ELIZA SQUIBB: Shipibo Textiles : Creating economic viability and cultural visibility through craft
Shipibo-Konibo art, incredibly complex and fascinating, can be summed up with the word “kené”, meaning the designs, or patterns that are inscribed, painted, embroidered, woven, beaded, dyed, glazed, tiled onto every available surface: houses, textiles, ceramics, wood, and skin. The word itself, is closely linked with the idea of language and writing in particular. The word in Shipibo for “occidental writing” is joxo joni kené, meaning “writing of the white people”. A women explained to me, “escribimos” kené, “we write kené”, rather than using the word “to draw” or “to paint”.
Kené is central to Shipibo aesthetic, but is also connected to mythology, health, and the Shipibo-Konibo understanding of the universe. The patterns can be said to represent pathways, but pathways that exist on both a micro and macro scale: paths through the jungle, the milky way in the sky, or the veins in a leaf that bring sap to nourish the plant. By using these patterns to embellish themselves, their tools, and their surroundings, they are ensuring health, happiness, and beauty in their lives.When researching Shipibo-Konibo art on the internet, it is possible to find a myriad of descriptions and explications of these enigmatic patterns: The patterns are visions that result from the ingestion of the hallucinogenic plant ayahuasca; All Shipibo are kinesthetic, they feel colors and visualize sounds; each pattern is a language that can be sung as a shamanistic song to induce a trance; two Shipiba women can paint different sides of a huge ceramic jar simply by singing the same song. This fascinating culture and art form have been the subject of much speculation and anthropological investigation, and sometimes it seems that false information uncovered by anthropologist had made its way back into Shipibo lore in a sort of cycle of invented information. A well known embroiderer who told anthropologist that she could sing every part of her patterns, was later denounced by the same anthropologists because this was not true of all women. These kinds of “misinformations” seem to be due to the fact that researchers are often searching for a “unified folk knowledge” that leaves little room for individual creativity. In addition to that, it is easy to find what one is searching for, a secret visual language for example, if that idea is already fixed in the mind.
Much of the information I am summarizing comes from an article and a book written by Luisa Elvira Belaunde. The book, “Kené, arte, ciencia y tradicion en diseño”, is available in Peruvian museums, and the article, “Diseños materiales e inmateriales: La patrimonializacion del Kené Shipibo-Konibo y de la ayahuasca en el Peru”, can be found online. This article is especially informative because it describes the recent process of achieving cultural heritage status for both kené as a material, physical pattern (on textiles, wood, ceramics), but also of kené as an immaterial pattern: as a vision produced by shamanistic ceremonies. This means that the government acknowledges the existence of kené before it is manifested on physical objects, a very rare case of “immaterial” cultural heritage, and it legally protects the ayahuasca ceremonies as a medicinal ritual.
Because this is a fairly recent decision, not many communities have felt either the consequences or financial benefits from the cultural heritage process. This art has always developed in relationship to outsiders and trade, possibly it originated from an encounter with the woven textiles made by indigenous groups in the mountains. Now, as before, kené is an important economic resource, and it continues to develop in relationship to changing styles and tourism. Women are still teaching their daughters these techniques because it ensures employment, or at least one possibility for making money. There had also been a shift in the patterns recently towards more figurative imagery of the ayahuasca flower or the anaconda snake that are important elements of mythology, and more easily explained to tourists through figurative representation rather than as abstract patterns. If the state ever decided to protect this cultural heritage in its “pure” form, it would be condemned to be an object in a museum, rather than a living tradition and economic resource.
Although it is important to me to learn as much as possible about the history of kené, and its traditional uses and production. The focus of my research lies on the agency of artisans: how they define, evolve, or radically change their traditions; how they chose to wield their rich cultural history as an economic resource, and how they leverage their craft to make their indigenous community visible in the ethnically diverse landscape of Peru. An important element of this research is learning how they share their culture through their textiles, or what elements they communicate directly to the foreigners or Peruvians who buy their art. To gain a compete understanding of the various methods used, I will be meeting with artisans who live, create, and sell their work in both rural and urban environments. The association of artisans, Las Madres de Ashé, living in Cantagallo, have direct access to Lima’s historical center, although they are displaced from their native homes in the region of Ucayali, in Peru’s central Amazon basin. I will also be traveling to this region, both the urban center of Pucallpa, but also to other Shipibo communities on the banks of the Ucayali river, to learn about how they are developing and selling their textiles.