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October 8, 2013

Final Report from Perú (but not the end!)


Eliza Squibb: Shipibo Textiles in Perú

Although I’ve enjoyed the exercise of writing blog posts during my Maharam fellowship, rounding everything up into a “final report” has proved to be slightly more challenging. First of all this experience is anything but “final” since I am continuing my work in Peru. The process of these first three months has involved a gradual building of momentum. I began by growing my confidence speaking Spanish, learning how to get around the overwhelmingly chaotic capital, and establishing relationship and contacts amongst an incredible range of people. These processes are never finished: my Spanish could still use plenty of improvement, I just recently discovered an alley in Lima where one could buy live peacocks and stingrays (if one so desired), and just last night a taxi driver gave me his email and told me about all the different social development projects he works on in his spare time… This country is charging towards the future at full speed, and I’ve been made to feel that my presence as a North American designer is a welcome addition.

Over the course of my fellowship, I have learned an incredible amount from people all over the country that I have been able to meet, work and discuss with. My thinking processes on the topic of art and design in development work have been challenged, and have evolved significantly over the past three months. Although I had done many different things to prepare for this experience, nothing so much as the actual time spent living here could have prepared me as well. Now I feel prepared. And now I am beginning. Thank you Maharam!

To better organize these various processes and explain how my thoughts and actions have evolved over the course of my experience, I will describe the past three months in five different parts.

CANTAGALLO: working within the Shipibo-Conibo native community in Lima.

My primary contact upon my arrival in Lima was el Grupo Interdisciplinario Amazonia (GIA), a lively group of university students from a variety of disciplines (hence the name), who work with the Shipibo community of Cantagallo. Their main project at the moment involves designing new housing, because the municipality wants to relocate the entire community within a year. GIA introduced me to the community, and in particular, Señora Luz Linda Franco Ahuanari, the president of Ashé, an artisan collective of eighteen women. I introduced myself officially to the group and explained that I was interested in researching how textile craft serves as the main economic resource for the community and also raises awareness about the Shipibo-Conibo ethnic group. In Peru’s vast diversity of over 65 ethnicities indigenous to the Amazon region, I was interested in how the Shipibo had made themselves one of the better known groups with their textiles and traditional medicine. Also, I wanted to know more about the specific challenges faced by this community who had relocated to the city from their native territory on the Ucayali river. Since one of the main challenges faced by indigenous people today is the battle for native territory, it is important to point out that by moving to the city, this community had essentially relocated the site of this issue from the rural to the urban environment.

Although I presented myself to Ashé as a researcher who had studied textiles and was available to exchange techniques or help out in any way possible, I had little idea of what this could actually mean. Since I had barely graduated from school a month ago, it was hard for me to imagine what skills I had that would be interesting to the collective, and since GIA did not contain any artists, they couldn’t have adequately prepared me either. The only solution was to show up, listen directly to the group, and gain a better understanding of their situation. By participating in group meetings, I was able to come up with plans for how our interactions could be beneficial to both my research and the needs of the collective. In the beginning, they were reluctant to engage because they had experienced so much failure and abandonment on the part of NGOs or individuals who had proposed projects in the past. Very clearly they told me, “People have come to us before wanting to learn our techniques, we show them our work and they take pictures of everything, but these people leave without completing their promises. We see their pictures of our work on the internet, but what good does that do us?”. The only way to resolve the issue of trust was for me to be very careful about what I proposed to the group, to communicate as clearly as possible, and make sure that if I suggested something, there was a way for me to follow through.

Because of the collective’s interest in learning new techniques, I organized a needle-felting workshop. This specific technique was a very careful choice because not only is it a portable technique, relatively new to Perú, but it combines elements of painting and embroidery which are the two techniques traditionally used by Shipibo artisans. The goal of the workshop was to provide the collective with a new material and tool for expressing their traditional patterns. Potentially, this new material (wool) could also be a way of adapting to life in the city where the climate is significantly different from the rainforest. In addition to providing the materials, I made sure that all supplies were locally available to the artisans and that they knew where to find them. The workshop was a big success, and it was very impressive to see how quickly and easily these talented artisans picked up the new technique. The tools and materials remain in their possession for future experimentation, and the ultimate test will be to see how successful new products are in the market. ImageSilvia, Nimia, and Fidelia working on their needle felting projects.ImageDiana Belén showing off her project, with her mother, Zoila, in the background

The second project that we worked on together was to apply to the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market. The collective’s main problem is lack of a secure location to sell their art, and most artisans spend entire days walking the city and selling as ambulantes, street vendors. A variation of the Shipibo traditional pattern has been copied, industrially produced, and is available at any fabric store. This is disheartening for many artisans, but with all the other economic challenges they face, it is difficult for them to seek legal advice and patenting for their traditional art. They already participate in numerous craft fairs, sometimes in other South American countries, so they asked me about the possibility of finding such a fair in the US. The application to the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market was extensive, requiring photographs, a CD, and a lot of written descriptions. The act of completing the application together was a way for me to learn more about the history of Shipibo art and culture, as well as an exercise for the collective in how to formulate and express their traditions to the public. One funny moment in the application process came as we were completing the last written question of the financial aid form. “What are the collective’s reasons for seeking financial assistance?”, I translated for Señora Luz. “Because Shipibos are poor”, she answered promptly, and we both cracked up into slightly hysterical giggles. After writing persuasively about the rich wealth of Shipibo art and culture for page after page (and because our brains were a bit fried at this point), we couldn’t help laughing at the irony. The sad truth of the matter, however, is that cultural wealth does not translate to economic wealth for Peru’s indigenous population. While the natural environments that historically provided for all their needs are depleted by mining, logging, fishing, and petroleum companies, the communities themselves are forced to participate in a cash economy for which they have no precedent. The artisans of Cantagallo continue making their traditional textiles because that is their main economic resource, and often each artisan is supporting not only her family, but the education of her younger siblings and children, and the medical care of older relatives. Not only is it interesting that there is an economic incentive to continue creating traditional art, but also the community in Cantagallo works hard to preserve their culture and language so that it is not lost as the generation grows up in the city.

ImageLuz working on an embroidery at her sister Fidelia’s house

I hope that my work with Cantagallo is far from over. We succeeded in constructing strong ties, and depending on the results of the application, we might even be traveling to New Mexico next year!Image

PUCALLPA: learning textile techniques in the central Amazonian basin

I was able to join a GIA member on a three week research trip to Pucallpa, a city on the banks of the Ucayali river. Living with a Shipibo family and learning textile techniques in the native community of San Francisco made me realize just how fundamentally Shipibo art is linked to the surrounding environment. Not only do all dye materials, such as bark and clay, come from the local area, but these elements have an chemical interaction with the climate. After being dyed, fabric must be laid flat on the grass to dry and darken in the sun, and this process is repeated eight times over two days to achieve the desired shade. I began to realize how challenging it is for the artisans of Cantagallo to make their traditional art given their lack of space, distance from materials, and the fact that the sun never comes out during the four months of Lima’s winter.  While it is very economically advantageous for the artisans in rural communities to make beaded jewelry from seeds that grow in their surrounding environment, this “traditional” jewelry is no longer so easy or cheap to make once the artisans have relocated to the city. ImageLearning how to paint patterns with bark dye with Teresa on the porch of her house

There are additional differences on a social level as well. I found that often, in Pucallpa, women didn’t consider themselves professionals, even though they were highly skilled and creative textile artists. They thought of their art as their only option because they hadn’t had the opportunity to complete their education, and although they continued to pass these skills on to their children, they wanted their children to study and have careers as professionals. In Lima however, due to the budding national and international interest in Shipibo art, the artisans of Cantagallo seem to have a different concept of themselves as artists, and their status is the community is elevated. Both the artisans of Pucallpa and Lima are anxious to access the international market to increase their income. However, while the artisans in Pucallpa want commissions from international companies, the artisans in Lima want to introduce their art to a broader audience. There is a distinction in the way that the different communities conceive of themselves as artists and artisans in the world that is due to their different histories of access to opportunity.

Although it was hard to return to the weather and traffic of Lima after three weeks on the banks of the Ucayali, this trip gave me a better understanding of challenges and advantages Shipibo artisans face in both locations.

SIERRA: learning how textiles are used to encode and share culture in the mountains

Peru’s Andean textile traditions are known throughout the world while Amazonian textiles remain relatively under-researched and undocumented. This imbalance exists in scholarship as well in the level of aid and development projects that have been offered to the different regions. While an effort have been made in the past few decades to help rural communities in the sierra, mountains, little attention has been directed at the selva, jungle, which makes up 60% of Perú’s territory.

Traveling from the historical capital of Cusco to the city of Puno on lake Titicaca and visiting island communities on the lake, I was able to learn about how other groups have developed their textile traditions. In many instances, it was disappointing to see that the majority of product sold were industrialized. What surprised me the most was that even ambulates, street vendors, sell industrialized rather than handmade products. Although everyone seems to know how to knit, and ambulantes are often working on projects, it must be cheaper to buy and resell products rather than invest the time and materials into making traditional crafts. This is probably due to the fact that tourists are interested in the cheapest possible souvenir, and don’t seem to differentiate between the handmade or the industrialized. (I noticed that tourists were constantly comparing prices with each other and gloating over the fact that they bought their “alpaca” mittens for 6 soles/2 dollars). When I did see handmade textiles they showed an incredible level of technical skill and knowledge of natural dyeing, but the only way to encourage the continuation of such skills would require an education of the consumer so that they would understand the value and higher price of a handmade product.

There are institutions, for example, the Centro de Textiles Tradicionales in Cusco, that are making the effort to support the rich history of textile arts made in this region. The artisans who work with the Centro weave using back-strap looms and naturally dyed alpaca and wool yarns. Each woven shawl comes with a tag that shows a picture of the artisan, their work is highly priced, and sold at a few of the museums in Cusco. There are also many stores in Cusco that sell very high quality, very expensive handmade textiles, often created as replicas from Peru’s rich history of Pre-Colombian (and Pre-Incan) art. The workshops that produce these pieces are located in the city’s suburbs and surrounding rural area, so unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to visit and learn more about the artisans relationship with these shops and institutions.

On the floating islands of the Uros in lake Titicaca, tourism is not only the main economic resource, but also the only motivation for the islanders to continue living on their islands constructed of reeds (a generation ago, before tours to the island became popular, most residents had relocated to Puno, the closest city on the mainland). Now, half a million people visit this region every year, and islanders make distinct embroidered textiles and woven mobiles that they use to narrate their lifestyle to tourists. To make this cultural transaction effective, the symbols used are very straightforward and recognizable, sometimes borrowing from Incan iconography. It seems similar to the way that Shipibo textiles are now beginning to incorporate images of anaconda snakes and ayahuasca vines because these symbols are easier to explain to tourists than the more abstract Shipibo art. ImageUros Islander working on an embroidery

On the island of Taquile however, weaving traditions and traditional symbols used to be so secretive that in the past, women would hide their looms from any visitors. While this island is also heavily visited by tourists now, the traditional island textiles are available for sale only in the cooperative store, crafts are never hawked, and all income from tourism is equally distributed among the community. The community’s autonomy, control over tourism, and commitment to traditional dress and lifestyle make it a fascinating and unique place to visit. It was an especially fruitful experience for me because we got to spend three days living with one of the island’s most talented textile artists, Señor Alejandro Flores Huatta.

ImageSeñor Alejandro Flores Huatta working on a knit hat.ImageSeñor Alejandro’s wife, Rosa, and granddaughter, Saidy, in the courtyard or their house

Click to access Textiles-Taquile-Island-Peru.pdf

LIMA: life in the capital and contacts

I have had to good fortune of meeting a wide variety of people during the past three months. Many people here, and at home, generously connected me up with their own friends and contacts, and I have tried to follow up on every possible meeting. This led the discovery of many people who shared my interests or were working in the same field. As a rule, everyone has been incredibly welcoming and happy to meet up and talk. Not only friends, but also random strangers have showed me around the city, looked out for me, pointed me in the right direction, and been the best possible hosts in every way. I have met with artists, designers, students, anthropologists, teachers, architects, researchers, and more. Discussions with this incredible range of people has helped me refine my ideas and have a clearer understanding of Peru’s unique context. I was able to participate in an event recently that was especially informative: Two discussions that were organized to bring together many different representatives of Peruvian cultural diversity from the sierra and selva, together with Robert Martin, president of the Institute of American Indian Arts, and Luci Tapahonso, renown poet and teacher from the Navajo Nation, both visiting from Santa Fe, New Mexico. These discussions were held at the Ministry of Education and CHIRAPAQ, a center for indigenous culture, an focused on the subject of social inclusion, and multicultural and bilingual education for indigenous communities. It was very powerful to hear directly from such a great diversity of people who were all eager to listen to each other and share their experiences. Both discussions helped me reevaluate my experiences thus far in Peru and think through elements of my upcoming plans.


I wrote my grant proposal around a question that seemed interesting to me: “how can craft accomplish two things at once: raise money and raise awareness”. This phenomenon is constantly visible in our everyday life: a card table set up on the sidewalk where hopeful young activist sell small embroideries for flood victims in Pakistan or beaded necklaces for AIDs victims in Rwanda. I was interested in investigating a situation where an indigenous community was acting with the agency to make this connection for themselves; surviving by continuing to make their traditional crafts, and at the same time, making the public aware of their existence in the diverse ethnic landscape of Perú. In a rather off-handed manner, I hoped that my research might serve as a case study for other indigenous groups who wanted to start producing or marketing their art in an effort to increase their income and raise public awareness. I had given only minimal thought as to what might be the best way to share the information I would collect; a pamphlet, blog, or talk were all possibilities, but none of these are very adequate ways of sharing information with rural and, often very remote, communities. I just assumed I could consult my anthropologists contacts about this matter once I got to Peru. It turns out that the most convenient vehicle for the sharing the information I have collected is… me. One surprising thing that I noticed over the past three months is that other projects focused on developing traditional crafts use almost exactly the same language as my grant proposal: craft as economic resource and cultural awareness.  There seems to be a consistent formula for how these projects are developed:

  1. Rural/remote communities want to participate in development projects, they want to make money, they want to export their traditional crafts.
  2. Anthropologists, psychologists, economists, etc.. write up projects to support the desires of the community.
  3. Funding is found through various public/private sources.
  4. Designers/artists/art students are hired to come to the community to help the project reach its goals: creating new craft prototypes or improving on older models, teaching community members how to use sewing machines, etc…

These project are frequent, and so there is a relatively high demand for formally trained artists to work as “design consultants” for rural communities. Some projects stress the idea of cultural heritage more than others and put a great deal of emphasis on how to revalue or reactivate traditional knowledge and techniques that are currently being forgotten and lost.

Within the next few days, we will be leaving on a month long trip to Candungos, a Wampis community (sometimes called “Shuar” or “Huampisa” by the government) on the Santiago River in Peru’s Northern Amazon basin (close to the border with Ecuador). I will be traveling with an anthropologist friend who is completing a study for UNICEF. On his previous trip to the community, he explained the research I was planning on doing in Perú, and they requested that I accompany him on the next trip to assist in developing a craft production to increase the community’s income. This will involve extensive research into what is made in the community, what natural materials are available, and what elements of Shuar culture they would like to share with the potential consumer of their craft. In preparation for this, I have been photographing any Shuar artifacts I can find in Lima’s museums, and having discussions with a member of the community who has been working in the city about what art was made in the past, what continues to be made, and what tools we need to bring with us. In addition to this, we are setting up a partnership between the community and a middle school in Lima. This partnership will involve an exchange of educational materials that will help students in Lima to gain an expanded idea of Peru’s cultural diversity, and give the community a better idea of what life is like in the city.

Immediately after that trip, I will be leaving for a job I have been offered with a Yine Yami community in Peru’s Southern Amazon basin (within region of Cusco, and not too far from Vilcabamba, the last Incan stronghold). I will be living in the community for three months and running workshops on sewing and finishing techniques. The artisans already produce their own textiles on back-strap looms, painted with intricate patterns specific to their ethnic group, but they have requested to learn more about making completed projects, for example, putting a zipper or a lining into a bag. It will be an opportunity for me to learn about their culture and art, while at the same time sharing skills that I have with them.

Everything I have learned, and the information I have gathered during the past three months will be put instantly to use, and I am beginning these new projects with the advantage of my experiences with Shipibo artisans. As a general rule, the “once bitten, twice shy” experience I had with the artisans of Cantagallo applies to many communities. They have seen many projects begin with shining promises, handshakes, signatures, and smiles for the camera. They have let their hopes get raised, and then they have been left disappointed when each of these proposed projects/visitors/NGOs left without completing their promises. This makes the daunting task of launching a project even more difficult because trust has been worn thin and patience has run out. The only way to rebuild this trust is to complete a project as promised, and the only way to do that is to be completely clear in communicating what one can provide, what the time frame is, and making sure that the expectations of the community coincide with what can be provided through the project. This mutual understanding is especially crucial when all parties are communicating using a foreign language!

To be perfectly honest, I thought I had given myself a pretty easy job for this summer internship (although it has been winter here in Peru!). In my mind, all I had to do was go to Peru, ask some questions, take some pictures, write about it on a blog, then go home and tell everyone about my great adventure.

Awesome, right?

Until I took my first step in Cantagallo and I realized this was for real, people were serious, and I had work hard to earn their trust and respect.

Now I am planning out every material I will need to run six workshops a week for the next three months in a remote Amazonian community and trying to memorize every part of a sewing machine in Spanish. Not to mention packing my bug spray, mosquito net, rubber boots and antibiotics in preparation for rainy season in the rainforest…

It will be anything but easy, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.

I plan to keep posting on the blog, when I come into contact with internet, and possibly posting photos, depending on the consent of others. My grant period from the Maharam company is over, but the spreading out of networks, ideas, contacts, and possible future projects is only just beginning….

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