Lines of Life
Ancestral Shipibo-Konibo Textile Traditions in the Peruvian Amazon
Ancestral Shipibo-Konibo Textile Traditions in the Peruvian Amazon
In March 2019 we visited Paohyan, a Shipibo-Konibo community of rich cultural tradition and one of the last strongholds of ‘Chitonti’ - the traditional indigenous textiles made from homespun cotton woven on a backstrap loom.
Together with the Pucallpa based grassroots NGO ‘Alianza Arkana’, we have been working for the past 9 months developing a project supporting the revitalisation of these traditional textiles. Through buying at fair-trade prices and offering a platform to sell in our Cusco based gallery, the aim is to give value and appreciation to the art, creating renewed enthusiasm with the artists so this dying craft will continue for generations to come. By helping create an alive marketplace and demand for these textiles we envisage the future for this ancestral weaving to be of longevity and sustainability.
The project is a continuation of the long-standing work by Leeroy Mills and Techa Beaumont (kulchajam.org) who have been developing relationships and conversation with the traditional artists for many years in Shipibo lands.
In this report we will follow the full process of the ‘chitonti’, from spinning the cotton to painting the final designs known as kené. While also commenting on Shipibo-Konibo culture and showing how life is in Paohyan.
With an estimated population of over 35,000, the Shipibo-Konibo whose language belongs to the Panoan family represent approximately 8% of the indigenous registered population in Peru. As one of the most populous Amazonian ethnics in Peru, the Shipibo-Konibo have had a long history of contact with the Spanish but have still managed to maintain their culture and language unlike many other cultures which have been severely diluted or even lost. Like all other indigenous populations living today in the Amazon basin, the Shipibo-Konibo are threatened by severe pressure from outside influences such as oil exploration and production, mining, logging, palm oil cultivation, deforestation, commercial overfishing and narco-trafficking.
The Shipibo-Konibo are distinguished by their extensive knowledge of medicinal plants and their beautiful craftwork traditions in ceramics and textiles. Their textiles, which are also known locally as ‘telas’ are a central pillar of their culture and have been recognised by the Peruvian State as ‘Patrimonio Cultural de la Nación’ (National Cultural Heritage).
The Shipibo-Konibo are noted for a rich and complex cosmology. They live in the 21st century while keeping one foot in the past, spanning millennia in the Amazonian rainforest. Many of their traditions are still practiced, such as ayahuasca shamanism. Shamanistic songs have inspired artistic tradition and decorative designs found in their clothing, ceramics, tools and textiles.
Similar to other Amazonian groups, the Shipibo-Konibo are animists. To them, animals, vegetation, as well as non-biological beings have spirits just like humans. All beings have two modes or aspects, one material and the other spiritual.
The laborious process on making a single cotton textile known as ‘chitonti' - a traditional wrap skirt - will take around 2 months. We spent the majority of our time with Pekon Rabi, one of around 8 artists in the village who still practices the traditional back strap loom weaving. The sale of art is often the single revenue stream for Shipibo-Konibo women and this is evident in Paohyan where there are many other artisans working solely with their textile art.
Rather than working with the cotton the younger women in Paohyan find it easier to make their textiles from purchased fabrics which they then design and embroider with shop bought cotton thread. The younger generation see little need to spin and weave their cotton when they can create pieces much quicker with purchased materials.
Here we will follow the slow, ancient and magical art form of ‘chitonti’ from start to finish.
After collecting the cotton buds from the trees, it is then dried and aired in the house rafters. For each see pod the cotton is carefully peeled off the seeds, while removing dirt and other debris. The cotton from one bud is pulled into a small square and laid out in an overlapping pattern. The cotton is joined together as it is flattened out with a wooden rod known as ‘rishkiti’.
Once flat the cotton pancake is then rolled in preparation for it to be spun. Using a traditional ceramic spinner the cotton is now made into string, using ash from the fire to tighten and bind this thread together. One cotton ball will take several days to make and 5 of these balls will produce sufficient thread to weave one textile.
Pekon Rabi is 66 years old and was born in a neighbouring village. Her parents abandoned her at an early age and she was then raised by her extended family in Paohyan. By watching her elder relatives, she slowly learnt the art and process of working with the cotton, known to the Shipibo-Konibos as ‘waxmen’.
She has 7 children but only one of her daughters is learning and continuing this cotton craft.
The people in Paohyan still live in the traditional Shipibo-Konibo way, fishing most days and supplementing their diet with crops cultivated on their farms, predominately a variety of plantains and manioc, also sweet potatoes, and maize. Fish and staple crops are supplemented with game and other wild foods collected from the forest.
However, the situation is changing due to global weather changes, as there have been droughts followed by flooding, most of the mature fruit trees have died, and some of their plantain and banana trees are struggling.
The seasons in the Ucayali region are split dramatically with a long dry period followed by the rains coming between November and April. During this time Paohyan can be submerged when the river rises with the houses sitting just above the water on wooden stilts. In the dry season the water retreats leaving the village a few hundred feet from the river.
Shipibo-Konibo culture is passed down from generation to generation, as the girls learn their textile art from a young age the boys can be seen fishing and practising their arrow aim by hunting small lizards all around the village.
With the cotton balls ready, now a 6 metre frame is constructed with cañabrava (arundo donax) sticks. This frame will produce one long textile which will then be split into 5 individual pieces. It will take 2 days of walking in and out of this frame with the cotton in hand before these hundreds of cotton lines are transferred to the loom.
Now the weaving can finally begin, this delicate practice takes time and patience but the result is a tight woven cloth which will then be embroidered or painted.
Taking 1 - 2 weeks to weave one length of textile, it is easy to understand why shop bought fabrics are now the preferred choice for Shipibo-Konibo women.
As important as any part of the ‘chitonti’ process is the collection of materials from the deeper jungle outside of the village. With Pekon Rabi, Antonio (husband) and Hildebrando (son) we travelled in their canoe a few hours out to the depths of the forest in search for what we needed.
First stop we followed a narrow river looking for clay, after fallen trees stopped the water passage we stepped out into the dense jungle walking along the riverbank until arriving at the spot where Pekon Rabi remembered the special type of clay lying at the bottom of the river.
Pekon Rabi found the clay at the bottom of the murky river, holding her breath for up to a minute as she dived to the bottom and pulled handfuls of clay back up with her.
After a good amount of clay was collected it is then stored in a cooking pot ready to be taken back to the village. This clay, grey in colour will later be used to form a black paint for textiles. For now, the attention turns to the forest, looking for the barks which would later be used as brown dyes for the textiles.
Natural pigments have been used by the Shipibo-Konibo for many generations in painting their bodies, ceramics and textiles. The collection of these materials from the forest takes time and energy, so much so that in recent times it is much more common to see Shipibo-Konibo textiles painted or woven with synthetic colours.
The vision of this project is to work entirely with natural materials sourced from the jungle. Providing an ongoing connection to traditional plant usage and knowledge, ensuring these ancestral practices continue.
Achiote - Shipibo-Konibo name is ‘Máxe’ = Red
Clay - Shipibo-Konibo name is 'Máno’ = Black
Tumeric - Shipibo-Konibo name is ‘Koron’ = Yellow
Mahogany - Shipibo-Konibo name is ‘Pokóti’ = Brown
On our recent trip to Shipibo land in April 2019, we noticed a natural dye that we hadn’t seen before. ‘Ami,’ Pekon Rabi told us, as we inquired into what it was.
A pigment that was once common among the tonal palettes of chitonti makers, this colour is a deep red that produces a gradient of hues: from the colour of red wine to a dark magenta or burgundy to something that resembles the deep purple of eggplant.
Commonly known as sangipanga in Peru, and ami among the Shipibo, its presence as a natural dye is slowly dying out. The evidence of its contemporary rarity lies in its absence among chitonti fabrics today: we’ve been working with the Shipibo for over two and a half years and this is the first time we’ve seen it. For such an emotive and beautiful pigment, it seemed to us unfathomable that this colour would not grace the design of every chitonti. Upon inquiry, we learned that much of its scarcity among Shipibo art is due to the long process it takes to procure from the jungle.
While other common pigments like achiote, mahogany and turmeric are located near the village, the leaves of ami, a plant taxonomically known as picramnia latifolia, are only found deep in the forest. Not only is it far away, but it takes a knowledgeable plant-identifier to pick its leaves out among the thousands of other plants that surround it.
Because of this, fewer and fewer Shipibo women are utilizing it in their colour palettes for the art forms they curate: both among the chitonti as well as other textiles and ceramics. However, if the purple ami ceases to be used in traditional Shipibo art, it is not only a colour that we will lose. The ancestral knowledge and reciprocal relationship that the Shipibo maintain with the rainforest, and most specifically, with this plant, will slowly become silent until no one remembers it.
It is for this reason that together with the master artisans we want to keep the spirit of sangipanga, or ami, present in Shipibo culture. One way we can do this is to encourage the women to continue to harvest its leaves from the jungle, extract its beautiful pigment from the leaves they collect, and continue to dye their cotton with it and paint their chitonti’s with it. By giving outside value to this little-known Shipibo natural dye, we can reinforce a cultural tradition that exists between a jungle plant and the hands of women who create art. And soon, it won’t just be the older women that can point to its leaves and tell us it is ami, but the young girls will be able to tell us the same.
A few years ago Paohyan was a 10-hour boat ride from the growing and bustling city of Pucallpa, now with faster shuttle boats the duration is a quick 3.5 hours. The community is very much a traditional Shipibo-Konibo village but today has many signs from the western world. As the commute to Pucallpa becomes shorter the occidental impact increases with the arrival of all the produced goods and materials from city life.
Paohyan consists of one long street with many of its houses doubling up as village stores, selling fizzy drinks and packaged foods. By the central football pitch sits an evangelical church and radio station. The radio can start at any point during the day, loudly projecting music and news throughout the village by speakers strategically positioned in every corner. The radio’s speech is solely in Shipibo-Konibo, a sign of strength that the language is alive and active, unlike many other indigenous languages in the Amazon which are more critically endangered.
Kené (meaning ‘design’, ‘enclosure’ and ‘path’,) is a type of artistic expression performed mostly by women from the Shipibo-Konibo community. According to Shipibo-Konibo narratives, women learned how to create their own designs by copying them from the body of a divine woman known as ‘Inka’, a concept which in Shipibo-Konibo language means ‘celestial’. The art of Kené expresses both the symmetry and asymmetry of the cosmic order, passing from the invisible to the visible world. To uncover this immaterial world covered by the Kené, it is needed to establish contact through the form of ritual.
A talk with anthropologist Luisa Elvira Belaunde (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro) teaches us that women artists learn to see designs in their ‘xinan’, their thoughts. Such thoughts can be activated through dreams and visions and acquired through the ritual use of powerful plants, such as 'waste' and behavioural and dietary restrictions. Men may also see designs, but this usually takes place during shamanic sessions using the hallucinogen ayahuasca and other 'rao', medicinal plants. Through visions awakened by the ritual use of ayahuasca, practitioners may see designs and hear songs, known as icaros. A traditional explanation of Kené states that a design represents a specific song or ‘icaro'. Through visions awakened by ayahuasca, one can learn the songs, to then reproduce the corresponding art and use the songs in rituals of curing. Ethnologist Angelika Gebhart-Sayer, calls this: 'visual music'.
There is thus a distinction between tangible and intangible Kené. Both men and women may see Kené in visions through the use of specific plants and in specific ritual conditions. But, usually, only women materialise their visions by physically covering bodies and artifacts with the designs, using weaving, painting and embroidering techniques to bring the unearthly to the earthly. It is thought that the art of designing and applying everyday objects with Kené was much better developed back in the days than it is nowadays. Kené would be applied to all artefacts like clothing, ceramics, utensils, or the wooden posts of houses. During parties, people would usually paint their faces with Kené, and the men would have their arms covered and smoke tobacco with pipes decorated with Kené.
It is often claimed that without women, men would have no material adornments as nowadays the Shipibo-Konibo designs are almost solely made by the women. It is probable most men have detached themselves from the design process due to mestizaje and machismo in the 20th century. Also, the objects men used to make (mostly woodcarving) are now store bought – think knives, chairs… or there is no market for this woodcarving. What sells are the products handmade by women. So while nowadays there is a female predominance in the Shipibo-Konibo arts, most probably this has been otherwise in recent past times. The art of making Kené is never static and continues to change in the midsts of the current social, cultural and economic transformations affecting Shipibo-Konibo territory and communities. Given the current devastation of Shipibo-Konibo lands by extractivism, producing Kené guaranties an importance source of subsistence for many women and also for entire families whose economy becomes more inserted into the tourist economy.
The Kené not only has an aesthetic function but also as an active agent for protection and as a keeper of physical / spiritual health for the Shipibo-Konibo. The patterns are an ongoing dialogue with the spiritual world and the powers of the rainforest, the rivers and the skies. The designs thus not only serve the purpose of ornamentation and decoration, they represent an entire communication system with plant spirits. As well as coming from the imagination of the individual, each piece is based on the collective consciousness of the whole Shipibo tribe.
Many plants or animals show the Kené, most importantly the design of the Anaconda (Ronin Kené), the mother of all designs. 45 graphic elements were distinguished by Shipibo-Konibo professor Lauriano Rios Cairuna. These elements can be divided into the groups that represent the following:
1) Nature (e.g. rivers, mountains)
2) Divinities (e.g. sun, moon)
3) Physical state of a person (e.g. strength, nostalgia)
4) Human activities (e.g. walking on a path, rowing a canoe, dancing during a party)
We thus come to understand that to the Shipibo-Konibo, all that we call ‘art’, like the Kené, are expressions of magical entities reached by sensory means, rituals and the use of plants. The majority of these geometric forms are related to cosmic perceptions and are expressed by figures that represent these divine beings, animals or things.
While it perhaps all starts with the myth of the Kené arriving to the Shipibo-Konibo in the form of a women’s body, anthropologist Luisa Elvira Belaunde points at the current importance of Kené for the collective cultural identity of the Shipibo-Konibo people, in the tourist economy and in the contemporary arts scene of Peru and the rest of the world. Its recognition as a national cultural geritage in 2008 is a well-deserved tribute to the Shipibo-Konibo that with their perseverance and creativity have managed to make the Peruvian city dwellers learn from them, just as they once learned from the Inka celestial beings to admire and practice Kené.
The long-term vision of Alianza Arkana and Xapiri is not only to support the elder women still carrying on this tradition but to encourage the younger generation to learn the art. With time and by using some of the profits from the textile sales via the Xapiri gallery, the plan is to produce workshops where the elders can teach the younger women and pass down this ancestral knowledge.
The project is also working with villagers to establish a small and sustainable cotton farm that will enable heirloom cottons, including colored cottons which have been lost in the village to be planted and made available to the women. This will ensure sufficient cotton is on hand for the women to use. By educating the public about this art, its special place in Shipibo-Konibo culture and the lengthy process involved in making each piece we hope to encourage an appreciation of its true value and artistry.
For Alianza Arkana the goal is to cultivate the right to self determination, providing culturally appropriate livelihoods for Shipibo that place control of culture in their hands, reaffirming pride in indigenous identity and supporting the continuation of eroded cultural practices while increasing income from culturally appropriate livelihoods for artisans and youth of the Shipibo tribe.
This reflects Alianza Arkana’s commitment to regenerative solutions for the Amazon’s indigenous communities is centred on well-being, through improving access to economic opportunities, health and education- to ensure sustainability and promote self determination. Focused on building community alliances for regenerations, Alianza Arkana creates mutual relationships with communities in the Peruvian Amazon to cultivate sustainable solutions and creatively confront eco-social challenges.
Thank you Paul.
We would like to dedicate this work to the memory of Dr. Paul Roberts (co-founder of Alianza Arkana) who sadly passed away this year. Paul was influential at the beginning of this project and a man dedicated to working with and supporting the Shipibo nation. He is with us in spirit and leaves a legacy of inspiration.
Fairness is hugely important in Shipibo-Konibo culture. Healers who work with foreigners can all too often attract jealousy due to their income and the level of care for their family that these relationships can attract. In Paohyan, there are few opportunities to earn an income due to its distance from the city. More and more families are being forced to migrate to Pucallpa to support a life that increasingly requires money.
The vision of this project is to give community members an opportunity to earn money through their beautiful art while being able to continue their traditional life in Pahoyan.
Using Pekon Rabi as an example, the money earned through the sale of her cotton textiles has supported her son through university courses, paid for medical supplies for her daughter and also helped build a new family house. Pekon Rabi is an example of how her ancestral knowledge can play an important role for the needs of her family in today's demanding world. With a growing demand for ‘chitonti’ textiles there will be new opportunities for artists in Paohyan to follow the positive example of Pekon Rabi.
Art plays an important role in indigenous culture and it is vital these ancestral traditions continue for Shipibo-Konibo identity to remain strong. With Shipibo-Konibo culture being alive, naturally their way of life and culture is constantly evolving but together we must ensure that these most ancient and complex traditions such as ‘chitonti’ are not forgotte because if so, not only is it a loss for Shipibo-Konibo culture but for humanity as a whole.
By publishing this report, we hope a reference is created for the greater understanding of Shipibo-Konibo textile traditions, so this art form is valued and practised for many generations to come.
La corona de la inspiración. Los diseños geomètricos de los Shipibo-Konibo y sus relaciones con cosmovisión y música (2009). Bernd Brabec de Mori / Laida Mori Silvano de Brabecc
Mundo semiotico de diseños (2004).
Maria Belén Soria Casaverde
Kené: Arte, ciencia y tradición en diseño (2009). Luisa Elvira Belaunde
The Geometric Designs of the Shipibo-Conibo in ritual context. Angelika Gebhart-Sayer