Art of the Shipibo-Konibo

In a previous blog, we gave an introduction to the Shipibo-Konibo people, an indigenous group from Peru's Amazon, most numerous in the Department of Ucayali. Brief mention was made of the distinctive geometrically-decorated textiles for which they are justifiably famous. Here we look at the process behind this intricate art form

Many theories abound as to the meaning of the Shipibo-Konibo's broad and thin, angular, geometric patterns. Some believe it to represent a stylized language; a mapping of the rivers in Amazonia; a representation of the spiritual word; or the shape of the Anaconda.

Others state that these designs describe the lives of their families and communities in the forest. Although it is difficult to attribute one meaning to the designs, their value and uniqueness is indisputable.

As well as speaking Spanish, the Shipibo-Konibo have their own language, which belongs to the Panoan language family. Chono Shobo means 'The House of the Hummingbird', and is the name of a centre in Pucallpa where women of the community gather to work on their handicrafts. Here the elders pass their ancestral techniques to younger generations. Note that it is exclusively women who are involved in the manufacture of the textiless. 

Some novice design makers start learning this art as early as the age of five. These secrets will guide them through the rest of their lives, shaping their designs while hand dying and painting, embroidering or weaving.

The geometrical designs are called quene or kené, literally 'symbols of ethnic identity'. Indeed, they have always been a symbol of Shipibo-Konibo identity, differentiating them from other indigenous groups.

The elaborate geometrical figures symbolize the ethnic group's cosmos and mythology. Ronin is 'The Great Boa' who brought the universe into existence, and has a particular kené, that represents the patterns on her skin. 

Ronin's skin is said to contain all of the design patterns found in the natural world, such as the fur of the jaguar, the wings of a butterfly or the surface of a leaf. Every human, animal and plant is said to have a unique design. 

The hallucinogenic vine, ayahuasca, is a key element in Shipibo-Konibo culture, and often used to facilitate the recognition of these designs in the world around them. It is through these visions that women of the Shipibo begin the process of creating the distinct hand-painted textiles. 

Moreover, there are melodies and chants (huehua) that serve as codes to each design, and relate to shamanic visions experienced under the influence of ayahuasca. Therefore, Ronin kené huehua, means literally 'the song of the design of the Great Boa', and has a place of great importance in both Shipibo cosmology and their artwork.

The Shipibo-Konibo paint on large sheets of pure cotton muslin, which are cut into smaller sections, before beginning the dying process.

Women often work together painting on the same sheet at the same time, coordinating designs by observing the other's progress.

One of the most difficult tasks is drawing the first line on a virgin cloth. The painter has to approach this task with extreme delicacy: if only one drop of colour stains the sheet, all preceding work will be in vain, because the stain can never be washed off again.

Women often paint all day and night to finish their work in time. Younger girls may be employed to fill the spaces between the bold lines with delicate filling patterns.

The dyes used to create the colours come from a variety of organic materials found in the Amazon rain forest, such as the bark of the mahogany tree, Huito fruit (Genipa americana) or a mud collected from the bottom of ponds or streams. They can be difficult to handle because of their pasty consistency.

For the black-on-rust designs, they dye the entire fabric with the plant-based brown tint, and then paint on it with mud, thus turning only those painted portions to black.

Hand-painted textiles might be dyed up to ten times and then be left to dry in the strong Amazon sunlight. Then they are hand-painted using very fine sticks, before being dried in the sun again, and finally washed.

For black-on-white cotton designs, they paint onto natural, un-dyed muslin with a brown dye, and then bathe the entire fabric in mud, thus turning the painted portions to black.

Even if the meaning of the Shipibo-Konibo designs is not apparent, visitors appreciate the beautiful patterns, the soft curves and pristine, yet authentic, look. And by purchasing these hand-painted textiles, they are helping the Shipibo-Konibo preserve their culture and maintain economic stability and self-sufficiency.

A word of warning: on account of the organic nature of the materials used, it is crucial that original Shipibo textiles are handled and washed with care. Be sure to add half a cup of salt to each load of washing, in order to keep the natural dyes from bleeding.