As important as any part of the "chitonti" textile process is the collection of materials deep in the jungle outside of the village. Together with Pekon Rabi, her husband Antonio and Hildebrando, their son, we ventured in their canoe for several hours to reach the depths of the jungle in search of the necessary materials.
At the first stop, we followed a narrow river in search of clay. After negotiating fallen trees that blocked the passage of water, we continued deeper into the dense jungle, walking along the riverbank until we reached the place where Pekon Rabi remembered that the special type of clay we needed lay. Pekon Rabi deftly found the clay at the bottom of the murky river. She held her breath for a minute as she dove to the bottom of the river and dragged handfuls of clay to the surface.
Once we collected a sufficient amount of clay, we stored it in a pot ready to be taken back to the village. This clay, which is gray in color, will later be used to create a black fabric paint. For the moment, our attention is focused on the forest, looking for bark that will 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.Natural materials sourced from the jungle, provide an ongoing connection to traditional plant usage and knowledge, ensuring these ancestral practices continue.
Five of the most common natural pigments are:
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
Sanipanga - Shipibo-Konibo name is ‘Ami’ = Purple
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 purple 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. 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 will be lost but also 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 hope 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.