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.
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.
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.
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.
Handwoven with glass beads and natural seeds.