The art of weaving among Shipibo-Konibo women is being practiced less and less, as many use shop purchased fabrics to make their designs. However, some women, such as Pekon Rabi, continue to maintain this ancient tradition. Pekon Rabi, a 70-year-old woman, learned the art of weaving by observing her older relatives in the Paohyan community. She is one of the artists who still practice the cotton weaving known as "chitonti" using the backstrap loom.
Despite having 7 children, only one of her daughters has learned and continues with this cotton craft. The sale of her artwork is often the main source of income for Shipibo-Konibo women in the Paohyan community, where many other artisans also work exclusively in textile art.
The process of making a cotton textile is laborious and takes about 2 months to create a traditional wrap-around skirt, or "chitonti". We spent time with Pekon Rabi to observe the entire process up close. Through this experience, we were able to appreciate 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 seed pod the cotton is carefully peeled off, 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.
With the cotton balls ready, they proceed to build a 6-meter frame using cane sticks (arundo donax). This frame will serve to produce a long weave that will then be divided into 5 individual pieces. The process of placing the cotton on the frame and then transferring the hundreds of cotton threads to the loom takes two full days.
During this time, the expert hands of the weavers work carefully to ensure that each thread is in place, creating a unique and beautiful pattern in the weaving. The frame and loom are essential tools in the weaving process, allowing creativity and skill to be embodied in every part of the chitonti.
It is a laborious and painstaking process, but the end result is a unique and meaningful piece of art, which carries with it the history, culture and traditions of the Shipibo-Konibo. Each weaving tells a story and represents the talent and dedication of the women who created it. The art of chitonti is a cultural legacy that is passed down from generation to generation, keeping alive the rich textile tradition of the Shipibo-Konibo people.
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.