As important as any part of the ‘chitonti’ textile process is the collection of materials from the deeper jungle outside of the village. With Pekon Rabi, Antonio (husband) and Hildebrando (son) we traveled 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.
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
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.
Handwoven with glass beads and natural seeds.