A MURAL PROJECT WITH THE MATSIGENKA OF SHIPETIARI
In 2021, we began our work on “The Storytellers”; a project of art and storytelling that intends to connect the Matsigenka youth with the oral traditions of their elders and living culture through creative workshops and relationship building with the native community of Shipetiari. After many visits and working alongside the families and individuals there, the inspiration grew amongst us all to embark on a mural project for their communal sala; a central hub where social gatherings and organizational meetings take place. The idea was to create a lasting visual impression of their cultural identity through paint, pattern, and story; something that involved themselves in the making, something that we would all remember, coloring their walls and their quotidian. In some respects, this mural is an expression of our friendships and relations over the years; a natural progression from the art and drawing workshops we’ve shared with the youth and the traditional songs and stories from the elders.
Since the outset of the “Storytellers” project, we’ve received hours of mentorship and guidance from our longtime friend and associate Patricio Zanabria (SePeru), who always urges us towards the importance of involving the community in all stages of a project. And however much that might have seemingly complicated or slowed down certain processes, it nonetheless made the journey more meaningful where the seeds of genuine trust could be sown into our relationships through acts of patience and an openness to learn from one another.
In respect to the mural concept, the goal was to make use of both the interior and exterior walls of the communal sala. This creative vision was developed and led by artist and Xapiri Ground member Davis Torres who has played an active role in the teaching workshops and field photography for the Storytellers project since its inception. For the interior segment, he sought to be inspired by the woven textile designs signified upon their “kushmas”; traditional tunics handwoven from natural cotton. “As the creation of the designs in the kushmas are learned through the stage of ‘confinement’ performed during the first menarche of a young woman, the person who tends to her must not be the mother or the father, but an elder female who holds a lot of knowledge and wisdom,” remarks Davis.
Because the cultural codes of all indigenous cultures are deeply rooted in tradition, identity and environment as well as social adaptation, the complexity of trying to deconstruct such markings became a necessary challenge for Davis.
“I have a theory that the kushma is based on the history they’ve always had, since each design holds a story and a purpose which I could not unearth. Shipetiari was a place of rubber extraction in a bad way, and then there were the loggers and from there some Matsigenkas from different places began to come for work or curiosity, and through the passage of time settled permanently.” In the end, he would create a graphic interpretation of the Matsigenka woven design patterns coupled with the creature or insect that they symbolized.
For the building exterior, the vision is centered around the story of “Kashiri” (the moon) which is an integral part of the Matsigenka cosmo vision and is a lengthy detailed story with many moving parts.
“Some of the people in the community know about this myth; the men seem to have more knowledge of it than the women, yet it’s mostly the elders who really know it. This story has different versions. What I tried to highlight in the mural was the importance of the yucca and the masato (a fermented drink made of yucca and corn) which for them is an essential food for their life as it was their first food source after clay. I’ve also tried to integrate (in part) the story of the kushma.” In ancient times, people also did not know about yucca. They ate a special black clay that they dug out of the ground. They would prepare a mazamorra out of the clay, which they called sekatsi.
For Davis, this was an intensive month of deep revelation and connecting with the community and particular individuals where the sharing of their customs around things such as traditional food, drum-making, personal philosophy and storytelling provided a necessary intimate space where they could mirror off of each other’s lives and realities.
A few months prior to the start of the mural, Davis presented his initial sketches, as a result of his investigations, to the Shipetiari committee. His ideas were received with open arms by the community’s president Rufina and his creative license was soon granted. The realization of this project began soon after, funded through the limited resources between Xapiri Ground and the community who donated half of the costs in order to begin the first stage of the process.
A CREATIVE DIAGNOSIS
The main communal sala encompasses about 75-80 sq meters with cement floors and walls and a roof of metal shingle with a small office . The structure was built in 2014 through a donation in part from Hunt Oil and cost approximately 20,000 soles to build, the rest of the funds were provided by the National Forest Conservation Program and advice from SePerú.
Our assessment of the building implied a good amount of retouching to the wall. And so we began the process of material acquisition that included bringing a specialist or maestro, Roberto, from Cusco to perform the job, as what we needed was not available or for hire from Salvacion; the nearest town to the port of Shipetiari. Upon arrival, the maestro worked each day for a week before the sala would be ready for the mural designs. We were grateful to Roberto for his efficiency and experience; albeit from Cusco, he felt quite at home in the community. Let the painting begin!
To support Davis in the realization of the mural we had called upon the support of Felix Alejo Gutiérrez, a friend and fine artist from Cusco who studied at the Universidad Nacional de Arte Diego Quispe Tito del Cusco. This would mark the first jungle experience for him and for this length of time.
Both Davis and Felix painted day and night nearly every day to realize the designs and the stories that now decorate these walls, along with various members of the community such as Rufina, Rani, Veronica, Javier, German, Mary Luz, Javier Keimari, Mariela, Martha, Angel, Jorge, Terri, Roger, Rolando, Driscella and others whose contribution brought a memorable experience and a path of connecting even deeper to their story.
On the 27th of May, we inaugurated the mural project which was 70% complete. And because this marked the first time an art project of this scale was proposed to the community (since receiving its title in 1998), we only thought it fair to celebrate what had been completed thus far. The day before, the women and the men would begin the cleansing of the space, a synchrony of brooms lifted the dusty cement into the air as the sun shone through the windows. A cloud of misty light surrounded each person as the radio blasted a jungle techno beat, then they threw buckets of water and soap on the floors as the surface became moist and reflective, their poetic movements more visible.
After about 20 minutes, the room lay empty and the designs on the wall seemed to come alive like never before. A few people would trickle in and out that afternoon to have a closer look and talk about what they were seeing, some sharing a story that related to the design or the animal. There were this and many other revealing moments that caused us to reflect on the importance of this work and our years spent with them, sharing our vulnerability and practicing patience and trust. The sala was ready to receive us all in communion.
The following morning, we walked into an archway adorned with freshly woven palm fronds and rows of chairs all set up and ready for the president’s opening statement and the presentation of the mural with Davis and Xapiri Ground founder Jack Wheeler. Rufina begins by acknowledging the community’s long standing commitment with Xapiri Ground over the years and most especially in the month of April with the mural integration, “I would like to thank all the community members who have put their faith in this project and when Davis had asked us to help paint the mural, as well as the students who have supported. Some children wanted to participate in painting and have collaborated even though their parents couldn't come, the children were still present.”
She was followed by some further commentary by the primary school teacher Romelia who remarked, “I am thankful to Xapiri Ground in coordination with SePerú and the community who have made a huge effort in this mural that we see which is filled with the designs from our Matsigenka culture. At times we forget about our ancestral designs. I hope that this mural can serve all of us as well as to inform our children so that they don't lose their culture.”
As you can see from the photos, all of the interior and ½ of the exterior has been realized. But this caused no dismay among the members of the community because this mural project also symbolized a way to always remind them of us at Xapiri Ground, “un recuerdo” they would say, of the last few years of our visits and integration with the children through creative workshops that linked to the storytelling tradition of the elders, the wisdom of women like Alicia with her plant knowledge, the songs of Lola, and the weaving traditions of the women there, the Matsigenka culture plays the protagonist in everything we do while the experience of learning goes both ways.
After the inauguration a football match was lined up between the male and female groups on the grassy field with large white metal goal posts. Positioned along the sidelines were long wooden planks resting on tree stumps where some adults and young mothers sat and watched the match, while a few would serve masato from their plastic pitchers taking their turns down the row until everyone had drank and the receptacles emptied. After a few matches finished, lunch would be served in the communal sala. They had set up a long wooden table in the center lined with banana leaves where they then poured onto it a cornucopia of yucca, banana, fish, grubs, rice, and jungle meats. Everyone ate with their hands on banana leaf plates and the room was filled with happy hungry bellies.
That evening, we concluded the inauguration with a screening of all the videos that we had produced for "the Storytellers" project that documented their traditional songs, instruments, plant knowledge, personal stories, creative workshops with the children, the story of masato and kashiri (the moon). It was touching to see everyone present and how the person(s) on the screen were identified from the crowd and laughter would fill the room, and even a few would people sang along to the videos. The feeling of cultural pride was evident and it filled us all with gratitude for our relationship over these years.
The evening then ended with a community dance party. Nearly every man, woman, and child were present to corroborate in the fun for what seemed like a homecoming for us at Xapiri Ground; a glow of approval on everyone’s faces and some endless sharing of masato. In these sorts of moments a vulnerability surfaces that wants to communicate more about all our different beliefs and experiences, histories and hopes, and visions for the future. And we danced until the late night hours beneath the full moon of that auspicious night in celebration of their stories as the Matsigenka.
WHAT'S NEXT AND HOW YOU CAN SUPPORT!
As mentioned above, we have yet to complete the rest of this mural project involving some basic retouching of the walls on the north west facade of the communal sala in order to continue painting this visual narrative for the Matsigenka community. We seek the funding goal of 10,000 soles (approx. USD $2,750) by end of October in order to resume work in December. We ask for your support to help the us fulfill this project. For any further questions regarding this project and your donation please feel free to send us an email to: email@example.com
We are grateful for the support of our small collective of private donors, for the ongoing alliance with the hotel Antigua Casona, for the Chacruna Institute and their contributions to our ground work, and our team at Xapiri Ground for maintaining the cultural framework upon which our commitment is rooted. We acknowledge the work of our colleague Davis Torres in leading this vision and project, we thank Felix for helping to realize that vision through painting, to maestro Roberto for preparing the surface for this amazing work, and to Jack Wheeler for your full support in organizing this project. Most especially we are so thankful to the committee of Shipetiari for the trust they’ve shown us around the work that we do and the relationships we’ve cultivated, and lastly we would like to thank all the hands big and small who without your help the colors of this mural would not be as bright!
This project is made possible through our partnership with SePerú; a non-profit organization dedicated to equal benefits and co-management of Peruvian Indigenous communities and their natural ecosystem.
Support this project so that we may continue to share and learn about the ancestral knowledge of the Matsigenka people.