TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Maze in the Amazon: The Shipibo-Conibo Path in Textiles

I first learned about the Shipibo through their beautiful ceramics. Fine black lines create mazes of pattern on white backgrounds, framed by the red tierra cotta clay. As I was exposed to more of their work, I saw that those designs were also abundant in their textiles, as facial tattoos and as wall art on the outside of their houses.

A Different Approach carries Shipibo pottery wholesale.
They are a fair trade organization that support many pottery
efforts in Central and South America.

Many authors refer to the Shipibo in conjunction with another indigenous group, the Conibo, as one people, the Shipibo-Conibo, as the two have merged through intermarriage. They live along the Amazon River and its tributaries in small villages, although many cities like Iquitos and Lima now have Shipibo communities as well. Estimates number the population at 35,000 people in 300 villages. As with most indigenous groups around the world, the Shipibo-Conibo face the old story of displacement due to logging (Cultural Survival has an article about mahogany culling in the region), climate change, and assimilation into the mainstream popular culture. Yet, they have been able to find a better balance than many other groups through their profound knowledge of medicinal herbs, shamanism, and production of handicrafts and textiles.

Several permaculture efforts have networked with them in an effort to help them produce better foods locally, decreasing their dependency on trade. Ecoversity describes some of the challenges they have experienced in reaching remote communities while other less isolated groups have enjoyed significant gains through participating in events such as the Santa Fe International Art Market.

Photo by Howard G. Charing
See his pdf article, Communion with the Infinite, for more information
on the textiles and their spiritual significance.

Shipibo-Conibo textiles are closely connected to their religious context. The World Culture Encyclopedia has a page description of Shipibo belief. Boiled down to one paragraph, they believe that spirits or gods live up in the sky which can be accessed by the "vegetalista" or herbalist (shaman). Western medicine is fine for treating diseases of the flesh, but the vegetalista will know how to cure the spiritual maladies. Shipibo cosmology translates itself into art through the vision of being part of a larger whole. Dan James Pantone, Ph.D., has an excellent article which explains some of this dynamic. I thought this insight was especially interesting:

"The art form of the Shipibos is little understood by the outside world. To the artists, is not something that they are taught, rather they are inspired to create their distinctive patterns. The women, rather than the men in the village, are the artists. Commonly the women will work together to produce a single piece. Each of the women seems to be moved by the same artistic spirit and one woman can interrupt her work and then assign another woman in the village to complete a particular piece. When the artwork is finished, the resulting piece will look like it was made by a single artist. This really is communal art at its finest."

Photo by Lorna Li

It reminds me a bit of quilting bees, yet if you watch how these textiles are made, it's a little more abstract in design than most quilting patterns. The textiles also call up Aborigine work to me. Instead of dots marking a pathway, lines move you through the piece.

Vintage 1960's Shipibo Textile, by Patina Green

There are two main forms of the textiles, both very different in their final impact. The simple white and black textiles are painted with vegetable dyes, resulting in stark geometric contrasts. The second uses embroidery. Although the patterns are also geometric, the use of color introduces the potential for walking on the wild side of the maze. Designs may explode with clashing oranges and blues, while others may bring calm and a sense of peace with greens and purples.

"This is the "Wayvana" pattern:
the wavy lines mimicking each other are people eating together
underneath a tree (the little square in the middle)." Willem Malten

Sabine Rittner, of Heidelberg, Germany, spent several months with the Shipibo in 2005. Coming from a music therapy background, she researched how the vegetalista or shaman approached healing in their context. She quotes:

`Every human being possesses a body pattern that is formed by his energy flow and is not visible to the average villager but to the shaman. When the competent and experienced shaman uses the plant in question, then he gets insights into a patient's energy field and flow of life force, energetic disturbances and blockades. Shipibo shamans say that the ayahuasqua drink helps them to see through a patient's body, like x-rays. However, they see neither skeleton nor organs but rather the disturbances and blockades in energetic balance. The exact site of the illness may be located in this way. The ayahuasqua plant permits shamans also to contact the spirit world. Above all the so-called `masters of powerful trees' support a shaman in his therapeutic work. These patterns resemble the style of the patterns we admire on earthen vessels and textiles. But according to the shamans' descriptions they are much finer and more complex. If a person falls ill in the course of his life this becomes visible in an imbalance, a distortion, an unclearness or agitation of his body pattern. Ayahuasca helps a shaman to see the pattern and evaluate it. He tries to reconstruct the pattern through songs transmitted to him in his ayahuasca induced state by the masters of the trees. For the Shipibo these songs are sacred and healing, they are also called `pattern medicine'. When a shaman sings his therapeutic song, then rhythm and intensity of the song show their effects in a patient's body pattern. While the shaman's healing song leaves the breath of his mouth in a linear and rhythmic flow, it forms a fine pattern that becomes embedded in the patient's body and causes harmony in the energy balance and the mind.' (From: Gebhard-Sayer/Illius, 1991).

She concludes her fascinating article with a note on what she learned:

"Everything I tried to present in this paper is the result of momentary impressions. Despite written versions of the Shipibo language, theirs is an oral culture living in the flow of `improvisation', that is, being recreated all the time. There is the continuity of a common history, a tradition passed on in tales, myths, shapes, colours and music. But this is the art of creation that lives anew every day, every moment, with each listener. The stories told in ethnological books are, strictly speaking, only true in the moment of telling, not for the next day, not for the next ayahuasquero, not for the next village. It was a lesson and a challenge for me to discuss with the Shipibo this kind of `permanent impermanence' that has more contradictions than consistencies.

My intention was not to idealize the Shipibo culture. Notwithstanding our postmodern longing for the `original' and `authentic', the life of the Shipibo is full of existential problems, with unbelievable material poverty and tremendous social wealth. I am deeply grateful to them for accepting me as a guest and permitting me insights into their everyday lives and spiritual healing traditions."

On that note, perhaps we should all give up some thanks for our own roles as guests on this earth and for our impermanent contributions to the maze we each walk in.

Here are some Shipibo products available on Amazon and Novica:



  1. It's so interesting learning about different cultures through your blog.

    I adore the "Wayvana" pattern...and the symbolism.

  2. this is fascinating -- I've been wanting to write about shamanism and textiles, so I'm very happy to see you've tackled this intriguing topic. Thank you!


“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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