Known for the intricate artwork adorning their ceremonial and quotidian artifacts, the Shipibo-Conibo peoples have traditionally been found in the most remote parts of the Amazon river basin. Even with access to the developed world increasing daily, the tribes have maintained a culture rooted in their home environment. Every aspect of their lives is influenced by the natural world, and by a conviction that how they journey through this life affects the next.
The Shipibo-Conibo are perhaps best known for their use of ayahuasca (banisteriopsis caapi). This sacred vine, found throughout the region, reaches through the jungle, from its earthen floor to its sunlit canopy. In the symbol system of the Shipibo-Conibo, it connects the earth and the universe. By drinking a tea made from the plant, the tribe members enter an enlightened state of consciousness, where they can see the patterns of the universe inherent in all matter.
The intricate patterns they see, while complicated, are ordered and often symmetrical. They are thought to represent the patterns of our being and the integrated system of life in our universe. The geometric lines represent the order of our cosmos which is repeated for all eternity across the many facets of our being - rivers working their way through the world, stars trekking across the night sky, the veins of the universe. The patterns reflect the energy that is the giver of all life.
Shipibo-Conibo women are the primary artists of this tribe. As young girls, piri piri drops (cyperus articulatus) are placed in their eyes. This allows them to remember the patterns the ayahuasca shows them. Because the patterns are revealed to the users of ayahuasca, and are not something merely created, those who can see them share the same vision. This results in each finished piece, even though a single set of hands has created it, delivering an image all artisans recognize and understand, as they have seen the same unique pattern the universe has assigned to the objects being adorned. No two pieces of Shipibo-Conibo art are the same, just as no two objects or beings are exactly the same. Each piece represents its own unique aspect of the universal order.
In many tribal environments, resources are scarce and material possessions are limited to items necessary for survival – both physical and spiritual. The Shipibo-Conibo are no exception to this. In an effort to express their unique take on our cosmos, their artwork has been integrated into their daily lives by being applied to a wide variety of goods from traditional low-fire terra cotta pots, to painted cloths and embroidered textiles. Ceremonial pieces include anatomically correct human images: the complex patterns of life are tattooed across their ceramic torsos. As their exposure to the rest of the world increases, the tribeswomen have started to produce items solely for sale to the tourists who visit the Amazonian villages. But the sacred nature of their work remains, so far, central to their way of life.
As much as we may hope to understand the culture and vision of the Shipibo-Conibo, the true meaning of their adornment remains somewhat of a mystery to the world outside of the Amazon rainforest. All we can do is enjoy the work that reaches us from their remote homelands, and marvel at their skill and creative inspiration.
Fine Shipibo-Conibo work can be found in the shops of knowledgeable retailers in Lima such as Las Pallas in Barranco, Tierra y Agua in Miraflores and Martin Ccorisapra in San Juan de Lurigancho. HAND/EYE Deputy Editor Colvin English consults with handcraft artisans around the globe on developing their businesses and reaching new markets. He has worked in Peru for the last decade.