by Christopher Agostino
The intricate rectilinear and curvilinear designs that cover the faces, clothing, houses, ceramics and other objects of the cultures on the Ucayali River of the upper Amazon in Peru derive from the origin of the world, when everything in the universe was covered with such lines in a continuous unified design. The original patterns were lost, or obscured, due to misdeeds of failed proto-humans, but they are still present everywhere if one can see them. Male shamans can reclaim the patterns through hallucinogenic visions and relay them to artists who bring them back into the world through the decorations they create on objects. The women artists are aided in realizing the intricate patterns by placing the colorfully veined leaf of the iponquene plant over their eyelids before they start — the plant is named after a complexly patterned armor-headed catfish. These harmonious designs are associated with human cultivation and prosperity. In rituals, shamans can sing the tunes of songs from this labyrinth of lines.
How’s that for “the story behind the faces”, huh? And it is a story that keeps growing, as I encounter additional information about these cultures, the Shipibo, Conibo and Stetebo, which are related cultures in the headwaters region of the upper Amazon. The story above is pieced together from the Marks of Identity exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/bodyart/index.html , from the information in the book Body Decoration by Karl Gröning (see “Books” page on this blog), and from the current Infinity of Nations exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian http://www.nmai.si.edu/exhibitions/infinityofnations/
The Infinity of Nations exhibit (which spoke specifically of the Shipibo) added some fascinating pieces to the puzzle. For one, that women are the primary artists, which is rare amongst indigenous cultures, and that bit about how they put a leaf on their eyelids to enhance their ability to make the patterns — which fit in so perfectly with the previous information I’d gleaned about the connection between these patterns and cultivation. It also described the technical process of creating the distinct glossy appearance of their pottery, which is achieved not by a fired glaze, but rather by coating the pot with a special tree resin while it is still hot from the kiln so that the resin fuses with the clay surface.
Like so many native cultures, their traditional lifestyle has been disrupted by the modern world, as commercial fishing companies have moved in to their region and harvested so much of the fish that the Shipibo can no longer feed themselves (as relayed by a member of the tribe in a film at the exhibit). They have turned increasingly to selling ceramics and attracting tourism as a way to survive. Do a Google Image search of “Shipibo” and it leads primarily to sites that sell their pottery, along with images of them in costume and with decorated faces on tourist adventure sites. The exhibit also points out that this need to create a market for their ceramics has altered the style of their work and led them to producing more decorative objects and less utilitarian ones. So much of what we see when we look at the art of traditional cultures is created under the influence of the modern world.
The intricacy of geometric patterning on all these objects remains remarkable. After first seeing it in the Natural History Museum exhibit in 1999 I tried to paint a few faces like this at events, without good results. Partly because I had to work too quickly for that level of detail, but also because I didn’t quite understand the formula. I had a similar experience when I first tried to imitate Southeast Nuba face designs. It wasn’t until I’d read an anthropologist’s account of the design process that I could then follow that process to create my own designs in that style. The text on the Infinity of Nations website includes a description of the process the Shipibo artists follow, so I am going to give it another try.
They start by laying in the primary, heavier lines in a pattern that is always symmetrical and “infinitely expandable in any direction” (now there’s a challenge), then they add a secondary set of smaller lines and finally the very fine lines that fill in the pattern. I note in the examples that only the primary lines are completely symmetrical, the others are not.
One thing I have always retained from my initial exposure to this unique cultural art is the concept that you can sing the design on someone’s face.
- Shipibo Shaman Benjamin Ochavano Interview (shamanism.wordpress.com)
- Shamans of Peru – Ceremonial Chants, Icaros, and Music CD (shamanism.wordpress.com)