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Water vessel in the form of a woman

Shipibo ainbo chomo (water vessel in the form of a woman)
ca. 1965
San Francisco de Yarinacocha, Peru
Clay, paint
23 x 28 cm
Collected by Mrs. Nicole H. Maxwell

“The intricate geometric designs are derived from the visions of murayá (shamans). Visions of these designs fill the murayá’s mind’s eye and are used by murayá for curing and combating enemies.”
—Bahuan Mëtsa, knowledge keeper, San Francisco de Yarinacocha

The Shipibo of the Ucayali River, a southern tributary of the Upper Amazon in Peru, produce some of the finest polychrome prefire slip-painted earthenware pottery in the world.1 These ceramics, like the small water vessel (ainbo chomo) shown here, embody a unique tempering technology that took more than ten millennia to perfect. The process transforms their vessels’ clay paste into a high tensile-strength composite material, allowing Shipibo ceramists to create the largest, thinnest, coil-built, complex-silhouette vessels in the Native Americas. The Shipibo are also notable in that they are one of the few indigenous groups in which the primary artists are women,2 and whose principal rite of passage is a spectacular female, not male, puberty ceremony.3 Shipibo women are also famous for creating cotton textiles woven in multiple colors, adorned with striking painted and embroidered designs.4

Shipibo art appears in multimedia covered with intricate, bilaterally symmetrical geometric designs in a baroque trilevel style.4 The upper level, executed first, consists of broad formlines in rectilinear (pontëquënëya) and curvilinear (mayaquënëya) patterns; it is enhanced by secondary parallel finelines and tertiary intricate filler elements. Each design is unique, and insightful artistry is highly valued. The artist’s inspiration is aided by covering her eyelids with the leaves of a colorfully veined iponquënë plant—named after a small but complexly patterned armor-headed catfish—in an effort to absorb their intricate tracery, as well as by dreams and visions. The designs originally derived from the hallucinogenic visions of male and rare post-menopausal female shamans using ayahuasca (or nishi), a psychotropic tea derived from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, and strong tobacco (romë rao).6

In mythic times these patterns covered everything—the sky, trees, huts, people, animals, et cetera—in a continuous tissue of design. But due to the misdeeds of failed protohumans, this idyllic union ruptured and differentiated into floating, superimposed planes: Nëtë ŝhama (the sky world), Mai (the earth world), and Jënë ŝhama (the subaquatic underworld). Simultaneously, periodicity (day and night, or time), mortality, and speciation appeared.7 And the geometric lineaments ruptured. Now they appear only on specific design fields, such as the upper parts of fineware pottery, people’s faces, or the blades of war clubs. All these designs are pre-existent; the artist has only to grasp and fix them in her mind (shinan picotai, “the thoughts emerge”), lay them over the design field, and cut where they match that field, letting the rest of the design fade back into invisibility. The visible design remains as a window into the vast reticulate intricacy of the universe.8

The people of the Upper Amazon today are under severe pressure from the surrounding Spanish-speaking mestizo population, commercial fishermen who have depleted the rivers and lakes of fish, turtles, and manatees, ruining the environment and destroying the Shipibo’s subsistence base. The financial return from the tourist market,9 largely the product of women’s arts—textiles, jewelry, and pottery—is proving ever more crucial to buy the food, medicine, and access to Western education that will allow the Shipibo to survive in the modern world.10 But their beautiful polychrome pots are more than a source of income: they are little portable versions of their triple-tiered universe.11

—Peter Roe, University of Delaware; and Bahuan Mëtsa (Manuel Rengifo Barbaran, Shipibo), knowledge keeper, San Francisco de Yarinacocha

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  2. Roe, “Marginal men.”
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  5. Roe, “Marginal men.”
  6. There are at least two classes of shamans who use ayahuasca: onaya and the higher-level muraya.
  7. Roe, “Panó Huëtsa Nëtë.”
  8. Heath, “Una ventana hacia el infinito.”
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