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CARTELA maya maya bainkin 150 X 250 cm.jpg

If it was through Europe’s colonial expansion that art collecting­­—likewise botany and gardening—took off, what might it mean to engage with indigenous contemporary art at this present moment? Given that the has been an allegorical as well as material handmaiden of empire, embedded in the Western worldview, providing the moral rationalizations for the seizure of Indigenous wealth as ethnographic or folkloric art for consumption, how might an exhibit unscramble the deliberate and institutionalized apartheid that has separated Indigenous art from the contemporary setting? For long Indigenous art has existed under the indelible mark of the violence of history whilst incessantly reinventing itself through unique efforts of personal creativity. Today, Native, First Nations, and Aboriginal practitioners animate contemporary art in an increasingly pro-active way transforming the nature of Institutional Critique and cultural production. The conditions for this shift are maturing belatedly but are timely too in so far as the Western way in a frantic quest for its lost soul copes with the reality of the climate emergency it has created, while its cannibalistic voracity has begun to induce planetary nausea.


Declared Peruvian National Cultural Heritage, Shipibo-Konibo art or kené as it is named in the Panoan languagesis one of the most sophisticated functioning art styles of the Americas, characterized by designs of intricate exactitude in infinite varieties. The whole world used to be covered with designssays a Shipibo song, evoking an idealistic archetype that must be strived for. The Shipibo distinguish between menin, the craft side of art making, and shinan, its creative aspect, a visionary imagination but also strength, energy, alertness, a good memory, spiritual presence and, indeed, the very essence of life, for to die means shinan-nanqui (the thinking flees). Balanced between a cultural imperative for personal innovation and submission to the constraints of ancestral ways, the artists, activists, and healers featured in this exhibition master both menin and shinan generating realities that exist in visible and invisible forms, tapping into the ideals of an elaborate tradition to re-invent Indigenous possibilities for the future.


According to the Shipibo, kené was revealed to women alongside the use of vegetal technologies (plant medicine) and the norms of conviviality epitomized by the order of the designs. A series of interwoven myths attribute these teachings to different otherworldly beings somehow superimposed on one another. Most notable among them is the cosmic anaconda Ronín, ruler of the waters, mother of all mothers, and lunar creator of the world after the primordial Great Deluge—whose skin contains all conceivable designs. Alternatively, the knowledge of kené is owed to the plant-teachers themselves, piripiri and ayahuasca in particular whose twisted vine embodies the serpent’s second self. Kené often references the musical patterns of shamanic songs, or íkaros, and is thought of as healing design or a kind of “design medicine”, in the Shipibo language described under the symbolic designation of ronín rao (anaconda-medicine). In ways that mobilize the transformative properties of art, certain diseases are thought to be caused by harmful designs that must be unraveled and re-imprinted with orderly ones. Alongside ayahuasca and other plants, the íkaro is the agent that triggers the makeover. Whatever a curing chant does to the patient’s body after having faded away in its sonic manifestation, it is said to continue working there, by assuming the form of a geometric pattern that penetrates and settles in order to bring about the spiritual transformation of a treatment. 


"Maya maya banking..." goes the refrain of an íkaro that evokes a form of moving forward by means of a reptilian sinuous movement of twisting and turning. Perhaps an appropriate reference for paths that may help us break from the ethnographic paradigms without necessarily embracing the dynamics of contemporary art, still so much a part of the colonial present. A broader comprehension of Shipibo aesthetics, medicine and ecological practice clears the way for “cosmological rehabilitation”—which is to accept Indigenous cosmovision as philosophical and political theory—in terms that today more than ever are urgent, as the linear imperative of progress and growth has brought the planet to the brink of catastrophe. 

​Therefore, all these bending lines covering every single piece included in this exhibition are not just about a flat image, but rather a surface-breaking portal into the Shipibo multiverse, where the order of kené designs is to be understood as a visual manifesto; a commitment to the core values of Indigenous ethics, and to protocols of conviviality, reciprocity, and kinship that extends beyond the human to animal, plant, land, and water. This implies an understanding that the work of art, the work of environmental and social justice, and the struggle towards Indigenous sovereignty cannot be separated; they must move forward on the same path. ​As a result, kené designs become charged politically, as an emblem of artistic activism. They are on the flag waving over the visions of a unified Shipibo Nation; and the healing power of the patterns now extends to the territorial dimension.

The Regional Organization of the Indigenous Guard has been officially formed in 2022 through the mediation and confirmation (oath) of the representative organization of the Shipibo people, COSHIKOX. But the precedents for the Guardias go deeper into the history of Shipibo self-organized communal protection of territories, as well as other similar formations initiated by other indigenous peoples such as Ashaninka and Cacataibo. These formations actually have proven to be indispensable forms of self-governance and territorial defense, especially in remote places marked by the absence of the state. For this installation, the boots arranged in the design shape of a kené represent the arduous task of walking the boundaries of the territory through dense foliage in order to check for marks of entrance and invasion, relinking a creative act to the labor, the effort, and the risk of keeping the territory safe.

Inka Mea (aka Virgínia Maynas Piñón) was born in the community of Vista Alegre de Pachitea in the Iparia district, but for the better part of her life she lived and worked in San Francisco de Yarinacocha, where she is still revered as a kikin ainbo, a woman of impeccable upbringing and custom, and for the quality of her ceramics. According to Shipibo understanding, people like artifacts must be made. This is particularly true for artists, for which craftsmanship becomes a moral imperative and the ability to create art that convey social messages of care and attention becomes central to defining oneself. Shipibo art is a lifelong highly ritualized practice. Master artists of the generations of Inka Mea, conceived and carried out their work as shamans, exercising spiritual and physical discipline, preparing solemnly for several days, much like curers would do, by fasting, abstaining from sex and specific foods, chanting and blowing tobacco to propitiate the firing of the ceramics and imbue them with good intention and spirit. In order to distinguish oneself from the brute and maintain the delicate state of harmonious affective social relations, which individual, community and environmental health depend on, great undertaking, self-mastery and abnegation must be exercised. Until quite recently the procedures of of joni-ati or “person making” entailed radical expressions that went far beyond the body art of the characteristic outfit, hairstyle, piercings and temporary kené tattoos still in usage today. Newborns were in fact subjected to the pancháke or cranial deformation by wearing the bwetaneti, a small press consisting of two wooden slats and a clay pad tied with a woven girdle around the head. These splints progressively tightened up for months until the ossification of the fontanel completed served to gently compress the forehead and the occiput to give an oblong shape to the skull and therefore a widened “design field” for kené, and a coiffure of cut bangs that does not obscure the forehead designs. As this practice felt into disuse after being reproached by missionaries, Inka Mea with her superb joni chomos (vessels with andromorphic face) and their distinctive portraiture made of this “Inca” ideal of beauty the focus of her work.

Inka Mea is the artist who contributed the most to the notorious collection reunited by ORDESH (Organismo de Desarrollo Shipibo) and shown in Brussels in 1979 and that then itinerated to Zaragoza (Spain), Montpellier, Lyon (France) and Lausanne (Switzerland) between 1981 and 1983 introducing Shipibo ceramic art to the West. She died without daughters nor apprentices. 

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