Research Associate in Anthropology
As a specialist in Amazonian archaeology, I was excited to learn that the Tang Teaching Museum had recently received a donation of seventeen painted Shipibo-Conibo ceramic vessels. While the Amazon rainforest is frequently discussed in terms of its environmental importance, its people and their cultural achievements are often ignored or downplayed, especially in comparison to other areas of the world. Nevertheless, the Amazon has a rich cultural history with a diverse set of artistic traditions that speak to the lives and belief systems of the people who produced and continue to produce them. The Shipibo-Conibo people of the Peruvian Amazon have especially been recognized for the complex geometric patterns they apply to their bodies and material culture (ceramics, textiles, wood, beads, etc.). Referred to in the Shipibo-Conibo language as kené, these patterns provide important insights into Shipibo-Conibo life, particularly as it relates to cosmology, health, and gender.
The Shipibo-Conibo consist of two closely related Indigenous groups that primarily occupy the middle section of the Ucayali River in Peru, a major tributary of the Amazon River that flows north along the edge of densely forested eastern Andes. They represent one of the largest Indigenous groups within Amazonian South America at roughly 35,000 people.(1) The villages, which are typically organized in linear fashion along the banks of the Ucayali and its major tributaries, are defined by matrilocal residential compounds composed of several (semi-)open-air houses occupied by the matriarch, her daughters, and their spouses and children.(2) Subsistence patterns are based around small-scale farming as well as hunting, fishing, and foraging of local forest and riverine resources.(3)
Kené art consists of curvilinear and rectangular lines arranged in symmetrical patterns. The lines vary in thickness, are uniformly spaced, and follow rules of horror vacui.(4) Kené can be broken into two substyles, canoa and quene, which may appear independently or together on an object, in separate horizontal frames. Canoa are thick, block-like compositions in bold lattices arranged in positive/negative patterns while quene are compositions of angled or curvilinear lines. Quene patterns are comprised of form (primary) lines that provide a framework for the design, finer secondary lines that parallel the form lines, and tertiary lines (also very fine) that fill in the remaining blank space. Lines are typically ended by a small motif or shape filled in with a solid color. A composite Kené image often features broader motifs (crosses, humans, heads, eyes, wings, birds, etc.) that are repeated within the frame. These motifs, however, are not simply representations of beings and objects but rather act as symbols for highly abstract concepts or ideas. In some cases, the motifs are viewed as pathways for understanding larger cosmological concepts or for recalling memories of events or past ancestors.(5)