Collection Explore
Essay
Ryan Clasby
on Shipibo-Conibo Ceramics of the Ucayali River, Peru
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Unrecorded Shipibo-Conibo artist
vessel for water, storage, fermentation (chomo), 20th century
earthenware, resin
Gift of Scot and Julie Cohen
2020.6.38.17

Ryan Clasby
Research Associate in Anthropology
Skidmore College

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)

info Created with Sketch. plus Created with Sketch.
Unrecorded Shipibo-Conibo artist
vessel for liquid (joni chomo), 20th century
earthenware, resin
Gift of Scot and Julie Cohen
2020.6.38.7

While there has been considerable debate as to the origins of kené designs,(6) there is no question that these patterns are intrinsically embedded within Shipibo-Conibo culture, reflective of a larger cosmological understanding of the world. In fact, despite their application to physical objects, the design patterns themselves can be considered immaterial. They are thought to be healing aids granted by protective spirits to create a type of aura or shield around an afflicted individual.(7) According to Shipibo-Conibo myth, kené is rooted in the skin patterns of the ronín, or World Anaconda, a primordial being that encircles the cosmos and which is considered the source of all designs. For healing, an afflicted individual must seek out a shaman, a position traditionally held by men within Shipibo-Conibo society. The shaman performs a ceremony that taps into the spiritual world through the use of ayahuasca, a powerful psychotropic hallucinogen, allowing him to see colorful visions and the potential design patterns of the World Anaconda that can be used for healing. With the help of protective spirits, the shaman sings a song that is thought to be an aural representation of the colorful lines, shapes, and images that he envisions. He then “paints,” or imbues the body of the afflicted individual with intangible kené designs, restoring their health.

Shipibo-Conibo women can also visualize kené patterns through their thoughts, dreams, and imaginations.(8) Unlike the intangible design patterns involved in shamanic healing sessions, women physically create their designs and apply them to material objects such as ceramics, textiles, and beads. In fact, women are almost the sole creators of physical representations of kené art on bodies and objects, making them central figures within the continuation of kené art. With respect to physical mediums, women are also responsible for the production and selling/trading of the crafts that bear the designs. As a result, Shipibo-Conibo women have often participated more than men in Western cash economies, selling their crafts to tourists and other markets within local villages as well as in large cities.(9)

Women learn the techniques for producing kené art from their mothers and close female kin.(10) These learning processes are aided by the matrilocal residential compounds that ensure close companionship and working relationships among female relatives. Women may also sometimes “learn” patterns from male shamans by tangibly creating or rendering a design that a shaman has intangibly “painted” onto an object.(11) Although the techniques and skills for producing kené art are learned, every kené pattern is thought to be individually inspired based on what the creator has seen in her dreams or imagination. In some cases, women may also use medicinal plants for inspiration.

info Created with Sketch. plus Created with Sketch.
Unrecorded Shipibo-Conibo artist
vessel for liquid (joni chomo), 20th century
earthenware, resin
Gift of Scot and Julie Cohen
2020.6.38.11

Ceramic is one of the most highly regarded kené mediums and is generally created within a small set of relatively standardized vessel forms.(12) These forms include drinking vessels (quenpó), food serving vessels (quenchá), cooking pots (quentí), beer brewing pots (mahuetá), and liquid storage vessels (chomo). A sub-form of chomo called joni chomo features a human face or faces in the vessel neck. Joni chomos represent fourteen of the seventeen vessels in the Tang collection. The joni chomos typically depict women although versions featuring men also appear. In terms of ceramic production, coiling is the preferred technique as it is thought to mimic the shape of the Cosmic Anaconda; kené patterns are then applied over the vessel surface forming its “skin.” Shipibo-Conibo pottery is generally made from local clays, resins, and tempers, although the polishing pebbles may be imported from further upstream along the Ucayali.(13) After drying and polishing the vessel, white clay slips may be added along with red and black colors.(14) Some sap-based resins are also added to create a shine or glaze.

These are just a few examples of the ways in which kené art provides important insights into Shipibo-Conibo perspectives on cosmology, health, and gender. However, kené art also stands as a reflection of the Shipibo-Conibo response to increased participation within a global economy.(15) Unlike many Indigenous communities that are facing the loss of traditional customs, external interest has helped to reinforce the production of kené art among Shipibo-Conibo women, whose knowledge continues to be passed down from generation to generation. In addition, as kené art is increasingly seen as important to the resiliency of the community and its traditions, there is greater collaboration among men and women concerning the procurement of raw materials for its production. The efforts of the Shipibo-Conibo people to satisfy increased commercial interests in kené may, over the long run, result in significant changes to the meanings and ritual significance behind the art style. Yet it is also in this fluidity that kené can be utilized to represent the social conditions of the Shipibo-Conibo people as their position within Peruvian society and the world changes. In fact, Shipibo-Conibo artists are increasingly using kené along with contemporary forms of art as a means of shedding light on their culture and the issues that they face.(16) As the Amazon is increasingly under threat from problems of pandemics, deforestation, resource extraction, and land encroachment, kené stands to play a powerful role in future discourse.

  1. Alaka Wali and J. Claire Odland, “Introduction to the Volume,” in The Shipibo-Conibo: Culture and Collections in Context, Fieldiana Anthropology 45 (November 11, 2016): 1–5.
  2. Ibid; Peter Roe, The Cosmic Zygote: Cosmology in the Amazon Basin (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1982), 36–39.
  3. Wali and Odlan, “Introduction to the Volume.”
  4. Angelika Gebhart-Sayer, The Cosmos Encoiled: Indian Art of the Peruvian Amazon (New York: Center for Inter-American Relations, 1984); Angelika Gebhart-Sayer, “The Geometric Designs of the Shipibo-Conibo in Ritual Context,” Journal of Latin American Lore, 11, no. 2 (1985): 143–175.
  5. Luisa Elvira Belaunde, “Kené: Shipibo-Conibo Design,” in The Shipibo-Conibo: Culture and Collections in Context, Fieldiana Anthropology 45 (2016): 81–92.
  6. Peter G. Roe, “Marginal Men: Male Artists among the Shipibo Indians of Peru,” Anthropologica 21, no. 2 (1979): 189–221; see also Donald Lathrap, The Upper Amazon (Ancient Peoples and Places) (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1970); J. Scott Raymond, Warren R. DeBoer, and Peter G. Roe, Cumancaya: A Peruvian Ceramic Tradition (Calgary: University of Calgary, Department of Archaeology, 1975); Warren DeBoer and J. Scott Raymond, “Roots Revisited: The Origins of the Shipibo Art Style,” Journal of Latin American Lore 13, no. 1 (1987): 115–132; Donald Lathrap, Thomas Meyers, Angelika Gehbart-Sayer, and Ann Mester, “Further Discussion of the Roots of the Shipibo Art Style: A Rejoinder to DeBoer and Raymond,” Journal of Latin American Lore 13, no. 2 (1987): 225–271.
  7. Gebhart-Sayer, The Cosmos Encoiled; Gebhart-Sayer, “The Geometric Designs”; Belaunde, “Kené.”
  8. Ibid.
  9. Roe, The Cosmic Zygote, 43.
  10. Gebhart-Sayer, The Cosmos Encoiled; Gebhart-Sayer, “The Geometric Designs”; Belaunde, “Kené.”
  11. Gebhart-Sayer, The Cosmos Encoiled, 7.
  12. J. Clair Odland and Ronald Weber, “Shipibo-Conibo Material Culture: Textiles and Ceramics in the Field Museum Collections,” in The Shipibo-Conibo: Culture and Collections in Context, Fieldiana Anthropology, 45 (2016): 63–80.
  13. Roe, The Cosmic Zygote.
  14. Odland and Weber, “Shipibo-Conibo Material Culture.”
  15. Nancy Gardner Feldman, “Evolving Communities: Aspects of Shipibo and Andean Art, Textiles, and Practice in Contemporary Peru,” in The Shipibo-Conibo: Culture and Collections in Context, Fieldiana Anthropology, 45 (2016): 51–60.
  16. Ibid.

Cite this page

Clasby, Ryan. “Ryan Clasby on Shipibo-Conibo Ceramics of the Ucayali River, Peru.” Tang Teaching Museum collections website. Last modified April 16, 2021. https://tang.skidmore.edu/collection/explore/264-ryan-clasby.

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Inspired by the exhibition 3-D Doings: The Imagist Object in Chicago Art, 1964-1980
The Tang Pattern Project celebrates the Museum’s 20th anniversary. Organized by Head of Design Jean Tschanz-Egger, past and current Tang Design Interns created patterns inspired by the Museum’s exhibition and event history.