The complex design system that permeates the Shipibo-Conibo art – or kené in the Shipibo language – is not only one of the most important codes within the inhabitants of the Ucayali River basin, but an element that differentiates them from other pre-Columbian cultures.
What sets apart the Shipibo-Conibo design from other cultures is the source of inspiration: it is accessed through the acquisition of own knowledge and the visions received during the ceremonies of Ayahuasca and other power plants, called “rao“. According to Shipibo thinking, these visions are a materialization of positive energy, called “koshi“, which is not visible to the human eye, but can manifest in flamboyant colorful patterns through the intake of medicinal plants. These visions are also an essential element in traditional shamanic healing.
According to the Shipibo-Conibo tradition, when these designs are applied to different elements, they are endowed with great healing powers. Therefore, the kené not only embellishes but heals people and things with the light and energy of the plants. That is to say, in the material and immaterial, kené aesthetics and medicine merge.
The complexity of these designs is not just an element of art, but it summarizes the entire Shipibo cosmovision, the knowledge, and the aesthetics of an entire people. Such is the importance of kené that it has been declared cultural heritage by the Peruvian National Institute of Culture, in April 2008.
Kené designs are mainly made by women. Unlike other cultures in which shamanism is exclusive to men, Shipibo-Conibo women can not only access Ayahuasca ceremonies but can also develop in the art of healing and reach the highest level in shamanism – Meraya.
Different methods are used to trace the kené, one of them is with natural dyes that are applied with wood chips or brushes. This method is usually used to decorate fabrics, ceramics, wood, leather, weapons, and even the human body. Kené can also be reflected on embroideries and large looms, wood carvings, hand-made ceramics, as well as crowns, necklaces, and bracelets made of multicolored beads.
Women begin to prepare themselves as young girls in the Shipibo art of kené, for this, they spend many hours with their female relatives observing the work they perform. They are also ritually prepared to acquire the gift of visualization. The ritual consists of the application of Piri Piri (tropical sedge that grows along the Amazon river) drops in their eyes and in the navel. It is considered that the ritual not only contributes to enhancing visualization skills but also improves dexterity in the layout of the designs. It should be noted that women do not use any tools to trace or measure the designs they make, they do not make any type of sketch or previous “draft”, so to say. They simply place themselves in front of the object and begin to create kené – whether it is painting, embroidering, or sculpting – as they imagine it at the moment. In recent times, more and more men are seen specializing in the art of kené.
KENÉ AND SHAMANIC PRACTICE
The kené can also be sung, in this way, an even deeper connection between this art and shamanic practice is opened. During an Ayahuasca ceremony, the designs can be seen, touched, heard and sung by both the shaman and all the participants, further strengthening the link between beauty and health.
In the healing process, the shaman can see, hear and smell the designs of the participants, that is their light and their energy. A person who enjoys good physical, mental and emotional health, will have perfumed airs and colorful light designs, while who is not in good health has lost his designs and is surrounded by “dark bad airs” (jakónma wíso níwebo), but these evils will be cleansed by the shaman so that the person can return to receive his designs and fresh airs.
In this sense, the process of shamanic healing is like the art of painting the energetic body of the person, and this act of restorative painting is performed with the chant of the shaman. The design guides the voice and the voice paints the design. Some people call ícaros the “painted songs”.
It is also important to note that the shaman does not create his own designs, he has dieted a number of power plants and therefore their codes have been revealed, which are considered much more beautiful than the painted designs. During the Ayahuasca ceremony, the shaman can recover those codes, see their designs and sing their songs.
It is said that all the designs of the energy of the plants originate in the “mother” of the Ayahuasca and the waters, in the primordial anaconda ronin.
In Yosi Ocha, we have a collection of Shipibo art objects that are part of the permanent collection of the Merayas ancestors. They are pieces of great cultural value and energetic power that we use in our rituals.