The upper Amazonian basin is a place of myth and mystery. For most, it is a vast terra incognita, perceived as disconnected from the better-known ancient cultures of the Peruvian Andes and coastal deserts. For the Shipibo-Conibo Indians, this riverine world, the headwaters of the Amazon, has been home for at least 1000 years and perhaps much longer. Here, amid the constantly shifting rivers and streams, the rich alluvial soils and abundant natural resources, they developed a complex culture and an artistic style unique in the Americas. This exhibition explores the remarkable ceramics they produced, which mirrored their cosmology and sense of themselves.
The Shipibo-Conibo concept of surface designs corresponds to the Western concept of horror vacui. Every surface was a format for the presentation of encoded motifs that linked the Shipibo and Conibo Indians to their ancient culture. The enormous beer fermentation vessels, the focus of this exhibition, are covered with labyrinthine designs; complex, unpredictable, interwoven, geometric patterns that suggest, to the 21st century eye, computer chip circuitry. The designs on the robust shoulders of the pots are a maze of interplay between line, negative space, light and dark – dazzling in their complexity and craft.
As with many pre-industrial societies, pottery making was the domain of woman. During the seasonal dry season they made gigantic, thin-walled earthenware vessels – the mining and preparation of clay itself a prodigious achievement – for the brewing of beer to be consumed at communal festivals. Before firing, the massive jars were painstakingly painted with the characteristic complex designs unique to the Shipibo-Conibo. They are, arguably, the most impressive historic aboriginal ceramics of the Western Hemisphere.
This exhibition of approximately twenty traditional vessels, dating from the 1940’s through the 1970’s, represents the twilight of this aspect of Shipibo-Conibo culture. Increased exposure to mainstream Peruvian culture, emigration of men to salary-based work outside the Shipibo-Conibo area, and the activities of Christian missionaries have eroded the traditions and ceremonies that once ratified the production and use of the great vessels. Pottery production continues among the Shipibo-Coniba Indians but increasingly is directed to the production of urban and tourist wares.