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Fungal Inspiration from the Amazon: Unveiling the Artistic Legacy of the Shipibo-Konibo Women

Updated: Apr 28

Nestled along the banks of the majestic Ucayali River in the Peruvian Amazon lies the indigenous community of the Shipibo-Konibo people. Spanning at least 150 small villages, this ethnic group has cultivated a communal way of life, characterized by extended family groups, over many generations. Although once considered separate communities, the Shipibos, Konibos, and Xetebo have amalgamated into a unified collective over the years.

The name "Shipibo-Konibo" finds its roots in their native language, referring to the terms "monkey" and "fish." According to oral tradition, the Shipibo-Konibo used to adorn their foreheads, chins, and entire mouths with a natural black dye, resembling a monkey known as "shipi." Today, the members of this community embrace this designation without considering it derogatory, reclaiming it with pride.

However, perhaps their most distinctive feature arises not from their origin or name, but from the art they have cultivated over centuries, making it one of the most representative forms of art in the Peruvian jungle. Their textiles, ceramics, jewelry, and carvings leave tourists visiting the region speechless.

Shipibo art is characterized by its geometric shapes and vibrant color palette, especially in its textiles. The "Kené," the name of their design system, traditionally appears in various forms, such as on faces, bodies, external walls of ceramics, textiles, shamans' crowns, bead bands, oars, and other wooden pieces.

According to Shipibo accounts, some artists, primarily women, create these pieces after consuming ayahuasca, envisioning designs they later incorporate into their works.

In an effort to share stories about the Fungal Kingdom and the work of a group of Shipibo-Konibo women from the San Francisco de Yarinacocha community in Pucallpa, documentary photographer and self-taught mycologist Sebastián Enriquez spent time with these artisans who embroider Kené textiles, authentic and unique works of art.

Their designs represent the Kono Nete, or the World of Mushrooms, symbolizing the deep connection between the Shipibo-Konibo people and fungi, particularly the Psilocybe Mushroom. During food harvesting tasks, Shipibo adults used to consume these mushrooms for extra energy and also shared them with their children to alleviate tiredness, hunger, and thirst during long days on the farms.

The Kené is much more than a simple visual design; it represents the internal energy of all living beings and reflects the visions experienced during their sacred rituals. These sacred designs are cultural values and spiritual expressions passed down through many generations, integral to the ancient way of life of the Shipibo-Konibo people. The Shipibo believe that Kené embroidered cloths possess healing properties for the spaces in which they are placed and the people who inhabit them.

Enriquez - who spent many years documenting social issues, human rights, and the environment - also founded Revolución Fungi, a movement and community project aimed at integrating fungi into people's daily lives through research, conservation, and promotion of these organisms.

Thanks to his work, Peru will have its first Field Guide to Mushrooms, and it first Fungi festival, Revolución Fungi Fest. In addition, the art of the Shipibo artisans is available through Revolución Fungi's networks and also on the official website of the documentary Fantastic Fungi, where Kené embroideries and mushroom-carved maracas made by them can be acquired. "They had no craft on their website; this is the first one from Amazonian communities, so I feel very honored to have been able to expand this important story," says Sebastián. "Many of them live in what the West calls extreme poverty. The idea is to support their art and make it known, and what better way than if it represents the Fungal Kingdom. In these indigenous communities, men primarily hold the money and manage it because they are the ones who hunt, fish, harvest, and conduct the majority of business, while women are responsible for the home, caring for children and the elderly, and primarily engage in crafts. With the little income they generate, they manage to achieve some financial independence."

Shipibo culture is deeply rooted in spirituality and the surrounding nature. Living amidst the Amazon rainforest, they are surrounded by rivers, plants, trees, animals, and fungi, which form the cornerstone of their customs and way of life.

In addition to inspiring their art, the Shipibo use ayahuasca in other aspects of their daily lives. Therefore, they are known as guardians of ayahuasca, and their traditional medical system is led by Onayas, who are the traditional healers of their communities and are chosen to perform rituals with this master plant, guiding those who wish to experience integral healing of the physical and spiritual body, etc.

However, mining, extractive, and logging activities have sidelined agriculture and fishing, while handicrafts play a prominent role in the Shipibo economy. This has brought about changes in traditional role assignments, and some men have learned to do Kené and perform the typical spinning of this people. However, the majority of artisans are still women, as noted in the report "The Women of the Ucayali River: A Path towards Political Participation" published by the NGO Terra Nuova.

Today, some Shipibo women not only engage in crafts and domestic tasks but have also conquered spaces traditionally reserved for men, such as shamanism. Shipibo women are recognized as leaders and experts in the use of medicinal plants, rituals, and ancestral knowledge. They have broken established molds and demonstrated their worth and skills in both public and private spheres, fighting for recognition and appreciation of their contribution to society.

Despite the challenges they face, such as violence, abandonment, exclusion, and lack of appreciation for their activities and contributions, indigenous women of the Amazon, including the Shipibo, persist and resist. Their art, wisdom, and work in preserving Shipibo culture become an invaluable legacy that transcends generations and borders. It is essential to recognize and support their important work to ensure cultural diversity and equality of opportunities in today's society.

[image credits: Revolucíon Fungi / Original article published in Austerra]


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