INSITE Journal
Olinda Silvano & Cecilia Vicuña
Common Thread (Fragment)
December 02, 2022

Miguel A. López: Olinda, where does your relationship with art come from? How did it emerge?

Olinda Silvano: Jakon yantan akin mato en akai. Good afternoon. I am Shipibo-Konibo Olinda Silvano from the Indigenous community of Pahoyan, but I live here in the Shipibo community of Cantagallo. Well, for me [art] comes from my mother’s womb. That’s how I would put it. Because my father and my mother also come from their mother’s wombs. For the Shipibo- Konibo people, as soon as you are born, they put piri-piri on you. Piri-piri is the plant for ancestral knowledge. So that is how I have been working: they start teaching us when we are young and when we are with medicinal plants with healing properties, visions appear in your mind and you start working. Your grandmother or your mother guides you in that way. Well, my mother is young since she had me when she was thirteen years old, and therefore my mother is like a sister to me—like my sister, my friend, my everything. We talk, my mother and I help each other out. This is how I have been working since childhood.

First of all, we cannot wear our clothes without embroidery. They have to be embroidered or colored with natural dyes, such as mahogany bark, the bark of the mango tree, or the virgin mud from the lagoon of the Amazon jungle. They start teaching us this when we are children. They also heal us with plants in our eyes, through our noses, mouths, even through the anus. In that way, one grows nourished, grows strengthened with that art. Well, I like that. There are other people who, no matter how much their grandmother or mother forces them, do not do it. But it connected well with me, because my grandfather, my great-grandfather, was a shaman, a great shaman, and he placed an invisible crown on me through a vision with ayahuasca. Then, when I was two years old, I had visions and I liked to draw on the ground since I did not have materials, because we only used cotton cloth and fabric. At that time, we did not know what tocuyo [coarse cotton cloth] fabric was, or what other fabrics existed. We only used those we made ourselves, so I started working that way.

I had to emigrate from the [Pahoyan] community to the city of Pucallpa without knowing how to speak Spanish. But I never left behind my art, my art was always there. I finished high school there and I went to work as a teacher. But what I was most interested in was art. That is what most attracted me. It is as if I had been born to carry out that task or to make it visible, because my parents were also leaders in the community. So, being a leader comes from an inheritance, as well as from our knowledge, from our art. Because of that, I could not work as a teacher and I came to the capital city of Lima to be able to disseminate my art, to be able to visualize and look for work in art, because I love it from head to toe. It is in my blood, that marvelous art, that Amazonian art runs in my blood. I love my art. I love my culture. I love my roots. I love what I am. If someone wants to cause me harm, they will not because I know. I am very sure of my roots and of my work. I don’t care if nobody buys my work, I will continue weaving, I will continue filling my house, I will continue filling my bags. But one day someone will come [who will be interested in my work]. I have always said that one day my work will be known. One day I will open the door. One day I will be respected. When they humiliated me, when they insulted me, when I shed tears along the way, when I did not have [money] to pay for my trip, I always had my powerful faith. And those tears have taken root.

M: Cecilia, where does your relationship with art come from?

Cecilia Vicuña: Before saying anything, the first thing I have to say is that I was rushing to write down everything that you [Olinda] were saying. Because it is fantastic to listen to you, Olinda, and to recognize my own life in yours, despite the incredible differences. Like you, I also grew up with my mother and grandmother. My mom says that well before I knew how to talk, I was already painting. Like you, right? And my grandmother had a marvelous studio. My aunt did too, two of my aunts had studios, and my mom did not have a studio because my mom weaved, but not with a loom, just with little sticks. But my mother also sang. So I grew up making art well before I knew the word “art.” And for me, if you ask how my relationship with art started, I would say it started in the same way as it started for you: pure love.

Yes, you said something very beautiful, which is that you were already an artist starting in the womb and I have never said that about myself, but I have said that about my mom because my mom was a twin. I have written poems in which my mom is in her mother’s womb, that of my grandmother, with her brother, Darío. My mom’s name is Norma and she sings like the gods. I made a record of her and her playing in the womb with her brother, Darío. So I have that image of them already playing and they were already friends in the womb and it was from that game, that joy, from that infinite love, that she was born and then I was born. In that way I share what you so beautifully said and I am proud to listen to you. That empowerment with which you work communicates pride to me, by transmitting that love. Because, what else could you call that passion for art? Because what art does for us is immeasurable.

And similarly to how it gave you life when nobody paid attention to you, the same thing happened to me when people made fun of me. I have experienced very, very, very, very difficult situations: I have been hungry, cold, experienced all sorts of things, not because my family was poor, but because of the military coup in Chile and being forced to leave the country. Then, in that solitude in which I lived, I have never done anything other than my art. I couldn’t. It is like how you were saying that you could not be a teacher, I could not have had any other job either. So, going through all of that, and nobody believing in you, it was marvelous. What you said is that you had powerful faith. And everyone needs that faith in that moment: believing that it is possible to achieve what you set out to achieve. To be what you know that you have to be. But to be able to be oneself, first you have to know. And thatis possible. But to know, not with your head—to know it with your soul, with your body, with your gut, viscerally. To know it with everything. And that is what you communicate. And that is truly marvelous to me.

M: I wanted to ask you both about sound in your creative work. What you do, Olinda, and the way in which the Shipibo people relate to kené shows how those geometric shapes have a medicinal dimension through their materialization in sound. And in your case, Cecilia, poetry has a formalization in sound: a ritual and performative quality that is an experience of propitiation and healing. I feel like there is a common root.

O: Well, sound is very important for me because my father also raised me with sound. He made me eat monkey tongue, macaw tongue, parrot tongue, the tongues of different animals to be able to communicate in the forest when we would go out to hunt animals. Even when we make kené design, only the sound is sung.

I like to whistle. I am the only woman who whistles and shouts because they made me eat tongue, not cooked in the kitchen, but rather [cooked under] the sun [that] burned it. They made me eat that and then they did not let me eat for the whole day as part of the diet to be able to have all types of whistles. That is why sometimes they say to me, “mom, you are like a man.” It is not that I am a man, but that my father, Miguel Silvano, made me like that when they took me into the mountains so that the animals would not run away. [Olinda issues a long, high-pitched whistle.] Women don’t do that [referring to the whistle], only me. But now my children are used to it. When they are not there, I do that [whistle] and the monkey and the panguana come running. The panguana runs toward you and the pichico monkey approaches you. Thus there are different languages. You paint, you think, you sing. And I also sing [Olinda sings in Shipibo]. In other words [the song] creates your strength, your energy, just like the anaconda fills you with strength. You sing and you create. So you are speaking with your work, you are not talking to another person. That is why I like to talk, I like to be alone when I do my work, because I concentrate and I speak with my work and I talk. That is where the energy is. You talk with your work as if another woman were there.

There are different varieties of kené: the xao kené, mayá kené, chompi kené, tanyan kené. There is no repetition in the infinite kené, it is like the Ucayali River that flows. And that is what I have learned from my grandmothers. I am very happy, I am very proud to have been raised by my grandmothers. Because grandmothers can teach us much better than our mothers, and our mothers also guide us. I am very happy to have had my families. Thank you. And I am also very happy to be with you all. For me, it is an honor to tell stories, but there are more stories. I have thousands of stories of fishing, of hunting animals, of farming, of the fields, corn, rice, banana. I have learned everything because my father taught me to be a thousand trades. Because [even if] you marry a lazy man, you can work. That is what my parents told me, thankfully I am OK with my work. My work is my husband.

C: Well. My grandmothers also sang and my mother sang. When I was born we lived in a little adobe house and there was a ditch next to it and in that ditch were four-eyed toads. So the toads sang. Then, either my mother or my grandmother would be singing, or the toads would be singing. So that is where my relationship with sound comes from. My family had determined that I was the child who could not sing because I did not know how to sing Western songs, the songs that my mom would sing. My mom could sing boleros, tango, anything that she or my grandmother heard. They could sing, but I could never sing like that. Then, I would sing another song by myself, another song that came from who knows where, but it came to me especially when I cried. When I was really, really sad, a song came to me that was almost like a moan. And that moan started to teach me and what I do in my song is to go into that moan that takes me to another dimension of feeling in which I can perceive other realities. I think that when one sings, not with a theatrical or “performance” voice, but one sings for what is being heard, then those other realities are also accessible for the people who are listening. In the same way, listening is not, we could say, hearing sound as if it were something that already existed, but rather listening to a sound that is being created in that moment, a sound that did not exist before, nor will it ever exist again.

Olinda, it has been marvelous to listen to you and hear your soul in the struggle. And I truly hope with all my heart that the Peruvian state recognizes the cultural jewel, the rich heritage that is your knowledge and the knowledge of all the women and your community. It is a heritage for the future of humanity and they must preserve your language. It is a cultural crime to prevent a people from teaching their language to their children. That is a violation of human rights, the right to knowledge and the transmission of knowledge. So I hope that there is an awakening in Peru and that your community’s contribution to human culture is valued as the jewel that it is.