INSITE Journal

Plants Speak

Miguel A. López

        In a recent interview, Shipibo artist and activist Olinda Silvano Inuma, whose Indigenous name is Reshinjabe (First Breath), defined kené as “the energy of the Shipibo people.”1 For her, kené is the “union of the people,” that is, a memory of bonds and interrelation. In the Shipibo-Konibo language, the word kené means “design” and alludes to the countless geometric patterns typically made by women on ceramics, textiles, paintings, objects, and human skin. The Shipibo-Konibo people are an Indigenous group from the Amazon region, who live on the banks of the Ucayali River—an enormous river that springs from the Andes Mountains and that joins the Amazon River in the north of Peru— where they arrived more than 1,000 years ago.2 Currently, the Shipibo community maintains an active exchange and dialogue with neighboring Indigenous groups, such as the Machiguenga, Asháninka, and Yine. The Shipibo-Konibo also have a strong presence in the urban spaces of cities such as Pucallpa and Lima, which have become important sites for the production and trade of their aesthetic creations decorated withkené.

            Kené is a method of building images that presents a distinct understanding of time and space in which human life, nature, territory, and spiritual beings exist in a dimension of reciprocity, in physical and spiritual continuation. In a recent interview, Olinda described kené as an ancestral inheritance transmitted by generations. She clarified that it cannot be copied—you cannot simply reproduce it from a drawing. In her words, “Kené appears in your mind and it takes its design as you grab the paintbrush and get working.” This emerges from visions induced through the use of plants, such as ayahuasca or piri-piri, and also originates from the energy of the anaconda (Ronin) skin that “contains, in a potential state, all the designs of all plants, animals, things, spirits, and humans,” of the past, present, and future.3 It is important to note that it is not a matter of a vertical relationship in which humans simply extract knowledge or benefits from nature. In the Shipibo vision of the world, fish, rivers, trees, snakes, and fruits are not passive entities to be dominated, but rather, active beings who have their own knowledge. In other words, “it is not simply that plants (...) ‘have curative powers.’ It is about something deeper: plants, or, more precisely, their owners, the spirits, have thought and that thought is what is communicated to the blood of humans.”4 It is telling that Olinda emphasizes that what is most important about her painting Plantas que curan (Plants that Heal) was to demonstrate the energy of the Ucayali River through different types of kené. “We are never going to leave our Ucayali River,” she indicated, “that is what gives life, water, fish, Ronin; Ronin is the mother of the earth; if Ronin leaves, the water dries up.”5

            These forms of continuity between bodies, animals, plants, the territory, and spiritual worlds are the common thread behind this INSITE Commonplaces project and this issue of the INSITE Journal. The project began with an invitation to Olinda Silvano and the Shinan Imabo (Our Inspirations) group from the Cantagallo community, in Lima, to develop a set of paintings and textiles that recounts their experience and perspective of the recent health, social, and political crisis. Olinda is an important promoter of the creative work of women artists and artisans who transmit the Amazonian tradition through weavings, drawings, and murals. She was part of the first Shipibo families who cofounded the Cantagallo community, which was created in 2000 and became an association the following year. Located next to the Rímac River, this community brings together a large Shipibo community that began to migrate to Lima in the mid-1990s.

            From the beginning, the project was developed through a process of conversation and co-responsibility in decision-making. While, for logistical reasons, the work was initially planned for a smaller number of participants, Olinda insisted on bringing together a larger group of women to generate a more complex platform of conversation and exchange. The final group of thirty was composed of Salomé Buenapico Silvano, Soraida Cumapa, Doris Gómez, Dora Inuma, Wilma Maynas, Cecilia Meléndez, Edelmira Mori, Fenicia Betsabé Mori, Juana Nunta (Tita Rona), Karina Pacaya, Claudia Pacaya, Rosa Pinedo (Miluska), Delia Pizarro, Metsá Rama, Juana Reátegui, Betty Reátegui Cruz, Silvia Ricopa, Mechita Sampayo, Cordelia Sánchez, Olinda Silvano, Lucy Silvano, Sadith Silvano, Jessica Silvano (Nete Bena), Zaida Silvano, Nelda Silvano, Inés Sinuiri, Isolina Tananta, Emilia Teco, Priscila Vásquez, and Delcia Martinez Zavaleta. The Shinan Imabo (Our Inspirations) association of artisan mothers was founded in early 2021 with the desire to generate a mutual aid platform that would allow them to offer their creations, generate economic income, and share their community knowledges. The work of artist and curator Gala Berger was also decisive. She started as an assistant, but gradually became an important curatorial voice and active interlocutor for all the artists and artisans.

            Between November 2021 and April 2022, the members of Shinan Imabo (Our Inspirations) created close to one hundred textiles, paintings, and objects that reveal an important perspective on the pandemic and contemporary social struggles. Cantagallo was seriously affected in the early moments, when little was known about the virus. In April 2020, only a few weeks after the declaration of a state of emergency in Peru, Cantagallo became home to one of the worst outbreaks of COVID-19: more than 70 percent of its inhabitants tested positive. Similarly, many Indigenous populations were left without food and with little to no access to medical care at the beginning of the pandemic. The works produced by Shinan Imabo (Our Inspirations) clearly show that COVID-19 is not only a health crisis, but also a social and ecological crisis. Furthermore, their works seem to tell us that the environmental devastation we are experiencing is not only the collateral damage of the modern-colonial discourse of Western progress, but the very heart of its functioning as well. Taking the experience of the pandemic as a starting point, these works address colonial dispossession and violence, the absence of intercultural health policies combining ancestral knowledge with Western knowledge, structural racism, forms of community care, collective work, solidarity among women, the sacred knowledge of plants, processes of migration, and the complexities of living in a city such as Lima without losing their Shipibo roots.

About This Issue

            The texts brought together in this issue of INSITE Journal seek to provide a broader context for thinking about the work carried out by Shinan Imabo (Our Inspirations), emphasizing that kené is not only an aesthetic or artistic form but also science, medicine, philosophy, and ecology. In the IN FOCUS section, art historian María Eugenia Yllia analyzes the work Historias de la selva y la ciudad (Stories of the Jungle and the City), 2013, collectively created by Olinda Silvano and visual artist Julia Ortiz Elías. This piece, which combines painting and embroidery, was produced as a result of an invitation from anthropologist and curator César Ramos to participate in the exhibition Mujeres de la floresta (Women of the Forest) at the Spanish Cultural Center of Lima in 2013. The author breaks down the childhood stories that Silvano and Ortiz put on display in this work: stories of migration, social violence, and how women share efforts of resistance and struggle through art. For his part, Shipibo artist and activist Ronin Koshi takes Metsá Rama’s painting El árbol que salvó a los Shipibos y la resistencia cultural (The Tree that Saved the Shipibos and Cultural Resistance), 2021, as a starting point for discussing the severity of the pandemic’s impact on the Cantagallo community. Koshi underscores the importance of the eucalyptus tree, whose leaves, along with several other plants, were used for making medicine to address the health emergency. His text is a testimony of survival in the face of a state and public policies that neither ensure nor guarantee the well-being of the Amazonian Indigenous population, which evokes earlier moments of the genocide of Indigenous populations throughout history.

            In the ESSAYS section, Shipibo educator and activist Mery Fasabi elaborates on the experience of a group of Indigenous activist volunteers that defied the state’s inertia to propose forms of free treatment in the face of COVID-19 through the sacred knowledge of plants. Fasabi narrates the work that Comando Matico—of which she is a cofounder—has carried out since May 2020. Then, art historian and curator Giuliana Vidarte traces a twenty-year arc to think about recent Shipibo art from two positions: on the one hand, the work of Elena Valera (Bawan Jisbe) in the late 1990s—a decade in which different forms of Indigenous art emerged and interrupted the traditional discourses of Lima’s art scene—and, on the other hand, the work of Chonon Bensho, one of the most outstanding young artists of the present, who recently won the XII National Painting Prize of the Central Reserve Bank of Peru. When exploring the work of both artists, Vidarte observes the changes in how kené is represented as well as the persistence of the struggles in defense of territory.

            The Journal includes the forty-two works exhibited in Mother Plants and Struggling Women: Visions from Cantagallo, co-curated by Gala Berger, Miguel A. López, and Olinda Silvano, at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (MAC) in Lima. The notable exhibition design by Giacomo Castagnola and Germen Estudio is gorgeously displayed in various installation shots taken by Philipp Scholz Rittermann. The DOCUMENTS section reproduces a fragment of a conversation between linguist Pilar Valenzuela Bismarck (Metsá Rama) and pottery maker Agustina Valera Rojas (Ranin Ama) published in the book Koshi Shinanya Ainbo, el testimonio de una mujer Shipiba (Koshi Shinanya Ainbo, The Testimony of a Shipiba Woman) [Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, 2005]. This dialogue collects stories associated with Shipibo traditions, everyday life, language, and forms of social organization; it is a valuable document that offers a testimony of the transformations of Shipibo-Konibo culture in the present from a woman’s perspective. The CONVERSATIONS section offers transcriptions of various live and recorded exchanges that took place during the process of developing INSITE Commonplaces in Lima. It includes the voices of Olinda Silvano (Reshinjabe), the textile artist and feminist activist Cristina Flores Pescorán, the Huitoto painter and activist Santiago Yahuarcani, and the Chilean poet, artist, and feminist activist Cecilia Vicuña. To conclude, Gala Berger and Metsá Rama prepared a Shipibo glossary that highlights the multiple meanings of words and concepts, such as butterflies, eyes, sirens, blood, dolphin, ginger, and art. Drawn from Rama’s affective memory, they are presented as bridges to move between different worlds.

            Taken as a whole, the works produced by the Shinan Imabo (Our Inspirations) collective and the texts brought together here seek to contribute to thinking about the intersections between art and struggles for social and ecological justice. Health crisis and climate catastrophe are processes that are not restricted to the last few years, but part of a long history of extraction and dispossession that has been experienced, above all, by Indigenous groups and other colonized communities. This means that in order to talk about relationality, solidarity, or agency, we must first recognize that our social relations are shaped by profound inequalities. There can be no common thread if we are not capable of naming that colonial matrix that makes it so that Indigenous communities appear as places of national identity and pride, while simultaneously being plundered by the Western world and negated by conservative and racist groups.6 The representations and visions offered by Shipibo-Konibo culture stress a relation with the world that distances itself from the extractive logic. Avoiding falling into exoticizing idealizations, and despite the limitations that those of us from the Western world have for understanding—or, more often than not, the desire not to understand—the Shipibo- Konibo people draw our attention to the importance of respecting the energy of plants and the knowledges that come from elders, the territory, and spiritual beings.

            The images and essays brought together in this issue also seek to contribute to art history, helping us dismantle the Western, white, urban, masculine paradigm and traditional Eurocentric values and categories that shaped the dominant art narratives. This is certainly a difficult task for those of us who have grown up learning to understand the world through that lens. This publication is an attempt at intercultural dialogue, starting from the images and words that seek to accompany the Shipibo people’s struggle and their demands for the preservation and respect of their ancestral knowledges, for urgent actions to prevent the destruction of the Amazon, and for better living conditions for Indigenous peoples in Peru and everywhere.