Learning about the artwork of Shipibo women in the Peruvian Amazon

So as I look at the crafts we bought in Peru this month, I’m increasingly interested in learning more about the people – often the women – who made them. Who are they? Where do they live? How long have they produced this work? What inspired the work and what cultural traditions keep it going?  How is it helping them, their families and communities financially?

I was also reminded of Hillary Clinton’s comments during a trip to Peru  in October about the importance of female entrepreneurs to fueling economic growth in Peru, especially their entrepreneurial efforts based on their tradition of producing gorgeous textiles. She mentioned a Peruvian woman from the Andean highlands who has built an business that manufactures beautiful embroidered cloth for international textile markets. The woman got help from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and  trained more than 800 women in a dozen different communities to create the textiles.

“This shows you how quickly in today’s interconnected global economy one woman with a needle and determination can give hundreds of women quality jobs stitching, literally stitching new hope into their families’ futures and new economic growth for their country,” she said.

A nonprofit textile workshop we went to in Cusco – Centro de Textiles Tradicionales del Cuzco on Avenue El Sol – addressed some of  this by having an interesting museum in the back of its showroom.

Take for example a cotton cloth that I bought in Cusco at a store specializing in crafts from Peru’s Amazon. (See photo(15)


From what I can gather from online research, the cloth – and it intricate geometric design pattern – is the product of women from the Shipibo or Shipibo-Conibo tribe  in Peru’s northern Amazon. They not only use this design to adorn cloth and more famously pottery but themselves – (I’m not sure if the face markings are temporary or permanent. When we visited a community in the jungle in Panama a few years ago, they offered us temporary tattoos – hand-painted henna-like designs.)

Here’s more from Wikipedia on Shipibo-Conibo tribe:

The Shipibo-Conibo are an indigenous people along the Ucayali River in the Amazon rainforest in Perú. Formerly two groups, the Shipibo (apemen) and the Conibo (fishmen), they eventually became one distinct tribe through intermarriage and communal ritual and are currently known as the Shipibo-Conibo people. [1] [2]

The Shipibo-Conibo live in the 21st century while keeping one foot in the past spanning millennia in the Amazonian rainforest. Many of their traditions are still practiced, such as ayahuasca shamanism. Shamanistic songs have inspired artistic tradition and decorative designs found in their clothing, pottery, tools and textiles. Some of the urbanized people live around Pucallpa in the Yarina Cocha, an extensive indigenous zone. Most others live in scattered villages over a large area of jungle forest extending from Brazil to Equador.

Shipibo-Conibo women make beadwork and textiles, but are probably best known for their pottery, decorated with maze-like red and black geometric patterns. While these ceramics were traditionally made for use in the home, an expanding tourist market has provided many households with extra income through the sale of pots and other craft items.

The Shipibo of the villiage of Pao-Yan used to have a diet of fish, yucca and fruits. Now, however, the situation has deteriorated because of global weather changes and now there is mostly just yucca and fish. Since there has been drought followed by flooding, most of the mature fruit trees have died, and some of the banana trees and plantains are struggling. Global increases in energy and food prices have increased due to deforestation and erosion along the Ucayali River. The basic needs of the people are more important now than ever, which affects their long term planning abilities. There is now a sense that hunger may not be that far off for those in the farther reaches of the Shipibo nation. [2] [3]

Contact with western sources – including the governments of Peru and Brazil – has been sporadic over the past three centuries. The Shipibo are noted for a rich and complex cosmology, which is tied directly to the art and artifacts they produce. They have been a constant target of Christian missionaries since initial contact in the late 17th Century.[4] [5]


Distribution of the Shipibo-Conibo (marked with an arrow) amongst other Pano-speaking ethnicities

With an estimated population of over 20,000, the Shipibo-Conibo represent approximately 8% of the indigenous registered population. Census data is unreliable due to the transitory nature of the group. Large amounts of the population have relocated to urban areas – in particular the eastern Peruvian cities of Pucallpa and Yarinacocha – to gain access to better educational and health services, as well as to look for alternative sources of monetary income.

The population numbers for this group have fluctuated in the last decades between approximately 11,000 (Wise and Ribeiro, 1978) to as many as 25,000 individuals (Hern 1994).

Like all other indigenous populations in the Amazon basin, the Shipibo-Conibo are threatened by severe pressure from outside influences such as oil speculation, logging, narco-trafficking, conservation, and missionaries. [6]


1 Comment

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One response to “Learning about the artwork of Shipibo women in the Peruvian Amazon

  1. betsyrubiner

    It has been removed.

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