Indigenous artists are often pigeonholed and face significant obstacles to being recognized by the contemporary art world. The Harlem, New York-based Shipibo Conibo Center is working to change the perceptions about Indigenous art and break barriers for Indigenous artists. According to the Center, their mission is to “[promote] and [perpetuate] the creative lifeways of the Shipibo-Konibo People of the Peruvian Amazon in such a way that [will] benefit its practitioners. With a focus on Indigenous self-determination and territorial sovereignty as well as visual arts, music, and ethnobotanical research—which in the Shipibo-Konibo lifeway are inseparable realms—the organization’s mission is motivated by the conviction that Indigenous identity does not belong to a romanticized ancient age, but rather to a technologically-anchored and sustainable future.”
The Shipibo Conibo Center and the contemporary Indigenous artists that they represent sign a reciprocity agreement, according to which the work of art and the work of environmental activism towards Indigenous sovereignty in the Peruvian Amazon cannot be separated. This unique framework aims to change the colonial paradigms that have separated Indigenous artists from the context of contemporary art and to establish a model for reuniting the realms of art, healing, ecology, and politics that were separated through colonial and neocolonial modes of extraction and representation—and in doing so, to change the topdown structures of conservation and philanthropic circles.
Sara Flores, from the community of Tanbo Mayo in Peru, is one of the artists represented by the Center and one of the most prominent Shipibo painters to have emerged recently into the contemporary art circuits. Flores employs and recasts Kené—a style of geometric patterns representing the spiritual and moral values of the Shipibo-KoniboXetebo Nation and their reciprocal relationship with nature—through seemingly infinite creative innovations to create in freehand a hypnotic maze of patterns with complex, vibrational power. Matteo Norzi, Executive Director of the Shipibo Conibo Center, recently spoke with Flores on behalf of Cultural Survival.
Sara Flores in 2022. Photo by Matteo Norzi.
You have said in previous articles that you were born to be an artist. Can you explain what you mean by this?
Sara Flores: We, the Shipibo, have Spanish names, but also “true names” that were used prior to European colonization. True names are kept confidential or used for intimate settings, only among family. They are conferred on us in different circumstances by grandparents. We are named after someone skilled, hardworking, or strong, so that when we grow older, we share some of those same qualities. [We are given a name] by the midwife at the time when the newborn’s umbilical cord is cut. You can call me Sara Flores, but my true name is Sui Biri. The terms describe something dazzling, beautiful to watch, smooth and well ordered. Funnily enough, this is just what they say when they talk about my work.
Kené translates into Spanish as “design.” I learned all the teachings that were shown to me in my childhood and adolescence from my mother while I stayed with her. She not only taught me kené but also the kenebo, the designs. There are many designs, beginning with the shapes and patterns of the leaves, the fruits, the scales of the fish, of fins and tails, of insects, and the designs of the animals, such as the otorongo (jaguar), or the designs of the different structures of the plants and lianas (climbing plants, vines). And within them are the designs of ayahuasca and the clavo huasca vines. [My mother] taught me how to differentiate the designs of the paiche, one of the largest freshwater fish, and also the designs of the snakes and the boas. Not only did my mother teach me these things, but also in the sky, about the positions of the stars, the moon and the sun, and the positions of the clouds and the rainbows, and about the designs of the different flowers and their colors. To make Kené, a painted design, one should take into account the different designs and all these elements and values with their various colors and shades.
“Untitled” (Shao Maya Punté Kené 1, 2021) by Sara Flores. Vegetal dyes on wild cotton canvas.
What do Kené motifs and patterns signify?
SF: The meaning of the pattern of the Kené is the spirituality and ethics of my Peoples. It is the feeling of our existence as a developed society of our millennial culture and that continues to evolve as a Peoples and culture, without losing the ecological human cultural pattern. As a society that persists in tropical forests, we will never lose our cultural thread. It will endure in the society of the future.
What is your process for creating your artwork, and what role do materials have in this process?
SF: Everything I paint first appears in me. Sometimes, I cannot dismiss the patterns from my mind. I go to sleep and they appear, forming on the threads of the mosquito net. I close my eyes but I keep on seeing them. They come to me in dreams. For the realization of the art, the first thing is concentration. I have to keep a steady hand to outline and execute the design, keeping a focused mind so as not to make mistakes on the horizontal or vertical lines. The materials that I use are already prepared beforehand. I create my designs with natural paints using the bark of yacushapana trees, almonds, mahogany, guava, or green banana peels. A very special mud is used to fix with the pigments from the barks. Once everything is prepared and mixed with the mud, the colors change from brown to black. This is done by drying on a cloth that is made of tocuyo, which is a product of wild cotton.
Finally, we use natural colors for the filling of the different designs. We use the red from the achiote (a dye extracted from the seeds of the Bixa orellana shrub), the yellow from the palillo or guisador (turmeric), and spinach for the green color. The important thing is that everything I use is extracted from nature, without damaging the environment, and asking the plants and their spirits for permission.
There are areas that have been invaded by settlers where there are no longer any plants. When I was a little girl, I learned to paint with a small aquatic tree called jene joshón. We used to harvest it just behind the village where a small stream flowed, where the great anaconda Ronín lived. Ronín is the ruler of the waters, mother of all mothers. Then [the settlers] came and started to throw litter and garbage everywhere. They polluted the waters. Ronín left, and so did the waters with her. Today the stream is no longer there; it dried up, and that is why I can’t paint my Kené with jene joshón anymore.
"Untitled" (Shao Maya Punté Kené 1, 2022) by Sara Flores. Vegetal dyes on wild-cotton canvas.
You have said that visual arts and Kené patterns have healing powers. Can you describe this relationship between Kené art and the healing of a human experiencing it?
SF: Kené is used for inner peace, to maintain the balance of a very active mind. In my work, I try to be very humble and generous. It is a way of curing the fabric itself, putting love and dedication into the repetitiveness of the work, so that the people who later see the work can also feel those good intentions for their inner peace. It is important to remember that the more natural the looms and paintings are, the less polluting they will be. In one way or another, the colors serve as guides for healthy eating. Medicinal plants for traditional cures are used as dyes for my designs.
What is your understanding of the interconnectedness among Indigenous art, specifically the Kené tradition, environmental activism, and the fight for Indigenous sovereignty?
SF: Each color is a plant; each plant is a place, a place in the jungle, a place from my childhood. Returning to those places, continuing to establish a connection with nature is a form of cultural resistance. It is our way of continuing to care for the forest. I take my daughters and granddaughters there. I show them the plants. We, Shipibo, are the guardians of our territory. It is by living in those places that we continue to protect them. In addition, with the sales of my works, through a reciprocity pact, [my] art is in service of territorial resistance, supporting the important organizational work of our people towards the dream of self-determination as an Indigenous Nation. My Kené is painted on the flag of the Shipibo-Konibo-Xetebo Nation.
Top photo: “Untitled” (Maya Kené 2, 2019) by Sara Flores. Vegetal dyes on wild cotton canvas.
Photos of the artist; the Shipibo Conibo Center, NY; White Cube, London; C L E A R I N G, NY.