Textiles are cherished and admired throughout the world for their aesthetic, sensual and functional value. Yet for one Peruvian tribe they have additional worth; serving as a tool for therapeutic healing and communion with the natural world.
Living in small communities along the Ucayali River, the Shipibo are one of Peru’s largest indigenous groups. Primarily artisans, hunters and fishermen, the Shipibo express their traditions through their shamanic religion and visionary arts, notably the distinctive patterns painted on their clothing, pottery and textiles.
Medicinal songs or icaros transmitted through local curanderos – plant-based shamans and healers – are translated into colourful geometric tapestries by Shipibo women, with each song and corresponding pattern embodying the energy of a specific Amazonian plant. The designs are a woven visualisation of each plant’s song, almost serving as a musical score.
Shipibo patterns are believed to heal physical, mental, emotional and spiritual ailments, with each design carrying its own meaning. Some are said to bring wisdom or protection; others attract abundance. The cloths are worn as skirts, placed on tables or beds, hung on walls or used in ceremony.
Largely geometric in nature, Shipibo textiles feature serpents, plants and crosses as common motifs, reflecting the tribe’s culture and cosmology. Traditional designs were drawn with natural berry colours on hand-woven cotton, dyed a reddish-brown using pigments from mahogany bark. Today the fabric is increasingly machine-woven and patterns are embroidered in brightly coloured commercial yarns.
Conceiving plants as teachers or communicators can be a stretch for Western minds, yet this is how the Shipibo, as well as other indigenous cultures around the world, experience the natural world. In 2014, Irish artist Tanya Harris travelled to Peru to spend a month with a Shipibo community after discovering cymatics, the scientific study of geometric patterns created by sound vibrations, whilst studying for an MA in Textile Futures at Central St Martins. Her experiences with the Shipibo are described in this short video, Consciousness Resides in Geometry: