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  • Rich D'Amaru

The beauty and depth of indigenous body painting

Thiago Cardoso

For the Huni Kuin, kené facial designs allow connection and protection with the spirit realms

Who never admired the faces, bodies and objects drawn by the indigenous peoples of South America? Have you ever wondered what lead them to produce such beautiful, unique and symmetrical graphics? Of course, not all peoples are "drawing people," and it is also true that many draw diverse geometric shapes ranging from lines and points to living things in varied designs. There are drawings that, due to their cultural relevance, were registered as indigenous cultural heritage, motivated by the valorization and perpetuation of these practices.

Such paintings haunted colonial travelers and administrators from Europe, they were viewed pejoratively as expressions of primitive, exotic and savage peoples. The exoticism and curiosity that marked this time of colonial prejudice and racism still persists in the ethnocentric gaze of many through a vision that frames indigenous graphics as "culture", as less aesthetic than the Western arts. Today, indigenous paintings (in plural) are applied in various social and aesthetic circumstances, ranging from ritual-political use to cosmological abstraction, in a complex map of giving meaning, to everyday life and indigenous socio-cultural formation through bodies and objects.

Let us take, for example, studies on Kadiwéu art and paintings. At the end of the 19th century the Italian Guido Boggiani stayed among the Kadiwéu and was engaged in describing their way of life, taking a long look at what enchanted him most in those Indians, their body and facial designs and their pottery. He described in detail the ceramic preparation and decoration procedures, painting patterns and the contours for each piece. The body and facial painting of Kadiwéu women, both fixing in tattoos and in temporal painting, impressed Boggiani; the way they expressed two halves that contained different designs and colors, resembling the arabesques of European embroidery, were made only on special dates, such as the girl's feasts, emphasizing that the Kadiwéu woman was painted differently in the puberty.

Shipibo-Konibo designs in embroidery

In the year 1935 it was the turn of the ethnologist Claude Levi-Strauss to be among the Kadiwéu. In his book Tristes Tropiques, he describes graphism as an "extraordinary feature of the kadiwéu culture", understanding this practice as part of a dualism that represents the way the Kadiwéu understand the world. Levi-Strauss noted that among the four hundred drawings collected from their body and face paintings - still held by women, though no longer in the form of tattoos - asymmetrical but balanced paintings were developed which would represent their social status. Kadiwéu art, for this eminent ethnologist alluded to the social and hierarchical morphology of these peoples, and the expression of a cosmology that dealt with the separation of nature and culture, animal and human.

More recently the anthropologist Luiza Elvira Belaunde studied "make kené", the essentially feminine art of painting, embroidering and weaving drawings with seeds, dyes and cotton from the Shipibo-Konibo. We should understand kené shipibo-konibo as the drawings made by women on the human body and objects. Belaunde demonstrated how this art is in great demand in the Amazonian tourist market, strategically extrapolating visions and the technique of amerindian visualization to the world of "whites", at the same time acting to strengthen the feminine position in and outside indigenous society. However, some forms of doing kené, which were popular in the past are being sidelined due to little market acceptance. As is the case of facial and body painting, performed by women to adorn their children and spouses at large parties.

However, kené has an immaterial existence and it is possible that these geometric forms, associated with the ancestor Anaconda, can be seen without their inscription on a physical medium. In the indigenous explanation the drawings present themselves in the dreams as visions of the thought, being able to be materialized by the graphism in sessions of cure with the piri piri plant and with ayahuasca. The immaterial visions of kené are foundational elements of the shamanic experiences induced by the use of ayahuasca, which also is very attractive to foreigners desirous to access shamanism and the Shipibo-Konibo healing system and to have access to this immaterial world.

Another renowned anthropologist, Els Lagrou, has made comparative studies of arts and the difference between several indigenous peoples of South America. For this author, paintings by the Huni Kuin and other "drawing peoples" can be considered as techniques that allow the viewer to change their point of view, that is, to adopt another worldview. The images and graphism would be instruments sustained by an indigenous philosophy where the transformation and cultivation of bodies and forms, would have central place to the society.

It was by studying specifically the Kaxinawa graphics in three different ritual contexts that Lagrou could understand the meaning of kene – a kaxinawa graphic style - as an instrument of transformation of perception, from the visible to the invisible, through the manufacture of bodies by painting. That is, the graphism accompanies the transformation of the bodies of a Kaxinawa person throughout his life.

Huni Kuin embroidery

The first of these contexts is the Nixpupima, a rite of passage for boys and girls at the age of changing milk teeth for permanent teeth, where children's bodies are remodeled, the teeth are strengthened with nixpu, and the bones stimulated to grow through a diet of maize and forced jumping. In this rite the drawing plays an important role in making the skin a mediator between the outside and the inside of the body. The second is the rite of fertility, where the participants paint themselves with annatto, masking themselves. The third context is the ritual ingestion of ayahuasca by hunter men, where the drawing is evoked in singing and visualized by the participant. In this way, the drawing produces a mediation between the perceptible space of daily life and the visionary space of ayahuasca.

The beauty and aesthetic effort of Indian graphism art, expressed in multiple forms in various contexts, contains elements of an art that, before being made in a random and merely decorative way, is situated in experiential worlds in which outlined and drawn bodies and objects accompany people's lives and their thoughts. Graphism fundamentally communicates something, and at the same time, it's images converge to produce the Amerindian world in beauty and depth.

Drops from the Bawe plant help the women of the Huni Kuin (Kaxinawa) to help them learn the graphics of their weaving and jewelry making

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