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Instilling Art with Meaning: A Journey to Peru

Deanna Rogers and Tanya Mate travel to Yarinachoca to source handmade tapestries from indigenous Shipibo communities

by Simone Spilka

October 3, 2017

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The Assemblage is built out of stories.
Of people. Of their ideas. Of our community.

Each detail of our home plays a part in shaping the larger narrative about The Assemblage and our partners. We look to food, art and cultural experiences as opportunities to bring our vision of an interconnected society to the physical realm — creating an environment as nourishing for the spirit as it is for the mind and body.

But to install greater meaning requires us to consider every element of the spaces our community interacts with on a daily basis.

To this notion, you’ll notice that artwork is important to us — but so are the materials, the stories and the crafts of the artisans who create them. Throughout The Assemblage NoMad you’ll see telas, or tapestries; indigenous to the Shipibo tribes of Peru, these unique pieces of art are a testament to one of our core principles — be of service — and remind us that we must support the ideas, people and organizations of communities outside of our own.

Deanna Rogers and Tanya Mate have spent years living and working in Peru, and know Shipibo customs and culture well. We sent them to the village of Pucallpa to source the telas, then sat down with them upon their return to hear about the journey:

Where, specifically, did you visit to purchase the telas?

We went shopping in two separate communities, and in a market in Yarinacocha [a suburb of Pucallpa, the main city in Ucayali region, which is the home of the Shipibo-Conibo people along the Ucayali river].

The Ucayali Region of Peru
(via Wikipedia)

The first community we went to has their own centre for running dietas, and they organized a market for us with extended members of their huge family. This is where we bought the majority of the telas/faldas (chitonti in Shipibo) for framing. It’s a strong medicine family led by their 67-year-old mother, Ynes. The quality of the embroidery was spectacular, and they had members of their family travel from as far as twenty hours away to bring telas to us. We paid a very good price; you can find telas for quite a bit less, but not of this quality, and not in a way that directly supports a family like this.

How did all of these families know to wait for you?

It was part of the flow of the whole trip, so detail-wise, there were just two pieces of the shopping we were looking for. I can’t imagine any market has happened like that before — in terms of scale — it’s in their interest as well, but to speak a little bit about the desperation and the poverty, you know they need the money. And here are people coming and buying things, so they can make a market happen really fast.

Our intention was just to support them; we didn’t know what we were going to buy. But being able to support an entire community just by purchasing something from every single person is moving to think about. It became not about what we were getting, but the intention of it.

To that end, can you share about the impact of the purchases?

There are a lot of different types of impact, but we won’t know about them directly. Visiting the second community, we felt a sense of extreme poverty, at some points even wondering how these women were going to potentially feed their families for a few months. It’s that level of poverty in these communities. We’re not saviors and we’re not trying to act as such, but if a family can eat for a week, and it supports traditional practices, that’s a very beautiful thing. Particularly with urbanization and globalization and letting these people know that they have traditional value. Even if they have small impact, it’s significant.

The women who make the tapestries are the strongest, and they’re so fun and so loving. They spoke a lot about the significance of culture and shame, and the movement towards the cities. Everything is in this container of joy, and there’s politics and fighting and there’s all of that. One of the first words people learn in Shipibo is “beautiful”: “thank you beautiful woman.” It was a really loving exchange.

How does trade like this operate in comparison to purchases in Western culture?

It’s clear that the single most important thing when doing business with indigenous communities is establishing a relationship with them. This should be true for all business, but it especially stands out in cross-cultural negotiations like this. The relationship comes first, and all negotiations and purchases come second. Our intentions with this family were to support them financially; to support the strong medicine lineage they are carrying and teaching to others, both Shipibo and Western; to buy embroidery work directly from a family with a strong medicine tradition, and to support The Assemblage in bringing the vision to life.

At first, the intentions were lost in translation. We had organized the visit to this family with one of the brothers, who wasn’t there when we visited, and with one of the long-term apprentices and helpers of the family. The ladies, who are the ones who make all the embroidered things, thought that we were buying so many telas to resell at a profit. When we explained to them who we were buying for, why we were buying, and where all the telas were going, they were very supportive of the project.

We sat in ceremony with them, and it was hugely important in developing the relationship. Both of us learned a lot about the significance of the telas, the bigger picture of the whole project, and the beauty and importance of the way this is all happening. We all got to clean out doubt, fear, mistrust that could get in the way of the bigger manifestation of things.

You speak quite a bit about the warmth you felt in visiting the market, and the female artisans you met. What about it made the experience so heartfelt?

There were probably a hundred mothers and daughters there, and they brought whatever they had on hand of their traditional embroidery and beadwork. The market kept growing and growing, with little girls, mamas, and abuelas wearing the traditional Shipiba outfits with the embroidered faldas, frilly shirts, and the traditional haircuts with blunt bangs across their foreheads. We bought something from every single person who showed up. We were told that there has never been a market like that in their community (there was never a market like the one in the previous family, either).

This one was special in a totally different kind of way in that it benefitted so many people. The poverty rate is high there; there’s a strong sense of community (complete with community politics), love, and sharing, but also illness and poor sanitation.

This is where the majority of the gifts come from. Embroidery is by far the most common traditional handicraft, and so we bought a lot of small pieces, some bigger pieces, and a few random things that we weren’t sure where they’d fit but some of the mamas showed up with only one item, so we bought them. Some of the embroidery work is outstanding; the smaller pieces (mostly on brown cloth) incorporate a lot of the antique style of work (more square/right angles), and each item represents an exchange with a member of the community that supports them and their traditional work directly. There isn’t work for most of the people, and their embroidery is one of the ways they can make money to support themselves and their families.

The number one question we got asked, repeatedly: When are you coming back?