Pablo César Amaringo Shuña (1943–2009) is an acclaimed Peruvian artist, renowned for his intricate, colourful depictions of his visions from drinking the entheogenic plant drink known as Ayahuasca, Yage and numerous other names throughout Amazonia. His work was first introduced to the West by ethnobotanist Dennis McKenna and anthropologist Luis Eduardo Luna, who met Pablo in Pucallpa while traveling during work on an ethnobotanical project. Pablo worked as a vegetalista, a shaman in the mestizo tradition of healing, for many years. Until his death in 2009 he painted and helped run the Usko-Ayar school of painting, and supervised Ayahuasca retreats.
Don Pablo’s paintings offer a unique visual and phenomenological insight into the complex and mysterious world of Ayahuasca shamanism. In 1991, the breathtaking book Ayahuasca Visions, featuring full-colour illustrations of a series of Pablo Amaringo’s paintings each accompanied by his own description and a commentary by co-author and anthropologist Luis Eduardo Luna. A further book of Amaringo’s paintings was published in 2011.
Pablo’s paintings also feature in the pages and on the covers of various books by other authors, and Pablo appears in several documentary films, such as Jan Kounen’s documentary film on Shipibo shamanism Other Worlds.
Pablo Amaringo was born the seventh of thirteen children in 1943 in Puerto Libertad, a small settlement on the banks of a tributary of the Ucayali River. When Amaringo was a boy, his family were reduced to extreme poverty after some years of relative prosperity. As a result, they moved to Pucallpa where he attended school for just two years before he was forced to find work to help support the family. At the age of ten Pablo first drank Ayahuasca – a sacred visionary beverage used in traditional Amazonian shamanic practices and medicine for millennia – to help him overcome severe heart disease. When he was 17 Pablo became extremely ill, nearly dying from severe heart problems and for over two years he could not work, but was eventually cured by a local healer.
It was while recovering from this illness that he started to draw and paint for the first time. Amaringo began making drawings with pencil and shading with soot from lamps. From a friend employed in a car factory he got permatex, a blue substance with which he coloured the drawings. He had no money for paper so he used cardboard boxes. Sometimes he took a little lipstick and other cosmetics from his sisters. Later he used ink, watercolours and then a friend gave him six tubes of oil paint. Soon Amaringo began to make money from portraits, but lost his market when photographers began to colour black-and-white prints. With the discovery of his new artistic talent Amaringo’s career as a healer also received exposure. Don Pablo later took up the shamanic path of vegetalismo and became an accomplished healer, artist and teacher. For seven years, 1970–76, he travelled extensively in the region acting as an ayahuasquero – a traditional shamanic healer specialising in working with Ayahuasca.
In 1977 Pablo abandoned vegetalismo to become a full-time painter and art teacher at his USKO-AYAR Amazonian Amazonian School of Painting. At the Usko-Ayar School, Pablo taught local youth to paint, helping to spread awareness of the overwhelming beauty of the Amazonian ecosystem, and the urgent need for its conservation:
“The school’s purpose is well defined: it is a tool for the conservation of the Amazonian environment and culture. By observing and depicting nature, people — especially young children — become more aware of its beauty and richness, and they learn to respect it. In addition, the students hope that their paintings will inspire other people to share similar attitudes of appreciation and reverence.”
When Luna and McKenna met Amaringo in 1985 he was living in poverty, barely surviving by teaching English to young people from his home and selling the odd painting to passing tourists. During the June 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Pablo Amaringo was elected to the Global 500 Roll of Honor of the United Nations Environmental Program in recognition of outstanding practical achievements in the protection and improvement of the environment through the Usko-Ayar School.
“Making a painting is a way of seeing; the students learn to express themselves by looking at things. That is what I teach; that is all I teach… Art is like recreating the world, every sheet of paper has tremendous possibility. First you start with a blank sheet of paper and when you are ready, you separate light from dark, the sky from the earth, the earth from the water. Then you paint the plants, animals and human beings. In that order.”
After a lengthy battle with illness, Amaringo died on 16th November 2009.
Every tree, every plant, has a spirit.
People may say that a plant has no mind.
I tell them that a plant is alive and conscious.
A plant may not talk, but there is a spirit in it that is conscious, that sees everything,
which is the soul of the plant, its essence, what makes it alive.
I feel a great sorrow when trees are burned, when the forest is destroyed.
I feel sorrow because I know that human beings are doing something very wrong.
When one takes Ayahuasca one can sometimes hear
how the trees cry when they are going to be cut down.
They know beforehand, and they cry.
– Pablo Amaringo