Born in 1967, Shipibo artist Chono Mëni, also known by his Spanish name, Robert Rengifo, currently resides in the Amazon city of Pucallpa, Peru.
“I was born in the native community of Nazareth del Poza in Imparia, Ucayali region, Peru. My mother spoke the language of the Pishki people. My father is Conibo. I identify as Shipibo-Conibo."
"From an early age, I was very restless and only interested in painting and drawing, I used to copy and make cartoons. Later, I paid attention to posters and drawings. I have always been very attentive of details. Later, I participated in non-governmental draftsman work. Making safety brochures for emergencies for Asháninka(1996-1999), the foundation of Inca Kola (1998-2000), the World Wildlife Fund- Perú (2005-2007) and in communication for intercultural services (2004-2008)”
“I am a visual artist and 100 percent dedicated to my work as a painter. My form is natural, as I have never studied art in school. Some of the types of paintings I create are of ethnic and indigenous customs and faces, landscapes and natural motifs such as plants, animals, etc., shamanic themes or linked to world views, and paintings for education and training on reality and the conflicts of the Amazonian peoples living.”
Chono Mëni painting in the jungle
The Shipibo-Conibo are an indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest in Perú. Their community consists of around 35,000 people living in three to four hundred villages north and south of the Peruvian jungle town of Pucallpa on the Ucayali River, which connects Cuzco to the Brazilian Amazon. They speak a language of the Panoan family, though some of them are starting to learn Spanish. Their population have fluctuated in the last decades between approximately 11,000 to as many as 25,000 individuals.
Like all other indigenous populations in the Amazon basin, the Shipibo-Conibo are threatened by severe pressure from outside influences such as climate change, oil speculation, logging, narco-trafficking, and conservation.
Formerly two groups, the Shipibo (apemen) and the Conibo (fishmen), they eventually became one distinct tribe through intermarriage and communal ritual and are currently known as the Shipibo-Conibo people.
The Shipibo-Conibo live in the 21st century while keeping one foot in the past, spanning millennia in the Amazonian rainforest. Many of their traditions are still practiced, such as Ayahuasca shamanism. Shamanistic songs have inspired artistic tradition and decorative designs found in their clothing, pottery, tools and textiles. Some of the urbanized people live around Pucallpa in the Yarina Cocha, an extensive indigenous zone. Most others live in scattered villages over a large area of jungle forest extending from Brazil to Ecuador.
Despite over 300 years of sporadic contact with white or mestizo civilization, and massive conversion to Christianity in the 1950s and 60s the Shipibo-Conibos maintain a strong cultural identity and retain their ancient ways. Besides being artisans, the Shipibo-Conibo are primarily hunters and fishermen, using some slash and burn farming, and still today none of the villages use electricity; machetes and spears are the primary tools. All of the villages use barter for trade, but their proximity to the burgeoning town of Pucallpa makes it inevitable that the people will soon be drawn into modern trade and exploitation.
The Shipibo are renowned as skilled artisans, the craft being passed down from from one generation to another and forms a vital part of their cultural identity; the designs themselves being regarded as a form of synaesthetic living language that depicts their Ayahuasca-based cosmology in a magico-religious artform. Each Shipibo design is unique, and the intricate, mesmerising designs that adorn their pottery and colourful fabrics are highly distinctive.
Shipibo textiles are still produced in the traditional way – hand-woven, or hand-painted on cotton using natural vegetable and mineral dyes. Shipibo artists often depict Ayahuasca symbolism and other shamanic elements in their paintings. Shipibo ceramics have become increasingly sophisticated over time and are characteristically soft and light in weight, being made entirely manually without the use of a wheel. They are traditionally used as bowls, vases, other vessels and special ceremonial/ritual objects.
Shipibo-Conibo women make beadwork and textiles, but are probably best known for their pottery, decorated with maze-like red and black geometric patterns. While these ceramics were traditionally made for use in the home, an expanding tourist market has provided many households with extra income through the sale of pots and other craft items. They also prepare chapo, a sweet plantain beverage.
The Shipibo of the village of Pao-Yan used to have a diet of fish, yuca and fruits. Now, however, the situation has deteriorated because of global weather changes and now there is mostly just yuca and fish. Since there has been drought followed by flooding, most of the mature fruit trees have died, and some of the banana trees and plantains are struggling. Global increases in energy and food prices have risen due to deforestation and erosion along the Ucayali River. The basic needs of the people are more important now than ever, affecting their long term planning abilities. There is now a sense that hunger may not be that far off for those in the farther reaches of the Shipibo nation.
Contact with western sources – including the governments of Peru and Brazil – has been sporadic over the past three centuries. The Shipibo are noted for a rich and complex cosmology, which is tied directly to the art and artifacts they produce. Christian missionaries have worked to convert them since the late 17th century, particularly from the Franciscans.
With an estimated population of over 20,000, the Shipibo-Conibo represent approximately 8% of the indigenous registered population. Census data is unreliable due to the transitory nature of the group. Large amounts of the population have relocated to urban areas – in particular the eastern Peruvian cities of Pucallpa and Yarinacocha – to gain access to better educational and health services, as well as to look for alternative sources of monetary income.