When the Indigenous Shipibo community based in Cantagallo found themselves struggling amid the pandemic, sharing their art and culture helped them —and an entire city— heal.
Milka Franco posing with the mural they painted for the Ministry of Culture
In a country like Peru that tends to render invisible the cultures belonging to its Indigenous communities, painting a noticeable mural with Kené designs in the middle of a concurred avenue sends a strong message. Kené designs consist of geometric patterns characteristic of the Shipibo – Konibo Indigenous community that originates from the Amazon, and since September of 2020, they could be seen on the walls of buildings and houses throughout the city of Lima. They were made by the Shipibas Muralist Collective, who started the project when the world was at the height of the pandemic.
“I told myself, I can’t sit still and do nothing. I am an Indigenous woman, I am a fighter, I am strong, I have to make this beautiful mural,” tells me Milka Franco, one of the Shipiba mothers who initiated the project. She is part of the Shipibo community of Cantagallo in Lima, who pre-pandemic made their living by selling handmade crafts —like beaded necklaces or embroidered fabrics— at local markets and in the city’s streets. In March 2020, due to the strict quarantine imposed by the government to try to contain the spread of Covid-19, they were left without their only source of daily income for months. As the pandemic progressed, 80% of the Shipibo Cantagallo community became infected the virus, “We were desperate [and] worried… Shipibo brothers were bedridden, and we had no money. We survived by using our medicinal plants alongside pharmaceutics, and little by little we healed” says Franco, “No Shipibo brother died.”
Mural by the Shipibas Muralist Collective
After recovering from the virus, the community was still unable to work, and money was scarce. Franco saw painting murals in public places as the only solution to collect funds for the community: appreciative passers-bys could perhaps be inclined to make a small donation after seeing their work, which could go towards food supplies for the community. This is how nine Shipibo mothers from Cantagallo decided to go out into the streets of the Peruvian capital to share their culture and story through walls and paint. The murals consisted of Kené designs passed down to them by their ancestors, who used them in times of difficulty as they represented and invoked strength — very fitting for the current context. Kené designs were usually applied on to beaded jewellery or fabrics, but they had never been painted onto walls.
The Shipibo community Franco was born in is originally from Pucallpa, a city located in the department of Ucayali, which is part of the Peruvian jungle. Many families from the Shipibo – Konibo community migrated to Cantagallo (locate in Lima) twenty years ago, where they settled. Some left Pucallpa in search of a better education for their children or in the hopes of finding better-paying jobs and, like Franco, many had to leave due to terrorism, which had invaded the Peruvian jungle. “Back then my father was the chief of my native community, Amaquiria. The terrorists wanted to form a committee in the community and my father opposed, so he was prosecuted,” says Franco, “We ran away in a canoe when I was little, and that’s how we got to the city. [We didn’t leave] because we wanted to.”
In the seven months the collective has been active they’ve painted 21 murals throughout Lima. Depending on the size of the mural, the collective can spend anything between nine to two days working on it. Now, their work is often commissioned by people who come across it on the streets or through Instagram, where they have over 6000 followers. Promoting their movement and work on social media was another way in which the community was able to increase the sales of their handmade crafts and gain visibility which resulted in donations.
The Shipibas Muralist Collective applying the finishing touches to a mural.
Sadly, not all their experiences painting murals have been positive. In January 2021, while painting a mural in the district of Barranco, a passer-by repeatedly made racist remarks directed at the community. “Most of our Peruvian brothers and sisters value our art and give us words of encouragement. But some people are ignorant and don’t appreciate the richness within Peru” says Franco, “Indigenous communities are rich in culture.” The Shipibo mother remarks that the support of people who love their art encourages them to continue sharing their culture and making it visible, “We are not stingy with our customs, on the contrary we want people to know about us… Shipibo culture is beautiful, it’s a living culture, and we are proud of that,” says Franco. She highlights one of the main problems Indigenous cultures face in Peru: that people believe they belong in museums and not in the streets of contemporary Peruvian cities.
After the incident, the Peruvian Ministry of Culture commissioned the collective to paint a wall on their building. Franco says this has been their favourite mural to work on as it combined three different types of Kené designs: Xao, Punte and Maya. The first two designs that have been passed on for generations, while Maya Kené was designed by the new generations of Shipibos. In the mural, Xao Kené is seen on the outer edges, is characterised by its thick lines and serves to evoke strength in moments of hardship. Maya Kené is easily recognisable in green and symbolizes medicinal plants and the harmony they provide the community with. Finally, Punte Kené was placed in the middle of the mural and symbolises the preservations of their traditions. Punte Kené designs were made by their grandmothers, who would paint them on their chituntis (embroidered skirt) to be worn with their colourful cutuns (blouses). Kené designs can also symbolise water, earth, and the jungle, amongst other elements. The patterns portrayed in the designs often come to them when they partake in Ayahuasca rituals and sing ícaros (traditional Shipibo songs). Besides continuing to apply the Kené design on fabrics and crafts, the collective has now started placing them on masks, lighters, flowerpots, small canvases, and through serigraphy.
Milka, Lucia, Soila, Nimia and Fidelia from the Shipibas Muralist Collective.
Despite having migrated to the capital, the Shipibo community refuses to leave behind their art, culture, and traditions. Murals provided the perfect outlet for them to make their community visible. Besides a few shoes which were accidentally submerged into paint buckets, nothing was lost when trying to use murals to save and heal not only a community but a city. “We muralise to resist, to share and to heal,” Franco says, “Diversity exists, and we are a living culture.”
Supporters can keep up with the collective’s work through their Instagram page @colectivoshipibasmuralistas.