The Shipibo-Conibo people live on the Ucayali river region of Eastern Peru.
They believe that the visible physical world and the invisible spirit world are connected. The chomo vaco is a coil-pot storage vessel decorated with traditional geometric designs, known as quënëa. No two patterns are the same. They are said to be rooted in a very old mythology that relates to the beginning of time.
People paint their bodies for different occasions, social, political and religious. Conibo men paint their bodies red prior to a hunt to ensure its success. Men will also paint their body black prior to a raid and this colour relates to death (Braun 1995:83).
With regards to the trance lines, like the ones seen on this vessel, only a fragment of their meaning survives today. It is believed that from birth every person has a pattern, an energy that relates to their well-being. Illness means that a peron’s energy needs readjusting. The pattern is discovered by a shaman, during a ceremony in which he enters the spirit world through a trance. By painting these trance lines on the body a person can tap into a spiritual energy and acts as an aid to healing.
People paint themselves for religious and social occasions, such as a coming of age rituals. During certain healing ceremonies, women have their hands, face and legs painted with geometric designs using dye from the Genipa americana fruit (other fruit dyes are used in other parts of the Amazon, for example, the Waurá of the Alto Xingú in Brazil use urucú fruit Bixa orellana) (Groning 1997:53)
The dye lasts up to 5 days on the body. These designs are believed to be permanently fixed to an individual and remain with them throughout life and after death. Body painting gives people meaning and it is part of their identity. Such painting is also a form of mask that can be used to present an individual’s emotion. The photograph of the Conibo woman was taken at a time when the Pope was visiting them in 1990.
Women continue this tradition, but are unable to interpret the patterns. For this the shaman is needed. Together the shaman and the artist could invoke strong powers. Today only the elders possess some knowledge of their origin and healing properties. The knowledge is not being handed down to new artists.
There are two design styles. Queen is a fine, thin, linear style that can be curved or angular. This is seen on the exhibited chomo vessel. The canoa style consists of thick, block-like lines composed of bold angular lattices. Vessels are often divided into two halves. Each style, contained within a border, is used on one half. All available surface space is decorated.