Olinda Reshinjabe Silvano: Finding Solidarity with Indigenous Communities through Ancient Shipibo-Konibo Practices
“I would say to Indigenous women that we, as Indigenous people, are strong. We are powerful because we have our traditions, our ancestral memory. Keep fighting so that others will follow our steps. We have to be more united, giving visibility to our identity, our people, our culture, the living culture of Indigenous people.”
Courtesy of Olinda Reshinjabe Silvano and The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, photo by Hyerim Han
Olinda Reshinjabe Silvano is an artist, muralist, craftswoman and changemaker for her Shipibo-Konibo community. She visited Toronto in September 2022 on the occasion of her exhibiting at The Power Plant in Arctic/Amazon: Networks of Global Indigeneity (October 1–December 31, 2022). She was born in 1969 in the small village of Paoyhan in the city of Pucallpa which is located in the Amazonian rainforest of eastern Peru. The Shipibo are the third largest Indigenous group in the Peruvian Amazon, with 36,000 people and over 150 communities in total.
Since she was a baby, Silvano developed a deep connection to the spiritual practices of her people. She explained that, “During my birth, my grandparents cut my belly button and poured piri piri over me. Piri Piri is a plant with a tuber that we shred to extract the juice. My body absorbed it, and when I was three-months old, they induced visions in me by ayahuasca. Through this ayahuasca vision, they gave me an invisible crown.” From these sacred plants, Silvano started to see geometric patterns, vibrant colours, and intricate line systems within her mind’s eye.
Olinda Reshinjabe Silvano working on a kené mural at OCAD University. Photo by Hyerim HanOlinda Reshinjabe Silvano working on a kené mural at OCAD University. Photo by Hyerim Han
By the age of two, Silvano started to make kené–an ancient art form made by Indigenous women within her community. Female artisans with this gift will often illustrate their visions onto fabrics, ceramics, wood, and the human body. During her early years, Silvano learned how to make pottery, embroidered jewelry, bags, and other handicrafts from her grandmother. Later on, she focused on transferring these maze-like designs onto large-scale paintings and murals.
When Silvano moved to Lima, the capital of Peru, with her family in 1997, she decided to build a precarious, cultural house with other Shipibo-Konibo families on the banks of the polluted Rimac River. Within their small neighbourhood of Cantagallo, she collaborated with other women to form the collective, Las Madres Artesanas (The Artisan Mothers). She expressed that when they are working on their creations, “We have to speak to the fabric, the energy, the spirit that has to be there, an invisible spirit that you won’t see, but that is there.”
Olinda Reshinjabe Silvano at The Power Plant, Toronto, 2022. Photo by Henry Chan
Building meaningful relationships and inviting others to take part in the process of making kené art is a core part of her process. For the exhibition Arctic/Amazon at The Power Plant, Silvano collaborated with her colleagues Wilma Maynas and Ronin Koshi, along with local art students from the Wapatah Centre for Indigenous Knowledge at OCAD University, to create a series of three large-scale paintings. The students were able to reflect on their own territories, ancestral practices and cultural traditions through the act of making kené. In addition, Silvano believes that these illuminating designs have the opportunity to guide, heal and create meaningful connections between humans and forces beyond our sight.
Olinda Reshinjabe Silvano, Ronin Koshi and Wilma Maynas performing at the Arctic/Amazon: Networks of Global Indigeneity exhibition opening, The Power Plant, Toronto, 2022. Photo by Henry Chan.
A common motif in her art is a divine anaconda (or snake) called el Ronín, who is the creator of the earth and water and whose geometric patterns inspired kené art. The Shipibo-Konibo people believe that the anaconda is the source of all existing designs, which includes plants, animals, objects, spirits, and humans. In fact, the ayahuasca, called nishi or “rope”, is meant to symbolize the anaconda through twisted cords within their art. Similarly, the piri piri plant, which means waste in Shipibo-Konibo, is also a manifestation of el Ronin since it is considered to have sprouted from her ashes according to mythology.
Moreover, these interconnected shapes and forms have deep symbolic significance for the Shipibo-Konibo people as they embody cosmic worldviews, energy pathways, the Milky Way, forest geographies, and the wildlife. These ancient illustrations are believed to cure physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual ailments.
Olinda Reshinjabe Silvano's Kené painting, 2022. Acrylic on canvas. Commissioned by The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, 2022. Installation view: Arctic/Amazon: Networks of Global Indigeneity, The Power Plant, Toronto, 2022. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid
Since these patterns suggest musical scores and plant songs, Silvano and her companions activate these two-dimensional surfaces by singing. Through ritualistic songs from her ancestors, Silvano uses her voice to amplify the healing properties of these kené paintings.
Silvano’s practice is a commitment to her people along with all Indigenous woman who work to protect their culture, heritage and community ways of living. In an interview with The Power Plant, she fervently expresses that, “If I have to die, I die, but I will die fighting for my people, for my women, for my kids, for my family, for the youth! I want gender equality. Equality for opportunities.”
Through kené art, Silvano brings attention to the important beliefs that continue to knit her community together. By collaborating with Indigenous youth and peoples far and wide, she also invites audiences to consider their own dedication to ancestral practices and cultural traditions.
Interview with Olinda Reshinjabe Silvano | The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery
Belaunde, Luisa Elvira, Sara Welsh Colaianni, and Sara Walsh Colaianni. “Chapter 7: ‘Kené’: Shipibo-Conibo Design.” Fieldiana. Anthropology, no. 45 (2016): 81–92.
Dyck, Melaina. “Precarious resilience: An ethnography of Shipibo communities.” Tropical Resource Institute, Yale University. 2019
McMaster, Gerald, and Nina Vincent. “Exhibitions: The Image Centre at Toronto Metropolitan University.” Arctic/Amazon: Networks of Global Indigeneity. 184–201. New Brunswick: Goose Lane Editions, 2023.
Museum of International Folk Art. “Olinda Silvano/ Reshinjabe: the importance of wearing traditional dress.” YouTube. July 4, 2021. Video, 2:20-2:50.
The Power Plant. “Interview with Olinda Reshinjabe Silvano | The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery.” YouTube. November 22, 2022
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“What is Kené.” Kene Amazon