A couple months ago, most visitors to the Shipibo community of Santa Clara would have remarked on the sorry state of the primary school campus. A combination of persistent absenteeism on the part of schoolteachers and flood damage to the crumbling school buildings have led to many children in the community showing blatant disregard for their campus environment. Frustrated by the destabilizing nature of their educational system, they scatter trash on the school grounds without a second thought and break into the rundown classrooms to topple over chairs and desks, leaving the debris in scattered piles reminiscent of a mini war-zone. What could I do to shift students’ thinking about their learning space—to encourage them to see themselves as contributing members to a broader project of community beautification?
The idea came as if in a dream. An old friend and traveling muralist, Eileen Hinckle, had already planned on coming to the village to visit me. What if we could combine her visit with a total transformation of the school buildings? Painting two large murals in such a short time was ambitious, but we set out to do it with as much student participation as possible, working under the assumption that the more input the kids had in the mural project the more long-term ownership they’d feel over their learning environment.
The first mural, painted with the help of over thirty elementary and high school students in the community, dealt with the theme of environmental justice. Though there is a degree of chaos inherent in attempting to direct thirty kids in how and where to paint a wall, we managed to finish the mural in a matter of days. Alongside the river scene, we painted in Spanish, “We are one with nature,” and in Shipibo, “We care for our environment.”
The second mural was larger and a bit more complex, combining traditional Shipibo legends and cultural traditions in a piece designed to welcome all visitors to the bilingual school in both Spanish and Shipibo. For this mural, we organized a storytelling workshop on Shipibo legends with Lucho, a village elder. The kids listened to his tales and illustrated them with the guidance of a Shipibo visionary artist, Deyvis Rodriguez, who then worked to interpret these drawings and combine them into one large work. The vine coming out of the traditional Shipibo pot is ayahuasca, a sacred visionary and medicinal plant used for centuries in Shipibo communities to cure disease and help individuals connect with higher spiritual realms. The serpent in the mural is also an important symbol of this tradition, as it is one of the most common visions seen during ceremony.
As we wrapped up this piece a week later, I organized one final workshop with Maria, one of the few female healers in the area, who painted traditional Shipibo kene (meaning “patterns” in the Shipibo language) on the sides of the school buildings to tie the two larger murals together. Before the kids jumped in to help color it all in, she taught them about the relationship between the geometric designs (which women typically paint onto pottery or embroider) and the songs and visions one can experience through work with sacred plant medicines.
After countless hours of hard work on the part of students and the larger community, we finished painting and applied the last layers of varnish in order to protect the work from rain and sun damage for generations of future students. Though there remains much work to be done in the struggle for educational and environmental justice in Shipibo communities, these bright murals are certainly a step in the right direction.
Eileen will be returning to the region next month to paint more murals with the Shipibo primary schoolchildren in the urban community of Bena Jema. We are very excited to be collaborating interculturally and working to beautify these spaces through the revitalization of traditional culture.
Friday, 16 January 2015