Third on-site post: Shipibo ceramic production and sustainability

Cecilio entering Augustina's studio

I’m dedicating this post to a specific part of my research; continued methods and preservation of traditional ceramic production. My original theory conjoined my research themes of migration and ceramics by claiming that perhaps if there were a system of sustainable economics such as production of ceramics for personal use within the city of Lima, it could allow migrants to have economic opportunity, preserve their cultural skills, and perhaps alleviate ethnic tensions and discrimination of provincial migrants in Lima.

I quickly discovered that this is unfortunately not currently possible. There is no market, no demand for these items within the city. As I speak with Limeneans, I casually ask if they would personally support artists that create ceramics for utilitarian uses as opposed to buying imported dining ware. I received many responses that all generally led me to realize that I was looking at it from a very western world point of view.

In our country, the United States, consumers have many options, we can easily find and support certain producers over others based on our personal ethics. For example, buying organic cage free eggs, or shoes that are certified child labor free. Furthermore, this kind of buying is trendy in our society. In Peru, I realized, people would of course like to support their fellow nationals but they don’t have flexible income to make that sort of decision. They have to eat on something and even if its made in china, stolen off a boat, sold without a receipt, they will buy it because it is cheap and they need it.

My hope was that there could be studios where potters can make utilitarian objects for other Peruvians to use, but the reality is that if such studio existed; it would undoubtedly become a mechanism for cultural appropriation, making traditional LOOKING objects to be exported to Pier One or Pottery Barn. That’s the last thing I would like to see.

Well, so I wanted to know if authentic pottery is still being produced within the margin, and what even defines the pottery as authentic. I was very lucky to have connections to a small Shipibo community in the amazon basin that has 3 ceramicists. I met one; Augustina who agreed to let me interview her and gave me a lot of insight. She makes a living selling her pottery mainly to tourists who come through her community.

The interview took place in her humble studio, amidst some dry green ware that she had completed and was getting ready to fire.

Augustina's work after the firing, before glazing

Here is our interview, transcribed in English.

Me: How long have you been making ceramics?

Augustina: Well, I was brought up with the craft through my mother and grandparents, my sisters taught me a lot to. What I do today I learned from there, for me its like an inheritance, what I have learned. But these days I’m practicing more now, because I’m selling, before we weren’t selling these ceramics.

Me: Do you make everything by hand?

Augustina: Yes, now the region has studios with elaborate molds and wheels but I am accustomed to the traditional Shipibo method of making it all by hand.

Me: It’s more authentic that way

Augustina: Of course

Me: So is the craft handed off through maternity?

Augustina: Yes typically, well see right now I am working with my son as opposed to my daughters, he has come out to be better than I even am.

Me: Is it rare for a male to make ceramics?

Augustina: Yes, in the case of Shipibos, you hardly ever see men as potters, in the Andes the tradition is vise versa, almost all of them are men, but the Shipibo tradition is contrary to that.

Me: Tell me, does it make you slightly upset that people make this type of pottery in Shipibo style out of molds?

Augustina: No, no, well, people come from Lima and set up shops with molds to sell to tourists but we know how it is, how to make the pottery by hand, how to prepare the clay, the slips, the glaze, and well, there we are.

Me: Yes, well, should people be allowed to make ceramics in the Shipibo style if they aren’t Shipibo? No, right?

Augustina: (She smiles and shrugs)

Me: So tell me about the materials, are the slips made from natural pigments.

Augustina: Everything is earth, different colors of dirt from the earth. Only the glaze, we take from plants.

Me: How long does it take to make this kiln-full? (About 16 large bowls and 5 smaller ones)

Augustina: Just painting them with the geometric Shipibo design takes at least 8 days.

Me: What do you see in the future for Shipibo potters.

Augustina: Well, how do I put these, here in the community of San Francisco, in 15, 20 years, there wont be any potters here. There won’t be any.

Me: Why?

Augustina: Because almost all of my fellow community members don’t want to do it. They may know how but it’s a lot of work to look for the clay, dig it out, create, paint, fire, it’s a ton of work, its not like textiles that you can make in one place with fewer steps. Ceramics isn’t like that.

Me: What a pity, and you’re sure in 15, 20 years there wont be potters here

Augustina: For sure, I’m positive

Me: But your children they know how to make ceramics?

Augustina: Yes my children know but they have other careers, my daughter is a teacher and she doesn’t have time to practice ceramics. That’s how it is, our children want to study, live in the city, and they don’t want to do ceramics.

Augustina invited me to stay with her in the future for as long as I would like, as a potter myself I was very interested in specific techniques and she offered me apprenticeship. She has had researchers from Europe stay with her to make pottery, learn Shipibo and archive information about the community.

Me, next to a traditional Shipibo kiln

I learned that the forces pulling migrants into cities are the cause of the inevitable loss of traditional ceramic production in indigenous areas.

As my dreams of Peruvians being able to preserve the wonderful skills and wisdoms of their indigenous population and revive them within the metropolitan city were crushed, I realized that the mechanisms behind this are economic and political. Everything that I have encountered in my research so far is a reverberation of capitalism and western imperialism, I’m doing more reading on the development of Latin America in relation to the United States in the 20th century and ill be taking courses this fall that will help me put it all into better perspective.

For now I can only feel pity that Shipibo ceramics is dying in its next generation and that the only way for it to survive would require a demand that would have to come from other nations. My next post will be about the class in Lima and the social positions of immigrants from provinces.