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10 / The Natural World

Clay Pot Storage Vessel (Masato chomo)
Clay Pot Storage Vessel (Masato chomo)
Artist / Origin Shipibo-Conibo artist, Peru
Region: South America
Date Mid-20th century
Material Clay, sempa protium (interior resin), yomoshon (exterior resin), mineral pigments
Medium: Ceramics
Dimensions H: 16 ½ in. (42 cm.), D: 23 5/8 in. (60 cm.)
Credit Courtesy of Adam Mekler and the Houston Museum of Natural Science

expert perspective

Peter G. RoeProfessor of Anthropology, University of Delaware

Clay Pot Storage Vessel (Masato chomo)

» Shipibo-Conibo artist, Peru

expert perspective

Peter G. Roe Peter G. Roe Professor of Anthropology, University of Delaware

What we find in the Amazon and the Amazonian cultures is that almost everything refers to that natural environment. In fact their religion, one could call it ‘jungle religion’ because it is based on the interdependence of various life forms. And then their major culture heroes and gods and spirits are actually half-animal. And these creatures, these animal totems, are half-human and half-animal, and they bring cultural gifts to human beings.

In American Indian culture, such as Shipibo, almost all of their designs come out of nature, are modeled on animals, are modeled on plants. So whereas in our culture we look back to key culture heroes who are artists to bring us our art, they look to the animals who carry that art naturally. For example, the diamond-shaped iridescent plats of an anaconda are beautiful geometric designs. So if you ask anybody, ‘Did you create that?,’ they will say, ‘No. That’s an insult. We didn’t create that. We got that from nature.’ And if you look at a plate, or you look at a pot which is used to ferment beer, the hissing of that fermentation will be like the coils of the pottery, because all the pottery is coil-built, handmade. And, of course, the act of coiling a pot is like coiling up a snake.

A key metaphor in the South American jungle is what social scientists have long called a sexual division of labor. And that is that each sex does a specific job in one culture after another. As you segregate the tasks you also segregate the design and the style of the artifacts to accompany that task. And you model the form of the artifact and its function upon the body image and the function of the sex doing the artifact.

For example, in South America, men are often associated with long, pointed, linear, sharp objects, for obvious reasons. These are kind of phallic imagery. Similarly a woman is regarded as round and soft and hollow, for obvious reasons that babies come out of women. When a woman makes an artifact out of those supple and soft raw materials—the soft clay, the supple basketry—she builds something up gestationally, that is, by making a large object out of small individual components—the strands of the basket, the individual elements of the weaving, the rolls of clay. And so the end result, the final artifact, is a kind of object that she has literally gestated and given birth to. It is more than the sum of its parts.” 

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