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A Closer Look at Kené Design in Arts of Resistance

Behind one of the sheer curtains partitioning MOA’s latest exhibition, Arts of Resistance: Politics and the Past in Latin America, lies a mural that covers the wall with vibrant, maze-like patterns. These intricate kené, or designs, are an art form of the indigenous Shipibo-Konibo people of Peru. Kené are based on the snake of Shipibo-Konibo creation history, embodying forms of ancestral knowledge through their creation.

The left side of the mural depicts the interconnected rivers of Ucayali region in the Peruvian Amazon. The thick black lines of the patterns depict the forest, with blue curves outlining the rivers. Brightly coloured shapes mark the forest’s animals. On the right, the stunning magenta and turquoise pattern represents an all-powerful, vibrational force described by the mural’s artists, Olinda Silvano (Reshijabe) and Silvia Ricopa (Runin Kaysi). They were commissioned by MOA to paint the mural on-site in advance of the exhibition’s opening.

Silvia Ricopa (left) and Olinda Silvano (right) in front of their kené mural in Arts of Resistance. Photo by Alina Ilyasova.

Ricopa and Silvano are Shipibo-Konibo artisans, currently living in a diasporic community in Lima, Peru. They create kené artworks in a dazzling variety of mediums, including beadwork, embroidery and painting. After being inspired by street artists in Lima, they have recently started painting the designs on public walls in Lima.

Beaded necklace by Silvia Ricopa, $69, and embroidered textile by Olinda Silvano, $650, at the MOA Shop.

The massive scale of the murals has given their artworks and culture a new visibility in Peru, where Shipibo-Konibo people are an ethnic minority. “Kené is a special, ancestral [form of] artistic heritage because of its resilience when in contact with other communities and artistic styles,” says Laura Osorio Sunnucks, curator of Arts of Resistance and MOA’s Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow for Latin America.

The resilience embodied in kené takes on additional meaning for Silvano and Ricopa, whose community was devastated in a 2016 fire. Painting the kené mural for Arts of Resistance was an opportunity for them to “rebuild their livelihood by mobilizing their art practice globally,” says Osorio. Creating kené artwork has been a resource for both healing and generating income throughout times of displacement and hardship.

To further support the artists, the MOA Shop currently offers a selection of Silvano and Ricopa’s handmade works—from kené-patterned tote bags to wall-size embroidered textiles. For the artists, sharing and selling their artwork is an opportunity to proudly share their culture, and make a living on their own terms.

This textile’s designs are drawn from the practice of ayahuasca healing rituals which bring on a visionary state thought to reveal expressive patterns that embody powerful energies. $1500 at the MOA Shop.

Silvano and Ricopa see themselves as not only artists, but “ambassadors of Shipibo culture globally,” says Osorio. They feel the life force of their ancestors and a connection to their ancestral lands through the creation of their work. Whether through painted walls or beaded jewelry, kené boldly asserts the livelihood of their Indigenous community through the living culture that the designs embody.

Arts of Resistance: Politics and the Past in Latin America is on view until September 30, 2018. The MOA Shop is proud to support artisans and their communities around the world through retailing their artworks.