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Art Through Time: A Global View

The Natural World Art: Clay Pot Storage Vessel (Masato chomo)

» Shipibo-Conibo artist, Peru

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
Period: 1900 CE – 2010 CE
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

The Shipibo-Conibo people of the Amazonian region of Eastern Peru mark a girl’s passage into womanhood (and eligibility for marriage) with an initiation ceremony called Joni-Ati.

Joni-Ati is part of a larger celebration called the Ani Shreati in which guests eat, drink, sing, and dance together. During the two years prior to the event, the girl’s family prepares to accommodate hundreds of guests by planting gardens to provide food and building ample housing. They also create clay vessels such as the masato chomo seen here.

The chomo, or “small pot,” is a particular type of vessel used to store and ferment the ceremonial beverage called masato. Made from entirely natural materials, including clay and plant-derived pigments and resins, these vessels are often buried partially in the ground to keep the masato cool during the fermentation process. Like other pottery, the chomo masato traditionally is made by women of the Shipibo-Conibo group who use designs based on archetypes found in nature. The geometric patterns on this masato chomo, which features bold red lines contrasting with thin, intricately drawn black lines, are evocative of a coiled snake motif. According to Shipibo belief, this pattern is the gift of the cosmic Anaconda Ronin, whose skin is considered the source of all designs. The association of the masato chomo with the snake is further suggested by the hand-built coiling technique used in its creation.

Expert Perspective
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.”

Additional Resources

Braun, Barbara, and Peter G. Roe, eds. Arts of the Amazon. London: Thames & Hudson, 1995.

Guss, David M. To Weave and Sing: Art, Symbol, and Narrative in the South American Rainforest. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990.

Mekler, Adam, et al. Vanishing Worlds: Art and Ritual in Amazonia. Houston: Houston Museum of Natural Science, 2005.

Roe, Peter G. “Art and Residence among the Shipibo Indians of Peru: A Study in Microacculturation.” American Anthropologist, New Series, 82.1 (March 1980): 42–71.

Vincentelli, Moira. Women Potters: Transforming Traditions. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004.

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