For this Xapiri blog, our topic is ceramics. In our 2nd blog, we stated that basketry was generally the principal art form in the Amazon, apposed to ceramics which are more widely used across indigenous North America. Nevertheless, pottery still has an important role to play in Amazonian life. Firstly, we must note that not all ethnic groups produce ceramics but even so, the majority of tribes have access to these items via a complex system of trade routes. This in a way can be paralleled with the ‘axes, pots and pans’ situation of today, as we believe most isolated tribes have access to metalware even though they have not had contact with the outside world, this is due to the trade with neighbouring tribes who have.
In the north of Brazil, in Roraima state, there is evidence of pottery traditions dating back approximately 10,000 years and this is the oldest known in all of the Americas. With this and the following 10,000 years of experimentation, variation and progression, a wide array of ceramics can be found across the Amazon.
A prime example of sophisticated pottery is on Marajó Island, Brazil which is located at the mouth of the Amazon River. The Marajó pre-Columbian culture from around 800 AD to 1300 AD was famed for their beautifully decorated polychrome pottery. Specifically, many large funeral urns have found in burial mounds with particularly impressive an elaborate designs. Ceramic artists are still active in Marajó today, using these pre contact styles for inspiration. Also found in Marajó culture is the unique Amazonian item, the tanga, a thin triangular concave ceramic pubic cover which have been found in female burial grounds. Once worn by women of several Amazonian tribes, today, they are still worn by girls during their puberty rites among Panoan-speaking peoples.
As per the Marajó above, in most of the Amazon, the ceramics are geometric and linear in decoration. These geometric designs comprise a system of graphic art where the contents are related to different systems of meaning. Often they are stylisations of nature, as well as representations of supernatural beings or symbolic elements. Inspired by the land around them, many elements are taken from nature such as the intertwined vines of the forest, turtle shell, monkey tail, honeycomb and the jaguar amongst others. All designs are highly stylised and representative of each indivdual artist who paints them.
Traditionally in the Amazon, it is the women who are the ceramic artists within the communities. Xapiri work with the Tukano communities of the northwestern Amazon in Colombia who create beautiful ceramics of many different shapes. Made for various uses but mainly as food serving dishes or bowls to prepare and serve chicha, cuarare, yage and cassava. For the Tukano, the mud is collected on the river shore then mixed with bark ash. Next it is moulded by rolling, smoothed, then glazed and then over the fire. High temperatures are reached with 1000 C guaranteeing resistance. When leaving the furnace, the parts are smeared with extracts of leaves and smoked. Then decorated with paintings from juansoco milk, mixed with yellow clay (curajmeno), white (boron) and red (juano).
When researching the ceramics form this region, repeatedly we were bought back to a great introduction text written by Barbara Braun in the book ‘Arts of the Amazon’ so please see the scanned pages below for reference:
In the next Xapiri blog we will look at Amazonian indigenous photography and the importance it has in promoting and protecting indigenous culture and land.
Peace & Love