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Concepts of perception, visual practice, and pattern art among the Cashinahua Indians (Peruvian Amazon area)
Barbara Keifenheim Published online: 17 May 2010. To cite this article: Barbara Keifenheim (1999): Concepts of perception, visual practice, and pattern art among the Cashinahua Indians (Peruvian Amazon area), Visual Anthropology: Published in cooperation with the Commission on Visual Anthropology, 12:1, 27-48 To link to this article:

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Concepts of Perception, Visual Practice, and Pattern Art among the Cashinahua Indians (Peruvian Amazon Area)
Barbara Keifenheim
Downloaded by [USP University of Sao Paulo] at 15:22 27 May 2013 This paper attempts to demonstrate that consistent regard for culturally specific concepts of perception and analysis of native visual practice open new possibilities for the interpretation of Amazon Indian pattern art. For the ornamentalistics theory a new paradigm results from this, with emphasis on the processuality and performativity of the construction of meaning instead of the previous focus on structure and system, the basis for the search for iconographic traces of semantic content.

The Cashinahua Indians, inhabiting the Peruvian-Brazilian border region, are a small Amazonian group of hunters and planters.1 In the field research which I have regularly conducted there since 1977,1 have concentrated exclusively on the Cashinahua on the Peruvian side. They are descendants of a segment of the group that, at the end of the rubber boom, fled from Brazil to the region of the source of the Rio Curanja after the murder of a hated trader and avoided all contact with the outside world through the end of the 1940s. Even though a definitive connection to Peruvian society has now transpired, the Cashinahua nonetheless profit from their geographic isolation and thus live, in comparison to other groups, relatively undisturbed by massive foreign influences. Thus the traditional pattern art, with which I am here concerned, still plays an important role. My study deals with the complex shifting relationships between viewing and image and attempts to demonstrate, with the example of Cashinahua ornamentalistics, that the consideration of culturally specific perception concepts and visual practice opens new interpretation possibilities for Amazon-Indian pattern art. In my empirical on-site investigations, I took up recent questions arising in the fields of visual anthropology as well as the anthropology of the senses. While the historical and cultural impact on human vision became a central theme for visual anthropology in the 1990s,2 the anthropology of the senses concentrates especially

BARBARA KEIFENHEIM, a native of Germany, received her Doctorate in Anthropology from the Sorbonne in 1982. She has been conducting fieldwork among the Cashinahua and the ShipiboConibo Indians of the Peruvian Amazon since 1977. Also an active filmmaker, Keifenheim has lectured on visual anthropology at various European universities. She lives and works in Paris and Berlin. 27

28 B. Keifenheim on the culturally specific differences of sensory orders and points out that conceptions of the visual cannot be grasped when disconnected from the particular perceptual universe.3 It is perhaps surprising that I not only found orientation for my investigations in approaches from these two subdisciplines of anthropology but also gave central importance to the question of performativity of visual processes. Therefore I would like briefly to describe from which perspective the paradigm of performativity appears to me to be applicable to the area of vision.


In the investigation of performative processes, through which actors and cultural events are indeed constituted, the body as sensate body receives ever more attention. And yet, when focusing on the body, it seems to me essential also to deal with the basic question as to what role perceptions play in the mediating and negotiating process between the subject and the multi-layered levels of its environment. Not only is the body, in its "insistence on meaning" (Kirmayer), to be understood as the primary site of negotiation between symbolic and sensory order, but it also must be stressed that the body, in its sensory arrangement, provides specific negotiation modalities as well. If the paradigm of performativity is to be applicable to visual perception processes, various criteria must however be fulfilled for us to be allowed to speak at all of performativity in this area. In this regard it seems to me essential that a visual transformation process can be demonstrated on a conceptual and praxeological level in whicheven if only for a fleeting momentobserver and image constitute each other in a specific manner which is perceived as endowing meaning. Further criteria are the possibility to stage and repeat such processes, their character of creating a community spirit, and finally the emotional potential thereby released. My working hypothesis consists of the supposition that the criteria mentioned can indeed be demonstrated in the case of the Cashinahua. Should this supposition prove correct, a new paradigm for the ornamentalistics debate would be provided with emphasis on its rooting in process and performativity rather than focusing on structure and system, which have until now formed the basis for the iconographic search for traces of semantic meaning content. First, I shall present the Cashinahua's general concepts of perception and then go into the native vision theorems.4 In a further section, I shall describe some of the characteristics of ornamental pattern art so as to then develop the concept of performative vision in the ornamental visual experience. Finally, I shall list the consequences of this concept of vision for the theory of ornamentalistics.

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The fundamental scepticism of the Cashinahua with regard to all sensory perceptions5 as suitable means for the judging and testing of reality is striking. This basic idea stands in close connection to a widespread Amazonian concept of multiple and interfering realities.

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The Cashinahua myths of creation report that at the beginning of things each living being was in communication with each other being and could exchange forms af will (dami-). The visible and the invisible did not stand in opposition to each other, but were rather shifting transformational appearances of one and the same unbroken reality. Due to a tragic misfortune, however, a differentiation process occurred. Since then, separated reality levels of space and time, of the visible and the invisible, have existed. Nonetheless, they are not dichotomically separated, but rather have shifting boundaries. As a result of this differentiation, every living being also now has a body yura and spirit yushin, which are specifically predetermined according to its species, and must be content "to be in itself" for the brief duration of its finitude. This limitation becomes all the more a prison since the beings have lost the ability for universal communication. Animals are condemned to uttering cries and people are caught in a deceptive language. Illness and death came into existence along with language. Thus the break in original creation simultaneously led to the emergence of language, illness, and death, of deceptive communication and the problem of illusion and reality. Since then, it is part of the human condition that every course of life transpires in a dangerous field of tension, since everything appears to waver between the illusion of reality and the reality of illusion. Through deceptive reality perception and judgement, there is always the risk of losing the "being in oneself' and, having got "outside of oneself', of succumbing to dangerous metamorphoses. The concept of multiple realities interfering with each other explains why the Cashinahua regard every perceptory stimulus as basically polyvalent: the classification of the perceived in one of the various possible reality levels can, in the Cashinahua mind, never be unequivocally determined. Borrowing from the terminology of semiotics, we can label this problem a deficient referentiality of perceptory signifiers. One and the same infatuating odor inin which a hunter perceives on his treks through the jungle can be produced by one specific plant source, the sinkabin tree, but may also come from the spirit of a dead person attempting to induce yearnings for the beyond in him. The flow of saliva which one perceives when waking up at night can result from the process of digestion, but it can also be the trace of an oral sex act which a forest spirit has secretly conducted with the sleeper. Thus, for the Cashinahua, perception is often accompanied by the search for a connection between the perceived and the non-perceived superior to it, which itself likewise possesses perceptory capabilities. The perceiver is caught in a disposition of energetic permeability and is also subjected to the perceiving non-perceivable. A human's sensory instrumentarium not only opens the world to him, but also allows the perceived world to penetrate him. This idea is articulated, for instance, in the concept that sensory perceptions are accompanied by a transfer of substance which is potentially dangerous. Thus poisons, for example, can enter into the body through voices or touch and ultimately will lead to death. In connection with this, some Cashinahua women confessed to me some time ago that they had been careful in the first years of our contact that no baby came into my arms because they feared their children could be harmed through skin contact with me or by my voice.

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30 B. Keifenheitn The imana- illness, in which the desire for the beyond turns one away from life, is not considered a psycho-social crisis but a result of the effect of substances which have penetrated the patient through olfactory and auditory contact with spirits of the dead. After he has "extra-sensorally" smelled and heard, someone suffering from the imana- illness will also soon see spirits of the dead. The spirits of his dead relatives will come, touch him, and, by means of pictures of wonderful objects, invite him to follow them into the beyond. The ill person turns away from human nourishment and begins to feed himself, as spirits do, on worms and earth. Thus his normal sensory order dissolves and all his senses are completely directed to the beyond. It will not be much longer until the eye spirit, beru yushin,6 leaves the body and the human dies. Moreover, there are free-floating perceptory substances which transverse the various cosmic spheres and enter into humans preferably through nose, ears, and skin. Free floating substances alter the personal sensory order and thus a person's identity. For instance, the substance yupa entering into a hunter results in deficient perceptions which eliminate his hunting qualities from one day to the next. No matter how much he tries, he will no longer be able to smell or hear any animal, nor will he be able to aim correctly at wild game should it accidentally end up in his field of vision. Thus one infested with yupa is, because of his deficient perception, no longer able to fulfill his duties as hunter. Along with the associated social prestige, he also loses his sexual attractiveness and slips progressively into an outsider position.7 In addition, being penetrated by the substance muka is a decisive characteristic of shamans. Appropriately enough, the Cashinahua word for shaman is huni mukaya: literally, a man penetrated by muka (bitterness). In contrast to the unlucky hunter, he experiences a magnification of his sensory abilities which however let him drift out of the usual sphere of interaction with humans and into the sphere of communication with animals and spirits. He will henceforth be unable to kill any more game because in his perceptions the boundary between animals, humans, and spirits has dissolved. How could he be capable of killing a tapir when he can communicate with it in the same sphere or recognizes a deceased relative in it? His singular perceptory competence indeed does, in a spiritual sense, contribute to the well-being of the community because he is capable of boundary-transcending communication and interaction, but he is lost to society as a producer. And thus no family is pleased when one of its members receives an obvious calling to be a shaman. A strict treatment is necessary to rid oneself of the cosmic, identity-changing substances. Since they are considered indestructible, the only method to deal with them is to set them free again. And one must be especially careful that no one is near the patient, for when the substances are driven out of his body they can immediately penetrate another person. Metonyrhic doubt and the risk of dangerous substance transfer lead to an existential dilemma, for even a banal daily occupation can be extremely overloaded with potential dangers and the enormous complexity of possible interpretations which must be reduced to a tolerable level in order to experience the world as order rather than chaos. In this context, the significance of perceptory strategies, whose mastery belongs to the socialization of every Cashinahua, becomes clear. The simplest

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Pattern Art and Perception 31

strategy consists of closing the affected sensory organ in case of danger, i.e. in situations in which reality orders may be disrupted: one stops up the nose, covers the ears, closes the eyes, or shields the skin from touch. The purpose of these maneuvers is to interrupt the energetic circular movement among the perceiving, the perceived, and the perceiving non-perceivable. Even children are enjoined to recognize when such behavior is necessary. Thus every young Cashinahua hunter must assiduously use all his senses to detect the slightest behavioral changes among animals. A wild animal whose death rattle does not sound specific to its species, which one with unimpeachable hunting technique strikes with an arrow and sees fall to the ground, but then cannot find, which moves in an unusual manner, which emits an atypical smell, or which demonstrates other such unusual behavior, indicates that one is certainly not dealing with a wild animal but rather with a spirit. Then one must drop everything, look away, stuff one's nose with leaves, and rush back to the village. One important perception strategy consists of the linkage of seeing, hearing, and smelling to avoid perceptual deception and associated interpretation mistakes, especially in the jungle and in contact with outsiders. Whenever a perception is not further supported in the jungle by visual, auditory, and olfactory correspondences, there is, according to the Cashinahua, the danger that one is dealing with spirits of the dead or other invisible powers. This combination of visual, auditory, and olfactory information is also necessary in contacts with whites in order to recognize their true being and the aims behind their outer facade. Thus it is important during visits from tradesmen, for instance, or representatives of regional political authorities, not only to pay attention to the spoken word but also not to let the vocal qualities of the speaker "out of the ear" and simultaneously to perceive and interpret his outer appearance in connection with his smell. In this way, the awkward gait, the constant gesturing, and especially the voice of a missionary that they felt was too loud was surely responsible for robbing his salvation message of a good deal of credibility: his words proclaimed love, peace, and redemption, but his loud voice revealed him to be a puben: this term is used by the Cashinahua to designate antisocial and anticultural beings. Thus the Cashinahua practice of perception in the outside world of the jungle and in encounters with strangers is above all marked by avoidance strategies and "cognitive linkage". The principle supracomplexity of their perception interpretations is, however, reduced by the fact that the multiple signified levels per se are not necessarily everywhere nor must they always be decoded as such. Though there is basic knowledge about the illusionary reality of outwardly perceptible forms, since everything can be itself and also something else, the perceptual polyvalence must be subjected to a sort of dissociation for one to be able to come to terms with the pragmatic necessities of day-to-day life and, yet more principally, to be at all able to recognize the meaning of ordinary life. A Cashinahua hunter must be able to rely on the fact that, when he sees a tapir, it is really an animal in order to be able to kill it. Nearly everyone can, however, report on liminal situations in which he gave up on his hunting prey because he could not avoid simultaneously recognizing more in the wild animal than the animal itself, e.g. the incarnate spirit of a dead person.

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32 B. Keifenheim Whether the multiple layers of perceptual signified are evoked individually or connected depends on the most various personally, situationally, and expectationally specific factors. In their totality they represent a sort of "subliminal model of the world" for the Cashinahua, yet its multidimensionality is surely only accessible in liminal situations for most individuals. There are however women and men who have developed a specific disposition for perception and interpretation through which this model works like a meta-mood for them. This is the case for shamans, but also for all people who are said to have a highly developed consciousness (shinan), for example for herbalists, experts in ritual acts, singers and pattern artists.

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The general concepts of sensory perception are of course also applicable to the sense of sight. It must however be pointed out that the Cashinahua maintain that this is the most unstable sense of all and that its undependability and insufficiency must be compensated for through a combination, for example, with smelling and hearing and a corresponding "cognitive linkage". Yet, this multimodality, in the sense that a coupling of perception and interpretation is striven for, represents only one intermodal sensory variant. In fact, we are dealing here with a practice of seeing marked by a fluctuating overlapping of visual, acoustic, and olfactory modes. Nonetheless, for the purposes of semantics and analytic discourse, at least three modi may be distinguished which mark the visual perceptual flux. For reasons of description and analysis, I would like to distinguish between them and label them monomodal, linked intermodal, and synaesthetic, although these terms have no correspondence in the Cashinahua language. In the monomodal mode, no specific interaction with the other senses occurs. It is day-to-day sight with the usual spatial-topographical and temporal limitations. This mode of sight is preferably developed in intersodetal contexts where the problem of metonymic doubt is largely eliminated, since all perceptual stimuli arise from one's own kind, who have been socialized and "culturized" in the same way. Sensing and bestowing sense amount to something ordinary which lets one forget the principle insufficiency of perceptual acts. Linked intermodal sight involves an interaction with smelling and hearing. This mode, as has already been mentioned, is especially effective in extrasocietal contexts and is "automatically" activated on the hunt and also in contact with strangers. The synaesthetic mode knows no distinction between the individual sensory modes, in contrast to the linked mode; rather, a mingling of the senses occurs. This mode characterizes especially the drug-induced visions after ingestion of boiled lianas (Banisteriopsis caapi), but is however also effective in ritual dances. Although in synaesthesia the differentiation between the individual sensory modes is dissolved, I continue to speak of a specific mode of sight in order to take into account an extreme dimension of the fluctuating vision continuum. I have distinguished the three different modes which mark the vision continuum because, from the native's point of view, each mode of vision constitutes a different relation to reality, i.e. it can be determined which of the realities resulting from

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the creation story and their corresponding levels of signification come "into the field of vision". I shall begin with synaesthetic vision under drug influence. I would first like to point out that mythological discourse and hallucinogenic visions retrace the process of creation in contrary, if complementary, ways. The myths accentuate the differentiation process introduced by the rupture in original creation. In sequences, there is a retracing of how the "world at the beginning of things" became the fragmentary world of competing orders which we find today. In hallucinogenic visions, on the other hand, a de-differentiation of the world of the here-and-now around us takes place through a dissolution of the ordinary sensory order. With progressing drug effects, the distinction of forms is abolished and replaced by the synaesthetic determined vision of a pre-formal world which is filled with mythological/cosmological significance: in a reversal of the process of differentiation, the fragments of splintered creation fuse into unity through a synaesthetic viewing during the visions. It could therefore be said that the synaesthetic determined vision leads to a holistic view of things, holistic also because synaesthesia implies nothing other than a mingling of sensory impressions into a single sensory stimulus. Unity of the senses and unity of original creation correspond. Holistics is, in motifs and perception, reliant on de-differentiation, which must however be controlled, since the people of the world of the here-and-now must not forget that it ultimately leads to dissolution and death. That is the reason for the singing accompanying drug visions and ritual dances with its ordering and guiding function. If synaesthetic vision refers to the unbroken reality of original creation, then the monomodal mode of vision, with its spatial-topographically and temporally limited possibilities, refers to the reality of the world of the here-and-now. Since this is only a part of the realities resulting from the rupture in original creation it is fragmentary per se. It could thus be said that the vision applied to it implies afragmentaryview of things. This fragmentary view bears absolutely no negative connotation, for it is simultaneously the sine qua non for being at all able to situate oneself in the hereand-now, and the Cashinahua have absolutely no concept of a "paradise lost". Combined sight has an intermediary position between holistic and fragmentary vision. This sight modus could therefore also be referred to as an intermediary view of things. It occurs above all where levels and orders of reality can shift, overlap, and reverse. I would like to stress again that we are dealing with a fluctuating sight continuum. The distinctions I have made, however, give us the possibility to consider perceptions, myths, and drug visions together; areas, that is, which until now have been researched separately. In a later section, I shall examine how these sight differentiations become effective in the ornamental visual experience.


Traditionally, there is no figurative depiction for the Cashinahua; strictly speaking, pictures do not occur.8 'Visually noteworthy artifacts include, for the men, primarily feather dress and, for the women, the ornamental pattern art which is the focus of my studies of the shifting relationships between vision and image.

34 B. Keifenheim With the Cashinahua, ornamentalistics lies exclusively in the domain of women. Though this is the case with many Amazonian cultures, there are significant exceptions, as with the Yekuana Indians of Venezuela, where the patterns are executed exclusively by men [Guss 1989]. The female Cashinahua pattern artists enjoy great spiritual respect, as it is generally agreed that the core of all knowledge lies in their woven and painted kene patterns. Kene patterns are now found on woven hammocks, shoulder bags, and baby carriers among other things. In addition, they are found on woven baskets, initiation stools, kalebassen masks, and other ritual objects. Finally, they are also used in face and body painting.9 In developing the vision-ornament relationship, I will here merely deal with the formal aspects of Cashinahua pattern art and not be able to go into such themes as the secret female knowledge of the pattern weavers, their social position, the marking of ethnic identity, etc. in this article. With regard to the repertory of forms, Cashinahua ornamental pattern art differs from other Amazonian cultures in that neither individual creations nor innovations exist. The repertory of kene patterns reproduced results from the combinatory possibilities of a few basic motifs and similarly few combinatory rules. The most frequent basic motifs are meandering hooks (or geometric curls), rhombi, triangles, squares, wavy lines, and zigzag lines. As construction and combinatory rules, we find the negative-positive principle, the sequential arrangement of one and the same basic motif or motif combination, the concentric placement of one and the same basic motif inside each other, the spiral extension of a meandering hook, volutions and axial symmetric mirroring. (Figures 9 and 10 offer some examples.)

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Figure 1 Example of patterned stripes where the hardly developed motif elements of a kene stop abruptly. (Photo, copyright B. Keifenheim.)

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Figure 2 Example of patterned stripes where the hardly developed motif elements of a kene stop abruptly. (Photo, copyright B. Keifenheim.) Upon analysis, the patterns reveal a conspicuous relationship between the given surface and the organization of the motifs. In fact, it does not appear that the motifs are so arranged as to cover the surface, but rather that the motifs open perception to a larger space and suggest continuity beyond the limits of the decorated material, regardless as to whether dealing with hammocks, stools, faces, body surfaces, or sheets of paper. They are painted or woven as though the patterns continued into infinity. At the edge of the material surface, the linescharacteristically called "paths," baisimply cease. This is a decisive characteristic of Cashinhua pattern art (Figures 1 and 2 as well as many examples in Dwyer [1975]). Dawson also did not miss this surface surpassing aspect of Cashinahua: "It is almost as if the Cashinahua artists work with infinite patterns in their minds and, only as it suits them, present select parts to form basic design units or compositions". And she continues: 'This gives the design field the aspect of a 'window' through which one can see a portion of an infinite design" [1975:138,142].10 Most hammocks are not decorated over the entire surface, and bear only a few patterned diagonal stripes. At first glance, the kene, thereby extremely limited in extent, give the impression of being incomplete or only suggested, for, hardly having developed their characteristic motif elements, they stop abruptly. Merely weaving patterned stripes is however certainly not due to labor-saving motivations of the women, but rather due to the specific reading that the Cashinahua apply to their kene. Indeed, the recognition of a pattern seems to be sufficient to allow the inner eye to see its continuation. On large weavings where the patterns cover the entire surface, seamless transitions from one kene to the next are often found [Figures 3-6]. It becomes apparent

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Example of seamless transition from one kene to another. (Photo, copyright B. Keifenheim.)

Figure 4

Example of seamless transition from one kene to another. (Photo, copyright B. Keifenheim.)

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Figure 5 Example of seamless transition from one kene to another. (Photo, copyright B. Keifenheim.)

Figure 6 Example of seamless transition from one kene to another. (Photo, copyright B. Keifenheim.)

38 B. Keifenheim

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Figure 7 In pattern labyrinths the gaze is said to get lost. (Photo, copyright B. Keifenheim.)

Figure 8 Upon continued viewing, supplementary fields of perception emerge. (Photo, copyright B. Keifenheim.)

Pattern Art and Perception 39 that every pattern can be transformed and that the totality of visual transformations engenders a shifting pictorial continuum. This further emphasizes the boundless dimension of Cashinahua ornamentalistics. In this is an apparent correspondence to the conception of a patterned cosmic continuum. For example, certain spirits of the dead live in the most distant cosmic space and are described as beautifully decorated and keeping richly patterned hammocks ready for the reception of the dead. Even the sick glance at them. The boa snake, an extremely significant figure in Cashinahua mythology, appears as "intermediary" between the perceptible patterns of human arranged space and the, for the normal eye, imperceptible kene of the most distant cosmic space, and in many regards plays the role of intermediary between various levels of reality. Enclosed in an outer hull, the snake equates with mortal man. But with its ability for cyclical shedding of skin, the snake also represents the principle of transformation and immortality for the Cashinahua. Moreover, in the opinion of the pattern artists, it unites the totality of all kene on its skin, and part of the traditional education of the weavers was to receive the "pattern spirit" through ritual killing of the boa. In its role as intermediary between separated realities, the boa, a spiritual preceptor, reveals paths of border-crossing vision to humans: to men through drug-induced visions, to women through art, it makes connecting paths (bai) visible. As a bridge between divided spaces, the kene develop as a chain of unbroken transformational steps, for, as already mentioned, movement from one pattern to the next is seamless, without "break". This principle of transformation may however also be documented through further formal pattern principles. Many kene are arranged according to a positive-negative plan allowing, it is true, two visual directions, but, in contrast to the principle of pattern and background, revealing one and the same motif [Figure 10]. Thus the separation between interior and exterior becomes arbitrary. The one is the transformation of the other. Although dominated by rectilineal basic motifs, rectilinearity and curvature don't seem to be opposing formal principles. There exist angular and curved versions of many patterns, and transitions from angular geometric forms to curved ones are frequent. Curvature and rectilinearity do not then appear to be separate stylistic elements, but rather transformations of the modalities of movement of the boundless paths (bai). Transformation, then, is not only a lineally conceived sequence of changing forms, but in addition signifies that every form also contains its own transformation. Despite strict geometrical arrangements, the patterns appear shifting. The geometrical order, as "arrested movement", seems only to exist when a single motif is studied or the entire patterned surface is viewed from some distance and the boundless aspect described above is disregarded. As soon as the gaze fixes on one kene, however, it finds no fixed point of reference any more. The attempt to follow the meandering paths (bad blurs the apparently clear foreground order because the gaze is caught in a pattern labyrinth and gets caught in "dead ends" [Figure 7]. By continued viewing, quadratic, triangular, or rectangular "fields of perception" emerge, overlay the pattern, and are displaced or even dissolved by the slightest destabilization of the glance [Figure 8]. In short, the longer one looks at the kene, the more they begin to move.

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40 B. Keifenheim


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Figure 9 Basic elements and combinations. Thus the study of kene does not fix one's viewpoint, but rather the viewing itself, since the observer attempting to follow the intricate paths (bat) can no longer remove his gaze from them. The Cashinahua consider this process of perception extremely dangerous; therefore the sick are never laid in a patterned hammock, since their vision risks getting lost in the kene. All spiral-like patterns are considered especially dangerous. In an ill person's perception, the spiral ends begin to transform into snake heads. According to the Cashinahua, soon other visions follow containing the same motifs as hallucinogenic images occurring under the influence of Banbteriopsis caapi. In contrast to the controlled drug visions accompanied by songs, the sick are without orientation aids and therefore get lost in their own perception. This means the ill person's eye spirit (beru yushiri) follows the visions and ultimately enters onto the path of death (maua bai) instead of returning into the body. The description of the path of death, along which the soul of a dead woman wanders, also bears witness to the fact that the Cashinahua are aware that the gaze can get lost in the labyrinth of patterns. The path of death for women corresponds, so to say, to a condensate of all the woven pattern paths of her life. The eye spirit follows the kene lines, makes constant mistakes, and risks getting lost forever, for it, just as the gaze of the living, can hardly distinguish the paths (bai). The descriptions of the progress of an illness and the path of death for female eye spirits raise the question of possible visual transformation processes in the perception of patterns. That we should take this question seriously is supported

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by numerous monographs in which the description of Amazonian Indian ornamentalistics repeatedly points out "visual disorientation" caused by the patterns. Roe, for example, writes [1987:5-6] that the patterns of the Shipibo Indians, who belong to the same ethno-linguistic family as the Cashinahua, produce a "visual ambiguity". This isolated observation receives a more general impact from Layton for he considers it more than possible, in his The Anthropology of Art, that geometric ornamentalistic style ultimately relies on a "deliberate wish to create visual ambiguity" [1992:170, emphasis mine]. Especially pertinent and precise is above all David Guss' description [1989] of the kinetic visual process in his analysis of the pattern art of the Yekuana Indians of Venezuela. Moreover his observations are of special interest for my case study since the Yekuana patterns are, as has already been mentioned, very similar in motif and style to those of the Cashinahua. He points out a "kinetic play of forms (...) in all of the abstract designs with some (...), becoming nearly impossible to view". He further observes: "The kinetic structure of these forms creates an endless movement between the different elements, drawing the spectator into them. Perception now becomes a challenge, with the viewer forced to decide which image is real and which an illusion" [Guss 1989:121,122]. With reference to the geometric style of the Yolngu of central Australia, Layton considers it possible that specific perception patterns are constitutive for the construction of ornamental significance. He comes to the, in my opinion, most drastic hypothesis, labeling it however himself as "speculation": "It is interesting to speculate that the Yolngu may perceive their geometric motifs (...) as optical illusions that switch their appearance from one to another of the alternative meanings within a given set; realizing in visual form the transformations of their philosophy" [1992:191f, emphasis mine]. The Cashinahua material and other scattered examples, even if not followed up by the authors, indeed suggest the existence of a phenomenon that Peter Gow described as "a common concern within Amazonian cultures with the nature of visual experience" [1988: 25, emphasis mine]. It seems to me essential that native visual culture be consistently considered in order to better understand Amazon Indian art, here specifically geometric pattern art. From this point of view, I shall now attempt to describe the Cashinahua's ornamental visual experience in more detail.


The differentiations marking the fluctuating Cashinahua sight continuum and ranging from monomodal perception through linkage to synaesthesia imply that, in viewing patterns, various qualities of significance and experience move into the foreground according to whether one approaches the pattern with a fragmentary, intermediary, or holistic view. In the fragmentary, ordinary view, optical aspects come into the field of vision which alter the surfaces of bodies and objects. This view encompasses above all the esthetic and artistic quality of the production by means of which the ornamental

42 B. Keifenheim patterns lend beauty (haundua) to the surfaces on which they appear and engender joy (benima) in the viewer. In the combined view, the above mentioned aspects remain in the field of vision, but achieve, however, another significance through olfactory overlapping, for example. It is for monomodal vision completely irrelevant whether a pattern is on the face of a small child, an old man, or a young woman. It always lends beauty and produces esthetic pleasure in the viewer. Should a person's face painting also emit the bewitching inin fragrance, the olfactorily linked vision condenses and the sexual availability signaled by the fragrant pattern moves into the foreground. Likewise, the perceptible sex appeal reduces the distance between the viewer and the viewed. "Fragrant patterns" are given no significance in intramarital communication; they always refer to an extended network of extramarital sexual relationships in which the strict rules governing choice of marital partners are cast aside. As with every intermediary, intermediary vision for the Cashinahua is confronted with ambivalences here as well: in the example mentioned, the olfactorily linked view not only evokes the potential danger for social cohesion, through the simultaneity of socially regulated and unregulated sexual relationships, but also indicates another reality: nothing attracts certain spirits of the dead more than precisely this inin fragrance. One and the same smell signifies sexual attraction, in the intersocietal context, and seduction to death, in the extrasocietal context. In the synaesthetic view, ordinary sensory order is eliminated. The basic visual experience which, as Jiirgen Trabant put it, with the aiming of the eye straight [jTJlJTJTJTJTJTJTr

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Figure 10 Examples of the positive/negative principle.

Pattern Art and Perception 43

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ahead, clearly favors the idea of the opposite, the object [1993: 69], is abolished with the mingling of the senses and along with it also the distance between the perceiver and the perceived. With the intermodal mingling, vision gains qualities ordinarily associated with other perception modalities: with the fleeting, transitory, and eventful of the olfactory and acoustic. In this transformation process, pattern and pattern viewer disrupt each other's borders. The strictly geometric patterns move more and more and ultimately dissolve under the viewer's gaze while he simultaneously perceives himself as "renounced". If the synaesthetic view is achieved through drugs or ritual dances, singing guides the transformative process. If it is, on the contrary, caused by feverish illness, it cannot, precisely because of the absence of accompanying singing, be arrested or controlled. Therefore, as mentioned above, the viewing of patterns with fever-induced synaesthesia can, in the opinion of the Cashinahua, lead to death. Thus, synaesthetic "pattern viewing" is only desirable and connected with theoretical value when it is induced in ritual stagings and simultaneously controlled.


In most attempts at interpretation up to now, the meaning and significance of geometric ornaments have nearly always been sought on a level separated from the "visual object" without being able to respond to the questions why and how, in a specific cultural context, iconographic, semiotic, symbolic, or other meanings are formally and stylistically reflected "in this way and no other" in the ornamental production. The question as to why culturally specific meaning variables occur in the same, culturally independent fund of basic ornamental figures remained likewise unexplained." In these approaches, object and meaning levels are in no reciprocal decoding relation to each other. However, cosmological, mythological, ecological, sociological, or other cultural specifics cannot be deduced from the ubiquitous existence of circles and rhombs. World views and social structures can at best be projectively "read into" them, by means of which such "over blown sign monsters" [Perez 1988:144] come to be that "thing so uncommonly full of content" [Boehm 1992:136] for which they are taken in the typical art ethnology of the Amazon. In my investigation of Cashinahua pattern art, I considered the visual transformation processes in the realm of ornamentalistics ever more strongly. This is doubly justified: first, they can be demonstrated on a conceptual and practical level; and secondly, there are indications of specific processual aspects in general ornamentalistics theory which suggest the existence of an "ornamental visual experience". The art theoretician Oleg Grabar writes, for example: "Following Bakhtin in a visual sense, then, I would argue that a progressive dialogue is established between viewer/user and artifact that feeds on itself and changes both viewer and object as it goes on" [1989: 44, emphasis mine]. In this context, he appeals for an investigationas of yet hardly undertakenof optisemic processes, of the "aspects or attributes (primarily sensory ones...) of artifacts that create an impact on the user" [1989:231].

44 B. Keifenheim My hypothesis is, then, that the formal-stylistic composition of the geometricornamental patterns is, given a corresponding disposition in the viewer, capable of unleashing a transformative visual process. Again I return to the formal principles of arrangement, this time in order to stress how they contribute to the translation of the delimitation and/or dissolution of forms into visual experience. The negative/positive principle abolishes the perceptual distinction between interior and exterior; due to their concentric arrangement, motifs dissolve into spiral-like forms upon extended viewing. In both cases, the impression of depth also arises. Because of the principle of continuing disjunction, the view is drawn ever further into the inner pattern "event" as it attempts to find orientation; the fragmentary filling of space suggests the continuation of lines into a spatiality removed from view. The effects described here result from the arrangement principles and not from the simple basic geometric figures. Only in combination do forms "at rest in themselves" become "restless" forms and thus represent a perceptual challenge to the viewer. As Claus Miiller put it, the question is "of course open, whether all viewers will follow the dialogue offered ...The artists must, however, have consciously constructed the rule system" [1985: 29]. It is my interpretation, then, that meaning and significance of the patterns are first constructed in the performative process. By unleashing a transformative visual process in which ordinary codes are eliminated, the kene effect a processual experience of perception in the viewer in which both he and the patterns simultaneously surpass their borders. In perceiving the kene, he participates with sensory experience, as in drug visions, in the ever possible metamorphosis of forms and dimensions: the strictly geometric patterns make a trip, so to say, possible from the world of strict forms into a pre-formal world where the traveler can, through personal bodily-sensual experience, decode the production of mythological/cosmological significance. With this interpretative approach, it becomes possible to no longer look for the meaning of the kene referentially, i.e. on an extravisual level, but rather to develop a theory of ornamentalistics in which the dualities, form and content, and the sensual and the semantic, can be differently understood, for the sensorial experience of an artifact is not separated from its possible significances. It is certainly undeniable that symbolic significance is a constitutive aspect of Amazonian Indian pattern art; yet my research indicates ever more that this is not to be found in some referentiality attributed to the patterns themselves, but rather that it becomes manifest in the experience of visual transformations connected with the viewing of the ornamental pattern: in ornamental visual experience, viewer and image are equally subject to the same transformation principle. Within the inseparability of perceiving and granting meaning, the cultural givens of significance, or the narratives creating community, are totalized and retrievable in the differentiation continuum of pattern viewing. Culturally specific concepts such as transformation, the illusion of outwardly perceptible reality, the existence of multiple realities, the interference of visible and invisible, the idea of form as frozen metamorphosis, etc., are not semanticaUy revealed in the viewing of patterns but rather lived through the kene in transformative sensorial experience. The performative subject does not constitute himself as primarily seeing, but rather as a multi-sensoral experiencing subject. The performative visual experience

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Pattern Art and Perception 45 represents a process in which significance must be understood as something which always emerges new and not as a corpus of fixed symbols. In the visual ornamental experiences, the performative re-enacting is ignited less by the agent role of the body in relation to the environment than by the perceptual relation between body and surface, here, the ornament. Pattern viewing is not a mechanical retrieval through some visual modus, such as the slightly cross-eyed vision which must be activated to view 3-D images, but rather a processual play of cognitive and imaginative capabilities which situates itself in the cultural narratives. The kene allow all viewers, each according to his context, expectations, personal conditioning, sex, age, and other factors, a specific, nonetheless always sensual participation in an order which makes sense for him and his peers and which is thus constantly and simultaneously constituted anew. They unite the sensual and the intelligible; in them, the "sense of the senses" is not only constructed but also becomes manifest.12 (Translated from German by Richard Gardner) NOTES 1. For more details on the Cashinahua: among others Deshayes and Keifenheim [1994], Kensinger [1995]. 2. Cf. Ruby [1989], Wendl [1992, 1996], Keifenheim and Wendl [1994]. A significant impulse was based on the conventionalist approach of the American philosopher Marx Wartofsky. With the supposition that the plasticity of the biological-genetic structures of the visual system undergo a culturally specific supra-forming and socialization, Wartofsky took up a matter of longtime consensus in the natural sciences and postulated, as one of the first and in analogy to Gibson's "ecological optics", a "cultural optics" [1980]. Thus, vision is not taken as a passive reception of sensoral stimuli, but rather as a complex process in which the visual is sensorally ordered. And thus, history and culture become central factors by the determination of different schemata through which interpretations of sensoral experiences are constructed. 3. Cf. Seeger [1975, 1981], Crocker [1985], Feld [1982, 1984, 1988], Stoller [1989], Howes [1991], and Classen [1993a, b]. 4. In the limited space of this article, it is neither possible to go into the basic collection problems in the researching of alternative perceptual orders nor is it possible to present my methods. Likewise, it can hardly be avoided that the emic concepts are present in very compressed form and thus the connection to the research materials and collection methods come up short. 5. In more detail: Keifenheim and Wendl [1994] and Keifenheim [1995]. 6. The Cashinahua believe that man consists of one body and five spirits. The most powerful spirits are the eye spirit (beru yttshin) and the shadow spirit (yum baka yushin), each playing an important part in the realm of perception and knowledge, the first being closely linked to spirituality and supernatural realities, the second with all kinds of bodily knowledge and experience. Both spirits survive after physical death and are able to interfere in the affairs of the living. See also Keifenheim and Wendl [1994], Deshayes and Keifenheim [1994], and Kensinger [1995]. 7. Cf. Deshayes [1992]. 8. Since the introduction of a national school system in the 1980s, children and youth now learn the rules of figurative representation in class.

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46 B. Keifenheim 9. On Cashinahua pattern art, cf. Dawson [1975], Tanner [1975], and Lagrou [1991]. 10. The suggestive aspect of borderlessness is not only indicative of Cashinahua ornamentalistics, but is also found in other contexts of Amazon Indian pattern art. Thus, for example, Regina Mller came to a very similar observation when describing the pattern art of the Asurini Indians of the Xingu territory: "uma superficie supostamente infinita imaginaria" [1992: 240]. 11. For criticism of the traditional art theories in the Amazonian context, cf. Gow [1988]. Ravetz [1995: 39] criticizes in general Western art theories that "...seem to assume a division between the sensual and the semantic, form and content, reflecting the tendency to separate the sensual experience of an object from its possible meanings" [1995: 38]. In general art ethnology, there are especially some critical contributions on the widespread iconographic-semantic approach to interpretation, for example Layton [1992], Perez [1988], Boehm [1992], and Heintze [1992]. 12. A German version of this article appeared in Paragrana (1998). Downloaded by [USP University of Sao Paulo] at 15:22 27 May 2013


Boehm, G. 1992 Das Fremde und das Egene. In Die fremde Form. L'esthtique des autres. (Etimologica Helvetica 16.) Pp. 133-148. Bern. Classen, C. 1993a Exploring the Senses in History and across Cultures. London/New York: Routledge. 1993b Worlds of Sense. London/New York: Routledge. Crocker, Jon C. 1985 Vital Souls: Bororo Cosmology, Natural Symbolism and Shamanism. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. Dawson, A. 1975 Graphic Art and Design of the Cashinahua. In The Cashinahua of Eastern Peru. Brown University Studies in Anthropology and Material Culture. Vol. 1. Jane P. Dwyer, ed. Pp. 131-149. Bristol, RI: The Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology. Deshayes, P. 1992 Paroles chasses. Chamanisme et chefferie chez les Kashinawa. Journal de la Socit des Amricanistes, 78 (2): 96-106. Deshayes, P., and Barbara Keifenheim 1994 Penser l'autre chez les Indiens Hunt Kuin de l'Amazonie. Paris: l'Harmattan. Dwyer, J.P. (ed.) 1975 The Cashinahua of Eastern Peru. Brown University Studies in Anthropology and Material Culture. Vol. 1. Bristol, RI: The Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology. Feld, Steven 1982 Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Gow, P. 1988 Visual Compulsion: Design and Image in Western Amazonian Culture. Revindi, 2: 19-32. (Budapest.) Grabar, O. 1989 The Mediation of Ornament. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Guss, D.M. 1989 To Weave and Sing. Art, Symbol, and Narrative in the South American Rain Forest. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.

Pattern Art and Perception 47 Heintze, D. 1992 Ikonographie im ethnographischen Kontext. In Die fremde Form. L'esthtique des autres. (Ethnologica Helvetica 16.) Pp. 15-30. Bern. Howes, D. (ed.) 1991 The Varieties of Sensory Experience. A Reader in the Anthropology of the Senses. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Keifenheim, B., and T. Wendl 1994 Visuelle Anthropologie. Kulturvergleichende Studien zur Konstruktion von Fremd- und Eigenbildern. Unpublished research report. Berlin: Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. Keifenheim, Barbara 1995 No Eye Has Ever Managed to See Smells...The Problem of Visual Reference Systems in Intercultural Exchange. Paper presented at the Symposium Contested Representation: The Film, the Filmmaker and the Other. Berlin: Haus der Kulturen der Welt. Kensinger, K.M. 1975 Studying the Cashinahua. In The Cashinahua of Eastern Peru. Brown University Studies in Anthropology and Material Culture. Vol. 1. Jane P. Dwyer, ed. Pp. 9-85. Bristol, RI: The Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology. 1995 How Real People Ought to Live. The Cashinahua of Eastern Peru. Prospect Heights: Waveland Press. Lagrou, E.M. 1991 Urna Etnografa da Cultura Kaxinawa. Entre a Cobra e o Inca. Florianopolis: Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina. Unpublished Masters' thesis. Layton, R. 1992 The Anthropology of Art. (2nd ed.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Mller, C. 1985 Symmetrie und Ornament. Opladen. Mller, R.A.P. 1992 Mensagens visuais na ornamenta corporal Xavante. In Grafismo Indgena Estudos de Antropologa Esttica. Lux Vidal, ed. Sao Paulo: Studio Nobel, FAPESP, esusp. Mnzel, M. (ed.) 1988 Die Mythen sehen. Bilder und Zeichnungen vom Amazonas. Roter Faden zur Ausstellung. Vol. 14-15. Frankfurt-am-Main: Museum fr Vlkerkunde. Prez, A. 1988 Die Zeichnungen der Yanomami als Hinweis auf Fragen der primitiven Kunst. In Die Mythen sehen. Bilder und Zeichnungen vom Amazonas. Roter Faden zur Ausstellung. M. Mnzel, ed. Vol. 14: 93-150. Frankfurt/Main: Museum fr Vlkerkunde. Ravetz, Amanda 1995 Looking, but not Seeing. Sensual Revelation in the Anthropological Study of the People, Material Culture and the Environment. Manchester: University of Manchester. Unpublished Masters' thesis in Department of Social Anthropology. Roe, P.G. 1987 Impossible Marriages: Cashi Yoshiman Ainbo Piqui (The Vampire Spirit who Ate a Woman) and Other Animal Seduction Tales among the Shipibo Indians of the Peruvian Jungle. Paper presented at the Fifth International Symposium on Latin American Indian Literatures (LAILA), Ithaca, N.Y. Ruby, Jay 1989 The Teaching of Visual Anthropology. In Teaching Visual Anthropology. Paolo Chiozzi, ed. Firenze. Seeger, A. 1975 The Meaning of Body Ornaments: A Suya Example. Ethnology, 14 (3): 211-224.

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48 B. Kfenheim 1981 Nature and Society in Central Brazil: The Suya Indians of Mato Grosso. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Stoller, Paul 1989 The Taste of Ethnographic Things. The Senses in Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Tanner, H. 1975 Cashinahua Weaving. In The Cashinahua of Eastern Peru. Brown University Studies in Anthropology and Material Culture, Vol. 1. Jane P. Dwyer, ed. Pp. 111-123. Bristol, RI: The Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology. Trabant, J. 1993 Der akroamatische Leibniz: Hren und Konspirieren. Paragrana, Vol. 2. (1-2). Das Ohr als Erkenntnisorgan. C. Wulf, ed. Pp. 64-71. Berlin. Wartofsky, M.W. 1980 Visual Scenarios. The Role of Representation in Visual Perception. In The Perception of Pictures. Vol. 2. M.A. Hagen, ed. New York: Academic Press. Wendl, T. 1992 Perspektiven der Visuellen Anthropologie. Wissenschaftlicher Film, 44: 107-120. 1996 Warum sie nicht sehen, was sie sehen knnten. Zur Perception von Fotografien im Kulturvergleich. Anthropos, 91: 169-181.

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