december cover

Shared Threads

Many stories were woven together into Shared Threads: Maria Lino’s Portrait of a Shipibo Healer, an exhibition shown this summer at Florida International University’s Frost Art Museum in Miami.

On its surface, it was a multi-channel video installation that documented the collaboration between two artists from very different cultures and artistic traditions: Maria Lino, a Cuban-American artist who teaches at FIU, and Olga Mori, a Shipibo artist and healer from the Amazonian region of Peru. Delving deeply into the stories recounted in the videos, however, the exhibition also offered a complex account of a woman’s life in the male-dominated Shipibo culture.

Lino spent eight months in Peru on a Fulbright Scholar’s grant, working on an ongoing series of videos entitled Working Hands, which record and celebrate the manual rhythms and daily routines of women engaged in repetitive labor at home and in the workplace. During that same period, Ana Estrada, a doctoral student who curated the exhibition at the Frost, was conducting field research on Shipibo art and healing traditions, and introduced Lino to Mori. “I thought the Shipibo embroiderers would be a great subject for Maria’s work,” Estrada explains.

Lino, who had learned to sew from dressmakers in her family, agreed. She recalls watching “the movement of their hands pulling the needles and tightening the threads, the repetition of stitches.” She commissioned Mori to collaborate on an embroidered version of one of her works. The acrylic on paper drawing that Lino chose, In the Beginning, is a Kahlo-like image of a baby’s birth. She explains that she selected it because of its universal concept and because it evoked Shipibo beliefs that all life comes from the waters of the Amazon River and its tributaries. Lino says “ my idea was of a girl coming out of the river, of the womb opening into a flower.”

Both artists elaborated on the original design and contributed embroidery over the course of several weeks. In their joint version, the baby is surrounded by an anaconda, which to the Shipibo represents the mother of the world. The snake is decorated with the traditional maze-like drawings that appear in much Shipibo art. Two videos, one projected on the gallery walls, the other shown on a monitor, depict Lino and Mori working together as well as Mori working solo. Their artworks, whose creation is captured in the videos, were presented alongside them in the exhibition. Also on display were examples of traditional Shipibo textiles, some of which were made by Mori and female family members in the same communal way she worked with Lino, passing the cloths back and forth among themselves.

Estrada notes that while many modern artists have appropriated traditional designs, Lino spent time immersed in the Shipibo culture. Her work with Mori showed “how to integrate traditional craft into more contemporary media.” She added that “Lino synchronizes both image and sound…skillfully emphasizing compositional elements to enhance the repetitive flow.”

The stories Mori relates in the two videos are as intriguing as the artwork. She describes a Shipibo woman’s life as one of no education, early marriage, and in a word Mori uses often, suffering. Rather than resigning herself to that situation, Mori makes an understated but nonetheless powerful argument on behalf of women.

Mori managed to get an education and became a teacher, only to be fired by her ex-husband, who was the school’s principal. After that experience, she dedicated herself to becoming an artist, having learned the crafts of embroidery and appliqué from her grandmother. Mori also became a traditional healer, and recounts that in rituals utilizing ayahuasca, an entheogen used for healing purposes, she receives the designs patterns for her art in visions.

Although the Frost exhibition closed at the end of September, the videos from Shared Threads will be displayed again at the University of the West Indies in Barbados. Both Lino and Estrada are continuing their work in Peru. Lino is finishing the editing of her Working Hands videos in preparation for an exhibition in Lima next year. For her part, Estrada continues her dissertation research on the Shipibo artists and healers. She is also developing an exhibition for the Frost on ritual performance art done in Cuzco, Peru for Pachamama, the indigenous Earth Mother.

John Coppola