Visions That The Plants Gave Us

Cashinahua Drawings and
Their Role in the Vision Quest

The Cashinahua are a Pano-speaking people numbering approximately 5,000 who inhabit both sides of the Brazilian-Peruvian border in the northwestern Amazon. Cashinahua culture is marked by a high investment in and elaboration of visual experience and expression.

Traditional design (kene), a female art, follows strict rules of pattern, style, and execution. The same motifs and styles can be encountered in face and body painting, in weaving and basketry, as well as in pottery. These drawings produced in gouache obey the same style of "real design" or kene kuin. When preceded by the qualification nawa (stranger), kene can also be translated as "writing." This association signals recognition of the fact that both graphic systems are highly formalized. But the Cashinahua go further than this in their association of design and writing. As an old woman explained to me, "kene is the language of the spirits."

In Cashinahua culture, men do not produce patterned design although they can produce figures called dami. Dami produced by men are traditionally three-dimensional figures, such as masks or wooden dolls. The designs produced by Arlindo Daureano Estevão come very close to those only made by women and were specific attempts to give form to his visions with ayahuasca (nixi pae). Because they were "almost" kene, he did not show them to his fellow villagers, but only to his wife and to me, with the request that I keep them and take them with me.

Dami is also the name given to the visions seen by young and adult men during the collective ritual intake of ayahuasca. Women and older men very rarely take ayahuasca, and children never do. Dami (transformations or figures mostly in the form of snakes, reptiles, and vines) are the only images perceived by beginners or at the initial stage of the effect of the brew. These rapidly changing images are said to be nixi pae besti, "only vine things." The privilege to go beyond the dami images depends on the good will and generosity of the owner or parent of the vine called Yube, spirit of the boa. If the spirit of the boa is stingy with the drinker, he will not see anything or at most "only vine things." The real images to be seen are yuxin, ethereal beings with the appearance and agency of human beings.

The male art of visionary perception is not expressed in graphic art but in song. While it is by means of songs that men describe their nocturnal journeys into the worlds revealed by Yube, it is nevertheless by means of design (kene) that they orient themselves. The songs draw designs before the drinker's eyes. These designs function as paths to be followed by the eye- soul on its way away from and back to normal space and perception. When asked about the role of design in vision, one ayahuasca specialist told me, "One should always stay inside the design in order to not get lost."

The designs seen in vision and painted through song are said to be of the same order, although not totally identical, as those painted and woven by women daily. In their quality of paths, these designs describe and map known space, while suggesting an infinite extension into unknown territories yet to be explored. The image of the importance of paths suggests a cultural way of controlling these visionary incursions into the territories of alterity, where not only the cities of the spirits (yuxin and yuxibu), but also cities of the whites are visited. The role of female design is to show the way back to nukun yada, meaning "our body" but also "our community."

Dami (visionary images and transformations) and kene (patterned designs) are two gendered manifestations of Yube, the boa spirit's power of producing images. The ayahuasca brew which produces visions is said to be the boa's blood, while all possible designs to be produced by women or seen by men are said to be present in the patterns on the boa's skin. Thus male and female visual creativity come forth from the same source, the primordial boa. This interweaving of male and female capacities finds its confirmation in the myth of origin of the anaconda (just another manifestation of the same snake principle) during the flood. While almost all the rest of humanity vanished or was metamorphosed into other beings, a couple lying in a patterned hammock changed into an anaconda.

-- Els Lagrou
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

In the exhibition:

Arlindo Daureano Estevão (Daso):

Alcina Pinheiro Feitosa (Yaka): Marlene Lopes Mateus (Yaka):
Sobera (student of Marlene Lopes Mateus): Return to Visions That The Plants Gave Us

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Last updated: Monday, May 14, 2001