The Shipiba near the Ucayali River in Pucallpa use corteza de caoba (mahogany bark) in their traditional dye work. Caoba produces a rich orange color on textile, which varies according to the number of dye cycles. When I stayed in a community near the Ucayali in Pucallpa, I observed and experimented with some of the traditional craft processes on the invitation of a textile artist and researcher, Pilar Godoy Cortez. She works through a textile collective called Nido Textil, and she has passionately researched and shared Shipiba techniques since 2014.
My experience with caoba was pure love. After immersing the fabric for a short time in a dye batch, we leave it in the sun. The dye needs sun exposure to fix to the fibers. If there is no sun, then we wait. The work always depends on the weather, and it brings out emotions as it tests your patience and intuition. In this way, the use of water, fire, earth, wind, solar heat and light may be impractical when seen through the lense of industry. But for the purpose of creating patterns and expressing stories, it is an essentially human experience. Not everything turns out on a timetable. Everything is variable. And the wisdom of experience gives you mastery.
To add to the mystique, caoba has the distinct property of turning black when exposed to a particular type of barro (mud) found in the region. From the smell of working with the barro, I remember iron. I also remembered something about the smell of refinishing a cast iron sink in Philadelphia, and using vinegar and other acids to blacken and stabilize the rust. I thought about how we can discover chemistry through memory and the practice of our senses and emotions.
When I painted, I used splinters of wood for grinding and massaging the pigment and mud into the fiber: