My name is Charlotte Biren, and I have been working at Alianza Arkana since September 2017 as the Communications Coordinator. I jumped into my work here and through the fluid natural of sharing responsibilities here, I began to support an amazing project called Proyecto Chitonti, at the time. It was the brainchild of Techa Beaumont, a dear ally and contributor to Alianza Arkana who is currently finishing her master’s in international development at Duke University. Proyecto Chitonti had the goal of supporting female Shipibo artisans from diverse communities through a set of workshops, trainings, and mentoring focusing on everything from improving quality of products through support on how to resolve intergroup conflicts and manage cooperative structures. The vision was to use these trainings to identify which artisans had the interest, motivation, and commitment to form part of a group that would become a Shipibo owned and operated brand.
As I have learned being here, women artisans produce beautiful, labor-intensive art that often is sold undervalue for fear of losing business completely. Most women are at the mercy of sporadic foreign buyers that often take pride in bargaining for “the best value” and to top that, often will sell this art at triple the purchase price, netting out with a disproportionate profit. So combine that disturbing reality with the plethora of structural barriers and injustices that make it so insanely difficult for Shipibo artisan women to capture a larger, most equitable portion of the value chain. When Techa told me about her idea to support the development of a Shipibo owned and operated brand to create a new standard for fair trade, my first response was, “Alright how can we support this as Alianza Arkana and make this brand something that is truly indigenous owned and operated? Something that our Shipibo collaborators feel highly invested in and passionate about?”
With that, we as Alianza Arkana did the research on what types workshops, skills, and trainings could support artisan women and surveyed the women from the communities of Santa Clara, Bena Jema, and the women of the artisan cooperative of Maroti Xobo. Our past intern and key contributor in Project Chitonti, Shirley led the survey initiative and gained much confidence with the women we surveyed. With Shirley’s support, we did the calculations, identified appropriate grants, and applied for significant amounts funding to support a comprehensive training program for artisan women with the end goal of supporting the development of an Shipibo artisan based brand. But as the world has it, the grants did not come through and we reevaluated the plan of attack.
Creating the Identity, Non Kene
With the support and guidance of Techa, we decided that on the ground we could focus on the human resources and capital we had here to move forward. If we as an organization are encouraging self-sustainability and self-management to the Shipibo communities we collaborated with, why did we have to wait around for funding to get moving? If we as an organization worked to challenge dependency on government, private, and/or public institutions, why did we not think of how to do this without being dependent on our requests being accepted by large foundations? In mid-February, we decided to rearrange the steps of Proyecto Chitonti and get a new name.
Non Kene, meaning ‘Our Designs’ in Shipibo, was born. I became responsible for teaching a Shipibo intern interested in digital media and communications about the fundamentals of creating the brand identity for Non Kene. If we could set up a brand, a mission, a vision, we could get people excited to participate not only as artisans, but as aspiring administrators, entrepreneurs, audiovisual specialists, and communications specialists who would all be united by a concrete goal, set of ethics, and mission. We brought Fiorella Picota on as my intern and on to the Non Kene project. We got lucky with Fiorella; from the day we met, she stood out to me as someone eager to learn and someone committed to the mission of creating a Shipibo owned and operated brand. Besides being charismatic and articulate, she impressed us with her abilities to sew and create beautiful handmade designs with cultural significance and innovative flair that catches the eye of everyone who sees her work.
We work together for hours every week on learning basics of marketing, digital media, graphic design, and brand identity. She taught me about ‘kene’ designs and shared her personal history with Shipibo art, as the daughter of an experienced Shipibo artisan. We started small; we photographed sample pieces designed by Fiorella and Eva, another intern with Alianza Arkana, to share the idea and character of Non Kene. Innovative, creative, cultural, and accessible. We wanted people to get excited and we also wanted to test the water to see how different audiences would respond to the project and the products.
Non Kene quickly attracted attention for its uniquely social mission of supporting Shipibos and promoting cultural identity. Fiorella’s designs also spoke for themself and we got contacted by many interested buyers and stores who were impressed by the designs, the mission, and the presence we cultivated online. We received interest and attention from artists, entrepreneurs, actors, fashion designers, and students in Perú and abroad who wanted to offer their services to promote the Non Kene brand. Only thing was that, we were not ready for production and had not developed the capacity to begin production and sales. We all agree that the priority is the social element of Non Kene, and that we would move at the rate by which we could find capable, interested Shipibo women to fill the team.
It became apparent that if Non Kene were to take advantage of the interest and momentum it had received, we had to do our own research. As part of the internship I set up with Fiorella, we agreed to go to Lima for the annual Perú Moda y Gift Show, Perú Fashion and Gift Show. In addition to attending the Fashion Show, we took advantage of the opportunity to meet with folks interested in collaborating with us. We went to Lima April 22 to April 27 for five days of research, exploration, and analysis. We met with PeruNaturtex, an organic textile supplier with the goal of producing fine, high quality sustainably made material from Perú. We learned about production of organic Amazonian cotton and thought about potentials for creating 100% natural clothing pieces with all elements coming from the Amazon.
We explored the range of boutique stores that sold ecologically, local made Peruvian clothing. Fiorella and I interrogated the value chain on brands that claimed to support indigenous artisans, and talked about successful marketing tactics to communicate the value of a Shipibo owned and operated brand in the future. We shared all the digital promotional materials we made collaboratively and even wore the Non Kene clothing samples to demonstrate the standard of quality we set.
And then, we went to Perú Moda with the goal of getting a better understanding of trends in the fashion world and observe the representation of indigenous brands and indigenous designs. From day one, we saw clothing, shoes, and textiles with Andean designs, that one would usually associate with Perú as they would associate Perú with the Machu Picchu monolith. We also saw lots of brands centered around sustainability and use of organic, ecological materials, which was of interest to us as well. Fiorella and I looked closely to see any representation of Amazonian inspired clothing, textiles, and/or artwork. We looked to see if there were any Shipibo ‘kene,’ but after a thorough scan of the exhibition room, there were no ‘kene’ to be found. We then prioritized conversing with more artisanal brands and brands that showcased “ethnic” and “traditional” designs celebrating Peruvian cultural heritage.
We dove right in and began asking the questions, “Who made the designs? Where did the designs came from? What ethnicity and culture do these designs below to?” Many of the designers and representatives we engaged with said that the designs were ‘traditional Peruvian’ from Cusco or from Arequipa, but there was no reference to the designs coming from a long indigenous history and tradition. Furthermore, our suspicions were confirmed as we realized some brands that appeared to be indigenous run had a structure of operating that had the indigenous peoples, Quechua in this case, only at the production level of the value chain. Fiorella and I graciously thanked the representatives at each stand for their time and then exchanged smiles as we became even more convinced of the need and potential to grow Non Kene to be the owned and operated Shipibo brand we all dream of.
“So Non Kene?” Well, I encourage anyone who is reading this to go check out our digital presence for themselves (links below) and get a sense of the work we collaboratively produced in the Non Kene communications and media internship. But as we look to the next phase of the project, I feel it is important to remember and remind ourselves that this is first and foremost a social initiative, with the end goal of being an economy generating initiative, designed to promote cultural identity, pride, and transmission. It is about investing in diverse groups of Shipibo women — folks interested in graphic design, folks aspiring to be fashion designers, folks who want to learn how to run a business. It is about harnessing the interest and talent that we see young women and mothers to have here in Pucallpa, here in the communities. It is also about connecting present and future members of Non Kene to mentoring, resources, and social networks, that provide energy, enthusiasm, and objectiveness especially when things are new and the answers are not clear. So let’s see what’s next.
Photos by Tui Anandi, Leeroy Mills, Jairo Cabo, and Mike Saijo