On the Surface of Text

Ofri Lapid

When anthropologists write about the material culture of indigenous tribes, they do not necessarily concern themselves with the correlation between the figures and geometrical patterns, which are painted on objects, textiles and human bodies and their own written texts. For them, traditions of ornamentation are easily differentiated from the alphabetical practice, as if their words could move freely in a vacuum and precisely adhere to the subject of their choice without the latter to have any affect. They hardly ever imagine to confuse these abstract formations, they so carefully study, with the familiar, decipherable, hermetically sealed characters of their script. Nor do they fear the abstraction of their words. Even when examined as a premature form of a writing system, verging the status of hieroglyphs, the geometrical patterns remain detached, foreign and subordinate to textual expression. The hierarchy is made clear; “Goethe’s language is finer than all the ornaments of Pegnitz’s shepherds” said Adolf Loos in his famous essay in condemnation of ornaments11Adolf Loos, “Ornament and Crime”, Ariadne Press, 1998 (original essay published in 1908). However, for the Piro people, who still reside in the Peruvian Amazon, the difference was perhaps not as evident. In his book Amazonian Myth and its History, the anthropologist Peter Gow reports, that members of the Piro community often associated the content of the books of missionaries with the distinctive patterns that Piro women designed and applied on their skin and other surfaces such as textiles, ceramics or wood.22Peter Gow, “An Amazonian Myth and its History”, Oxford University Press, 2001. The Piro referred to script as ‘white people design’ or simply as ‘ugly design’, since it was lacking the aesthetic principles of their own intricate and perfectly symmetrical patterns. To their eyes ‘white people design’ was akin yet inferior to Piro design and the book, like a pot, was merely a vessel which was ought to be adorned.

The design practices of maze-like geometrical patterns, common to the Amazonian Piro and Shipibo-Conibo communities, are often accompanied by oral traditions of myths and analogies that diverge and alternate with respect to the audience. A painted pattern made to resemble the jaguar, a pictorial melody, a path cut through the jungle or fractals seen under the influence of  hallucinogens. It is unknown whether the pattern designs emerged from words or if words were assigned to the designs subsequently to their emergence. Perhaps with the need to satisfy the curiosity of others, words were awarded to the abstract formations to fill the absence in identification. The more the patterns are narrated the further their heritage is being established in the eyes of the external world. And the further they are continuously being produced and diversify in color and form. The patterns are especially rigorous in the manner they regard the surface and volume of the object, driven by an ‘horror vacui’, by an urge to fill the empty space, the design “focuses on the surface of the object… enhances its appearance, and makes it visually compulsive”[3]. The attitude toward the surface, the dynamic between the blank and painted spaces, dictates much of the significance of the design. According to one Piro belief, cited by Gow, unlike other design-covered species, the human skin is unique in having lost its original ‘human design’, which manifests in the tree-like formations on the surface of the placenta. The separation of the placenta from the fetus in birth is the pre-condition of becoming human in the eyes of others. Yet, it is with this loss, that the blank surface of the skin is gained, like an empty canvas it can finally be covered with patterns made by other humans. ‘Human designs’ compensate then for the loss of the original inborn identity, they are made to amend what was abruptly removed. If the Piro considered text to be a ‘white people design’, they were probably seeing it through the same mythological lens, as a method of substitute for what was previously effaced and left bare.

When the missionary Esther Matteson arrived in 1947 to live among the Piro she introduced literacy in the form of the word of God. A linguist and a representative of the missionary organization SIL,[4] Matteson translated the Bible into Piro language to offer the Piro an easier access to text that bypasses their difficulties with spoken Spanish. Matteson also put their own oral traditions in writing, one of them being the story of Sangama, the first of the Piro tribe to claim to know how to read, which was brought to her by Sangama’s younger cousin, Moran Zumaeta. Sangama is told to approach his people with the following words:

“You folks listen to me, but others belittle me. They say, ‘Sangama the ignorant, the liar. He does his lying by reading dirty paper from the outhouse.’ They laugh at me, and distort my words all the time. Why should my eyes be like theirs? My eyes are not like theirs. I know how to read the paper. It speaks to me. Look at this one now.’ He turned its leaves. ‘See, she speaks to me. The paper has a body; I always see her, cousin,’ he said to me. ‘I always see this paper. She has red lips with which she speaks. She has a body with a red mouth, a painted mouth. She has a red mouth.”[5] 

Peter Gow refers to this story and argues that Sangama’s recounted statement was a unique individual interpretation of text, that is not aspiring to a Western understanding of reading, but is directed towards his Piro listeners, fashioned to be understood only from within the Piro people’s world view of shamanism, patterns and spiritual practices. For Sangama, the letters, which ‘white people’ were so compulsively gazing at, must have generated reading in a similar manner to the Piro’s ‘human designs’, in a dialectic with their surface, eventually aimed at administering a cure. Gow speculates that for Sangama, reading ‘ugly design’ was a knowledge accessible, in a similar manner as for the Piro Shaman; through the visions of patterns that he sees under the influence of the hallucinatory Ayahausca brew. She, the spirit of the Ayahausca, is only revealed to the Piro Shaman in her true human form, through the initial visions of patterns that empower the healer’s senses for diagnosis and action. The action entails a violent act: hunting down the person or spirit who causes of the illness. In Gow’s understanding Sangama has recognized the potency of the text and its transformative capacity. In his performance he was deploying the practice of reading as means of empowerment, considering that learning how to read ‘white people design’ would ultimately change their living conditions under the oppressing control of the Western rubber industries. The Piro will adorn themselves with the feathers of the knowledge of text.

However, when Sangama was reading, was he necessarily speaking in support of ugly designs as Gow argues? Or was he also suspicious to the message brought by the lips of the female spirit emanating from his vision of text. Observing the surface of text, the discarded paper found in the outhouse, he knew perhaps, curiously enough, that his own words, like the many other oral traditions recorded by the West would have themselves eventually convert into a written form. Walter Ong has stressed the pre-emptive and imperialist nature of writing, that tends to assimilate other things to itself. Even though “words are grounded in oral speech, writing tyrannically locks them into a visual field forever.”[6]  Oral narratives are, in this regard, recomposed and solidified by writing, and will be inherently envisioned in their scripted form. Could it be that in his speech Sangama opted to a reversed approach? In apposition to Matteson,  the writer of his own words, he was speaking in a manner that emanated and expanded and diverged from the solidified scripted visual form. Much like the alternating narratives that accompany their pattern designs and resist the fixation of their meaning, he chose to see in reading an agency that was assembled by conflicting voices, that do not submit to the authority of letters. Perhaps Sangama was not only speaking to his people but also to the future readers of his text.

All images from: Shipibo ceramic, 2013. Museum of World Cultures, Gothenburg, Sweden.

[2] Peter Gow, “An Amazonian Myth and its History”, Oxford University Press, 2001.
[3] Ibid., p. 117
[4] “Summer Institute of Linguistics”, founded in 1934, SIL  is a U.S.-based, worldwide, Christian non-profit organization, whose main purpose is to study, develop and document languages, especially those that are lesser-known, in order to expand linguistic knowledge, promote literacy, translate the Christian Bible into local languages, and aid minority language development.
[5] Peter Gow, “An Amazonian Myth and its History”, Oxford University Press, 2001. P. 209
[6] Walter Ong, “Orality and Literacy”, Routledge, 2013. P.11


  • 1Adolf Loos, “Ornament and Crime”, Ariadne Press, 1998 (original essay published in 1908)
  • 2Peter Gow, “An Amazonian Myth and its History”, Oxford University Press, 2001.

Ofri Lapid is an Israeli visual artist. She has studied at Kunsthochschule Berlin Weissensee and is currently completing her PhD in Practice at the HfBK in Hamburg. There she is researching . . .

Ofri Lapid has done projects and shows in Berlin, Dresden, Heidelberg, Lima, Tel Aviv and Mumbai, among others, and she has been a long-time collaborator with Eran Shaerf.