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An Artist Documented Ayahuasca's Secrets as Sounds and Textile Art

“Everything is vibrating,” explains Irish artist Tanya Harris.

by Andrew Salomone
Aug 10 2016, 7:40pm

Detail of a Shipibo tapestry pattern translated from an icaro about a plant called marosa. All images courtesy of the artist.

The Shipibo people in Peru’s Amazon rainforest use the hallucinogenic brew, ayahuasca, for ceremonial use, but sound artist Tanya Harris' documents what ayahuasca reveals through textile design and sound. Before developing an interest in Shipibo culture, Harris studied at Central Saint Martins in London, earning a BA in textile design, and an MA in material futures. Harris was focused on the demonstration of cymatics, which is when sound vibrations cause patterns to emerge in liquids or particles. In the video called Sound Vibrates Matter, she documents the geometric shapes created by a white, powdery substance placed on top of an ordinary speaker. “It reveals a remarkable phenomenon: the inherent responsiveness of matter to sound and inspires a deep recognition that we too are part of this complex and intricate vibrational matrix,” says Harris.

“As I was approaching my last year of my MA I discovered the Shipibo tribe, who translate their songs into colorful geometric patterns,” Harris tells The Creators Project. She researched ayahuasca retreats and decided to spend a month at the Temple of The Way of Light retreat, which is run by the Shipibo. “I bought a Zoom Q2HD Handy Video Recorder before my trip as I knew that the jungle would be full of interesting sounds,” explains Harris.

Shipibo shaman Sulmira.

During an ayahuasca ceremony with a shaman named Sulmira, Harris spied an interesting tapestry. Harris asked about the significance of the tapestry and Sulmira told her about a custom in which a Shipibo shaman lives for months in isolation and ingests different plants in order to connect with the spirits of the plants. According to Sulmira, each plant has a different personality, just like people. Once a plant is ingested, the shaman may be inspired to write a song. These songs, known as icaros, are then used in healing ceremonies, and eventually translated into geometric patterns in order to adorn tapestries with their messages.

The plant ingested by Shipibo shaman Sulmira.

"During one of my last ceremonies, I received insight from ayahuasca that I would ask Sulmira if I could record her singing a particular song and also get from her the geometric tapestry translation of the song,” explains Harris. So, using her handy video recorder, Harris carefully recorded Sulmira’s icaro about a plant called marosa.

A Shipibo tapestry featuring a pattern based on a song about marosa.

Seen side by side, there are striking visual similarities between the shapes created by Harris’ cymatic patterns and the designs created by the Shipibo as illustrations of their songs. For Harris, it’s simply evidence that “sound is a primordial, creative force.” “Nothing is really solid,” says Harris, “Everything is vibrating.”

Harris describes the experience of hearing Sulmira’s icaro, saying that she, “sings at you like you’re a pane of glass to be broken.”

You can keep an eye and an ear out for Harris’ work on her website.

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