Pablo Amaringo is one of the world’s greatest visionary artists, and is renowned for his highly complex, colourful and intricate paintings of his visions from drinking the Ayahuasca brew. Pablo is interviewed at his gallery in Pucallpa, Peru, by Howard G Charing and Peter Cloudsley.
Pablo Amaringo trained as a curandero in the Amazon, healing himself and others from the age of ten, but gave this up in 1977 to become a full-time painter and art teacher at his Usko-Ayar school. His book, Ayahuasca Visions: The Religious Iconography of a Peruvian Shaman, co-authored with Luis Eduardo Luna, brought his work and the rich mythology of the Amazon to a wide audience in the West.
Pablo Amaringo was born Puerto Libertad, in the Peruvian Amazon. He was ten years old when he first took Ayahuasca—a visionary brew used in shamanism, to help him overcome a severe heart disease. The magical cure of this ailment via the healing plants led Pablo toward the life of a vegetalismo in which he worked for many years.
Howard and Peter met with Pablo at the school which he founded (Usko-Ayar school of painting) in Pucullpa where he lives and paints, and interviewed Pablo about his life as a shaman and artist.
What drew you to being a shaman?
It was a spiritual matter for me. I had thought that shamans deceived and lied to people, so I didn’t believe in them. I thought that Ayahuasca healed people because it was medicine, I didn’t believe in magic and spirits. No! Then in 1967 I saw a curandera miraculously heal my sister who had been in mortal agony with hepatitis, and could not either eat or speak, but with this single healing from the plants, she was cured in just two hours. That motivated me to start learning the science of vegetalismo
She was given Ayahuasca?
No, the Senora used the knowledge of Ayahuasca and chanted. That was during the day. That same night I drank and received the powers, but I didn’t know what I was being given. I saw many things. I sat like a king and watched! After that I dieted for five days, staying at home, without seeing many people.
After one month I began to feel what everybody else was feeling, it was a very strange thing! And I discovered I could sing the chants without even learning them. They came out beautifully and I wondered how it was possible that I knew them. I realised I had powers in me and I began to be a curandero when I cured a young man with a terrible headache, firstly I felt it and then he was better.
Is it an important part of the cure, to feel what the patient feels?
That was how the powers were given to me, but others say that when they take the Ayahuasca, they can see what the problem is with their patient. I didn’t even have to drink, I felt exactly where their pains were, and their emotions, everything.
What plant did you take on your diet?
Just Ayahuasca, but afterwards I took other plants at the same time as Ayahuasca, to learn more things.
Then you practiced as a curandero in Pucullpa?
Yes, and for many years I travelled to Madre de Dios, Cusco, Lima, Huanuco, Tingo Maria and Alto Ucayali. Wherever I went I cured people.
At that time Pucullpa was much smaller.
Yes, the houses were mostly wooden, with cultivation behind them, there were no high buildings. None of the streets had tarmac, they were of red mud, except for the one central Plaza. The road to Lima was terrible and it took a month or more to get there.
How do you communicate with plant spirits after you take them into you?
When you take any plant other than Ayahuasca, you connect through your dreams. Ajo sacha, Chric Sanango, Bobinsana etc. you learn while you are asleep. But with Ayahuasca no, you are conscious and awake. That is why it is the planta maestra - the eye through which you see the world, the universe. It is miraculous and sacred and you can learn from your studies far more with Ayahuasca than with other plants, but you must obey the ‘statutes’ of this plant, i.e. the rules. If you obey, no knowledge will be withheld from you.
My visions helped me understand the value of human beings, animals, the plants themselves, and many other things. The plants taught me the function they play in life, and the holistic meaning of all life. We all should give special attention and deference to Mother Nature. She deserves our love. And we should also show a healthy respect for her power!
How did you discover your gift of painting?
I used to make portraits and landscapes when I was 20 years old, but mostly using charcoal. But this didn’t earn me any money so I dedicated myself to other things, agriculture, raising animals and hairdressing, all kinds of things. I was working as secretary to the chief of customs here in the port of Pucullpa. One day my boss told me to paint two armchairs, and as I had never painted, I just slapped on the paint any old how, and it looked awful with lumps everywhere. But the boss didn’t reprimand me; he said how come you are good at everything except painting? I was a little hurt because he was always so impressed by everything I did. This made me think that if I was going to learn to paint, I would learn to do it well.
After three years working there I had a heart problem and returned to doing portraits in pencil beginning with my own portrait.
How did you begin painting visions?
Years passed and I used to say to my mother, when I am older I will paint several pictures of myself so that after I am dead people will know there has been a painter in the family! One day I was asked to accompany a foreign gentleman because I spoke a little English but I did not know that he was the biologist Denis McKenna. After some years he recommended me for a job in Sepagua but I was not able to take it up because my mother fell ill. So when he came back in 1985 I asked him if he would show my pictures in an exhibition he was organizing in Switzerland. They were small pictures, but later he returned with Luis Eduardo Luna who said how beautifully you paint Pablo. I can promote your work; do you want to be a world class painter?
I said no, I don’t want any of those things. I don’t know what a ‘world class’ painter is. I just want you to help me sell my pictures to make a little money. I was portraying the daily realities of people in the Amazon, how they sow and harvest, how they fish and celebrate their fiestas and so on. Luna said how is it I haven’t met you before now? Every year I have been coming for the last eight years, travelling up the Amazon through Brazil and Peru to Panama!
I asked him why he came. What was he looking for? We are interested in the magical plants of Peru from the coast, Sierra and Selva . I know what you are after, I said. I used to be a shaman ten years ago, what a shame you didn’t know me before, but now I have put all that behind me. I could have told you so much about what I had seen, I said. Then I started to think that I could paint for him all the things I had seen in my visions and all the things that were explained to me. But I had to do it in secret because even when people saw photos of what I painted, they said I had gone mad, that I was bedevilled and painting things of the demon!
They worried me with these remarks. I could never have had an exhibition here in Pucullpa. So Luna said paint for me then! And I made two pictures of visions for his next visit, and when he saw those pictures – one of which is in the Museum of Washington DC and the other in the University of Stockholm – they took hundreds of pictures of them. But I said he could take them away. And that’s what they did, wrapped up in a huge box. They sold them and sent me the money. After that they said we don’t want any more landscapes, only visions!
They studied them and said they found language and biology in the pictures so later I began to make explanations of them. But I could never show them to people here. That’s how it all started.
Are people still prejudiced here?
Yes, many are still. Once some religious people came and said that if the name of Jesus was spoken the paintings would explode. And they asked me to say Jesus. I said I can’t say that word, what for? They said to each other, he has got the devil in him, if he says Jesus, he will explode!
You have many amazing paintings here in your studio; can you tell us something about them?
The pictures are a means by which people can cross spiritual boundaries. Some people say they can only believe what they see, but there are thing which exist which cannot be seen. The pictures are for reminding people what we are and where we come from and where we are going. They are for people of any culture in the world although there is much that is taken from indigenous Amazonian culture.
Would you like to add anything more about the importance of plants?
For me personally, though, they mean even more than this. Plants—in the great living book of nature—have shown me how to study life as an artist and shaman. They can help all of us to know the art of healing and to discover our own creativity, because the beauty of nature moves people to show reverence, fascination, and respect for the extent to which the forests give shelter to our souls.
The consciousness of plants is a constant source of information for medicine, alimentation, and art, and an example of the intelligence and creative imagination of nature. Much of my education I owe to the intelligence of these great teachers. Thus I consider myself to be the “representative” of plants, and for this reason I assert that if they cut down the trees and burn what’s left of the rainforests, it is the same as burning a whole library of books without ever having read them.
People who are not so dedicated to the study and experience of plants may not think this knowledge is so important to their lives—but even they should be conscious of the nutritional, medicinal, and scientific value of the plants they rely on for life.
My most sublime desire, though, is that every human being should begin to put as much attention as he or she can into the knowledge of plants, because they are the greatest healers of all. And all human beings should also put effort into the preservation and conservation of the rainforest, and care for it and the ecosystem, because damage to these not only prejudices the flora and fauna but humanity itself.
Even in the Amazon these days, many see plants as only a resource for building houses and to finance large families. People who have farms and raise animals also clear the forest to produce foodstuffs. Mestizos and native Indians log the largest trees to sell to industrial sawmills for subsistence. They have never heard of the word ecology!
For the full interview with some of Pablo's paintings and his descriptions, visit the website listed below.