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Marc Brightman (Oxford Brookes University,


Objects, empowerment, cosmopolitics (Sainsbury Research Unit, UEA Norwich, May



Painted cosmos: the Wayana maluwana and embodiment of collectivity.

The Maluwana is a disc of silk-cotton wood, painted with stylised images of spirits and
animals and abstract designs, transfixed by a pole in the centre of the dome of the
Wayana collective house. It is the object that the Wayana revere most; within it are
concentrated the esoteric power of the shaman, origin myths and the energy of
procreation. But the maluwana is not merely representational or symbolic; it is an agent
in its own right, which protects the village from spirit attacks. The extraordinary
concentration of iconographic power found in the Maluwana, and the secret process by
which it is made, make it an important example of Amerindian sacred art. It raises
important questions about the relationship between the permanence of sacred objects and
the continuity of social groups. How does an art object contribute to group solidarity?
What is the role of materiality (specifically 'hardness') and the image in representing or
embodying the collectivity?

The Wayana are a Carib-speaking people of the border regions of Suriname, French
Guiana and Brazil. I carried out most of my fieldwork in two villages, one predominantly
Trio but with a large minority of Wayana, in Suriname this village is called Tpu and
another predominantly Wayana, but with a significant minority of Apalai, in French
Guiana this village is called Antecume Pata.

In the centre of each village is a large domed structure, called the tukusipan [slide 1].
Although tukusipan is actually a Wayana word, the Trio in Tpu have also adopted this
name in place of their own word, paiman. This accompanies another manifestation of
Wayana influence there: under the dome of the tukusipan in Tpu can be seen a painted
disc, a maluwana. Here, the tukusipan is not a true dome, and the structure of the house is
based on that of the lozenge-shaped family houses in which most Trio and Wayana live.

Because there is no central post, the maluwana is attached to one of the horizontal beams
that help support the vertical posts. But in Antecume Pata, the tukusipan is a true dome
structure [slide 2]. Here, the central post passes through the centre of the maluwana. In
some cases, particularly with smaller tukusipans, when the dome can support itself
without scaffolding, the post is cut off half way down after the construction is complete.

Ive started by describing the location of the maluwana because it is important for an
understanding of its role. The maluwana is placed right at the centre of the tukusipan,
which itself is right at the centre of the village. The tukusipan is the place of collective
ritual and political activities [slide 3]. It is here that the marake initiation ceremonies of
teenage boys and girls take place. When government delegations or NGO representatives
come to the village, they are ceremonially welcomed in the tukusipan. Pensions and
family allowances are distributed here. Visitors to the village who do not have a special
attachment to particular families are allowed to put up their hammocks in the tukusipan.
The dances that celebrate the new year and the preparation of new gardens before the end
of the dry season take place here, and women ceremonially feed manioc beer to male
visitors. In short, the tukusipan is the place for collective activity. It is a neutral space,
and the building of a new tukusipan is the responsibility of the village leader, who is
usually also the village founder. It involves collective work: the leader sponsors a work
party by giving a party with plenty of manioc beer, and men from all parts of the village
come to drink, then participate in the building.

To appreciate the significance of the collective nature of the tukusipan and the
maluwana which is placed at its centre it is worth remembering the so-called
individualistic nature of the Amerindian societies of the Guianas region. Although they
are not individualistic in the sense of every man being out for himself as maximising
economic and political actors, they are individualistic in the sense that the moral
autonomy of individual persons is highly respected. Guianese Amerindians live in
villages because they like company they like to be surrounded by kin, to share the good
life with them. In everyday life, however, there is very little collective activity. Leaders
have very little influence over peoples everyday activities. It is only on special occasions

in ritual time rather than ordinary time, so to speak that the collectivity reveals itself;
in fact we can even say that it is only on such occasions that the collectivity comes into
being at all.

Manufacture of maluwana
Now, I would like to look more closely at the maluwana [slide 4]. This is a painted
wooden disc made from a section of the kumaka, Ceiba pentandra, or silk-cotton tree. It is
painted with various designs in earth dyes or enamel paints. The first maluwana is said to
have been made by one of the first Wayana, Itelu, who learned about it from a jolok
spirit, called Tlepanasi. Tlepanasi told him that the images were so powerful and
dangerous that if he looked at them for too long it would fall on his head and the
creatures depicted would come alive and devour him.1 At the same time as learning about
the maluwana, Itelu learned about the tukusipan, and the flute music and dancing and
drinking of collective rituals. Later, when he created the first Wayana maluwana and
tukusipan, he also organised the first eputop or marake initiation ritual.

A so-called real maluwana (as opposed to one made just for decoration or to sell in the
city to tourists) must be made in isolation, particularly from women and children, by a
shaman; work is only carried out on it in secrecy, while chanting specific lemi (spirit
songs), at times when the village is at low levels of risk from spirit attacks, and would
have to stop, for example, when a woman gave birth to a child, only to resume when the
child is strong enough not to be vulnerable to the spirits portrayed. This is because, as
Lcia van Velthem has written, the Wayana believe that creatures that are perfectly
portrayed (that is, perfectly within Wayana stylistic conventions rather than perfect
realistic likenesses) become real. For this reason, artefacts are often left unfinished or
given deliberate flaws. According to Schultz-Kampfhenkel, the leader of a 1930s German
expedition to the region (1940: 168-9), the Apalai maluwana was painted with human
hair (the Apalai also have a tradition of producing maluwana, and indeed the Wayana
maluwana may have its origins among the Apalai). The significance of using human hair

Mataliwa Kulijaman & Eliane Camargo 2007

is that hair, like feathers, bone and beads, is associated with durability and protection
from spirits.

Peter Rivire, in his 1995 article on the house, refers to Audrey Butt Colsons account of
the Wayana and speculates that the maluwana is made of hard wood, and that it is
transported to a new village when an old one is abandoned, thus [in his words]
symbolizing continuity as well as collectivity. The significance of this is that hardness is
a quality that is associated by the Trio and Wayana with durability and beauty. However,
kumaka is in fact a soft wood, and I have seen no evidence of a maluwana being brought
to a new village. The kumaka seems to be chosen primarily because of its own
symbolism, and perhaps because of its size it is a very big tree. Also, because soft wood
is lighter, it lends itself better to being suspended above peoples heads! The disc of
kumaka wood is first blackened using charred incense (from the resin of awa, Trattinickia
demerarae, Burseraceae2). Recently new techniques have been developed for making the
maluwana which afford greater durability: enamel paints have been used for several
years, which are also brighter than the earth dyes traditionally used. However, earth dyes
are more attractive to tourists because they appear more authentic [slide 5]. To make
earth dye last longer, young Wayana artists have recently begun mixing earth dyes with
superglue, and they have developed this technique in such a way that it also allows them
to obtain an appliqu effect.

The importance of the isolation of the maker of the maluwana, which several different
interlocutors emphasised to me on different occasions, is contradicted by an account
given by Audrey Butt Colson after her fieldwork in the 1950s (Rivire 1995: 196n.).
According to her, all the senior men in a village are involved in painting the maluwana.
But the question of whether the maluwana is made in secret by a shaman or collectively
by senior men as Colson suggests, does not affect the conclusion that it is associated with
the collectivity; I suspect that in the past a small group of senior men with sufficient
esoteric knowledge may have made the object collectively, but in isolation from the rest

Kulijaman & Camargo 2007: 40

of their relatives for the safety of more vulnerable individuals. All the same, the shamans
position as affine to the rest of the collectivity (according to Apareida Vilaas
formulation, 2006), or as oscillating between the perspectives of affine and kin (as Peter
Gow has suggested, 2001), does qualify him uniquely as a maker of this object which,
like himself, mediates between inside and outside. If production became individual in
recent years this might only reflect a reduction in the number of men considered to have
such knowledge. In either case, the maluwana is made by older men possessing special
knowledge, for the benefit of the collectivity: for its protection and to promote its

Iconography of maluwana
The most important designs in a typical maluwana represent water spirit-monsters
(especially mulokot, and also makwatili, kahenawa) and maneating caterpillars (of several
types: kuluwayak, plit, and tokokosi), which are said to be the most powerful and
dangerous types of spirit. The water spirit mulokot is said to have created the Wayana,
and caterpillars are revered and feared as perfect symbols of the outward transformations
and deceptive appearances characteristic of the spirit world. The mulokot and anaconda
are often mentioned almost interchangeably in daily discourse, the former being the
master or spirit archetype of the latter, and regional variations of myths of the origin
of cultural attributes give either anaconda or kuluwayak the role of archetypal Other from
whom these attributes come. Mulokot is also associated with the primordial flood in a
myth which emphasises that the water spirit is greatly to be feared. The anaconda also
shares with the caterpillar the significant attribute of transformability, expressed through
the shedding of skin or ability to change shape.

In all maluwana I have seen, the images of creatures are surrounded by a jagged ring
representing silk-cotton tree spines, and another smaller ring of spines surrounds the inner
hole through which the house pole is passed with apparent phallic symbolism. This is
given further significance when the vagina dentata motif, which is associated in Guianese

myth with a culture heros relationship with an anaconda, is taken into account:3 in the
Waiwai version, the relationship between a pair of twins with giant penises and an
anaconda whose vagina is full of piranhas leads to the twins obtaining body ornaments,
and the twins trick the anaconda people to avoid exchanging women with them. The
phallic house pole passing through the ring of kumaka spines surrounded by kuluwayak
and luk is, in this light, a very dense image indeed. The image of the male principle at
the centre and the female principle outside it may seem to contradict the ritual roles of
women at the centre feeding visiting males, which accords with uxorilocal marriage
practice and associated rituals which take place in the tukusipan. But it may be more
useful to consider it as an inversion, which evokes a reversal of roles from another
perspective: Vanessa Grottis work has shown how Trio women can become ritual
predators, and the vagina dentata would associate women with affinity in a similar way.

More generally, the serrated border motif is common throughout Amazonia, and Colin
McEwan has interpreted it as serving to mark the threshold between the everyday world
and a different order of reality.4 This would associate the rings of kumaka spines with an
important function of the maluwana: my host Kulitaik and other Wayana told me that it
serves the village as protection against spirit attacks. An obvious interpretation of the
image of the powerful spirit beings contained by the spines is that it expresses this
protective function. The spiritual agency or power given to the images on the real
maluwana ensure that the mulokot and the luk are present as the ceremonies take place
beneath, so that their transformative and creative power can be evoked and drawn upon,
but they are safely contained in their circle of kumaka spines.5

cf. Mentore 1993
McEwan 2001: 193
As the people reinforce their humanity through dance, blowing and flute playing, and through ritual
stinging (kunana), during collective rituals, the spirits may even be being taunted by the celebration of the
cultural attributes that, according to myth, were originally stolen from them, as Jean-Michel Beaudet has
suggested in his study of Waipi flutes.

Real maluwana and tourist maluwana
The design also includes smaller images of tortoises and fish, which some disapproving
older Wayana told me are a recent innovation of young artesans to decorate inferior
maluwana for sale to tourists in the city. However, I have observed similar decorations on
old maluwana clearly made only for ceremonial purposes, including one in Antecume
Pata made by the late Kuliyaman, a highly venerated shaman [slide 6], suggesting that the
real cause for disapproval may be the profane context of the production of maluwana for
trade (although its worth noting that in both cases these secondary images are said to be
just for decoration). As well as the usual mulokot, kuluwayak and luk, a maluwana
pictured in a travel narrative by Dominique Darbois (1956) depicts many different
animals such as frogs, monkeys, deer, herons and the giant anteater. An Apalai maluwana
pictured in Schultz-Kampfhenkel (1940), almost identical in style to the Wayana
equivalent, has the mulokot, kuluwayak and luk, and white herons.

Lcia Van Velthem6 has commented on the representation of White people on the
maluwana. She writes that these depictions of white people represent real individuals
who have caused trouble or who are associated with strange events, which were attributed
to their agency. The strange and powerful creatures painted on the maluwana, whether
spirits or white people, have in common that they are sources of change and of creativity.

What the Wayana refer to as real maluwana are now rare. They can be as large as 1m80
in diameter. Only in the Wayana communities living on the other side of the Tumuc-
Humac mountain range in Brazil are there said to remain men knowledgeable enough to
make real maluwana. Meanwhile, Maluwana have become quite commonly available in
tourist souvenir shops on the coast, and are often made by Wayana who have migrated to
the city. I collected another maluwana in Tpu, made at my request by Sarak, a young
man from Tpu of mixed Trio and Wayana parentage who had married a Trio woman
[slide 7]. Interestingly, Sarak signed and dated the object [slide 8], suggesting a quite
different role for it as an art object and conveyor of his individual agency.

in Pacificando o Branco

In fact maluwana are today made by a large number of young Wayana for sale, and this
activity has become so important that it is the principal source of income for young
Wayana men, who have few other prospects for paid employment.

If the real maluwana embodies the collectivity, should we conclude that maluwana like
this made for decoration and sale to tourists represent the encroachment of market
individualism on top of the traditional Guianese individualism of moral autonomy? Im
not so sure. In fact, it seems to me that these maluwana made for sale to tourists embody
a new form of solidarity which draws together all Wayana. If traditional maluwana only
stand for the local community, these generic maluwana are becoming badges of Wayana
identity; Wayana people are proud to let them travel to the coast as ambassadors of their

Of course, as the role of the maluwana expands in this way, its symbolic content is
diluted, or even erased altogether to leave nothing but an icon of generic identity. But the
symbolism of the maluwana goes beyond the spirit beings contained by spines and the
vagina dentata that I discussed earlier. Because of the primordial nature of these beings,
there is a sense in which the maluwana represents the entire cosmos. This is emphasised
by the position of the maluwana under the centre of the roof in the tukusipan. Tukusipan
and Paiman, the Wayana and Trio names for collective houses, refer to rock archetypes
to be found in the landscape these houses are in fact copies of certain mountains. The
explicit relationship between the transitory wood and thatch communal house and its rock
archetype, together with comparative Amazonian evidence such as that from the
Yecuana or the Barasana (e.g. Guss 1989; Hugh-Jones 1995), support the hypothesis that
the tukusipan may be regarded as a microcosm of the universe. It is not immediately clear
what the relationship between the house and the maluwana is in this context, but it seems
fair to suggest that it may be regarded as a further concentration of the same universe.

Embodiment of collectivity
One reason for this is the central importance given to primordial beings portrayed on the
maluwana to explanations of the origins of the cosmos and of culture. These beings are
primordial by virtue of their quintessential transformability: the mulokot and kuluwayak,
are special, spirit forms of anaconda and caterpillar, which are creatures that shed their
skin. Skin, clothes or outward appearance are frequently associated in Amazonia with
change of perspective,7 and this is very explicit in Trio and Wayana myth: when non-
human persons become human: they begin to see like human beings after putting on
human clothes; similarly, humans turn into jaguars or eagles after putting on a jaguars
or a harpy eagles clothes or skin. But the skin itself also embodies creativity, and this is
underlined by the particular emphasis which is put on the designs or markings on the
skin, which receive a highly stylised treatment on the maluwana. Another association is
made in Amazonia between the shedding of skin (particularly that of snakes) and
immortality, as Peter Gow has noted for example (2001), and I suspect that a certain form
of immortality, at least in the sense of social continuity, is a key purpose of the use of the
tukusipan and function of the maluwana; this continuity takes place through another
transformation: that of others into kin, which occurs especially during the collective
rituals that take place beneath them.

Discussion and conclusions

To conclude: the maluwana is a curious mixture, because it embodies both the cosmos,
and the local community. By different means, it has also come to stand for all the
Wayana as a so-called tribe in a modern context. The knowledge of the cosmos that is
represented by the maluwana is itself one of the few, and most important, elements of
continuity (in the sense of perpetuating knowledge through material culture) in a society
little interested in genealogy.

The creation of the maluwana is clearly a case of empowerment of things. The

maluwana is attributed various powers which I have described. The ultimate source of

Rivire 1994; Viveiros de Castro 1998

these powers is the strange and powerful creatures that are depicted, but it is only through
the skill of the artisan that these powers are channelled into the object. I think that the
iconography plays a key role in this channelling or harnessing of spiritual power more
specifically, the kumaka spines that form a border, fencing in the other images, so to

Finally, I would like to suggest that here we have the clearest possible image of the
limitations of perspectivist theory. Perspectivism can help us to understand the nature of
the power of the spirit beings, mulokot and kuluwayak, in so far as it helps us to
understand the importance of transformability as a form of power. But all of this is quite
literally encompassed by the kumaka spines. This is an image of control over the cosmos
a true religious image: powerful beings associated with the origins of culture and the
universe are framed so that their power can be channelled for social renewal and
continuity. It is by asserting control over the cosmos that the collectivity is able to
express its limits, and thus, its integrity and its identity.

But at the same time, there is something uniquely Amazonian and perspectivist about
the way in which these beings are framed: they are framed not only on the outside, but
also on the inside. Framing them on the outside is a more obvious aesthetic choice, and
perhaps an inversion of the geographical relationship between inside and outside with
respect to consanguinity and affinity. But framing on the inside would seem to be a
further inversion of that inversion; then, if we take the inside of the inner ring, where it is
transfixed by the central pole, as a vagina dentata motif, then the relationship is reversed
yet again. This kaleidoscopic image of consanguinity and affinity as forever contained
within one another is a fitting emblem of the dynamism that gives Guianese societies,
which, let us remember, are societies without states or corporate groups, the ability to
exist, and to continue to exist, as collectivities.