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Museum Mondays: Casimira’s quandary

September 9, 2013 at 6:19 am

In the summer of 1965, Logan Museum director and anthropology professor Andrew “Bud” Whiteford travelled to Peru and Ecuador with Malcolm Mouat, a Beloit College trustee and Janesville attorney. Whiteford described the trip as one of “cultural-historical salvage” to collect ethnographic material from several groups, including the Shipibo Indians, who, according to Whiteford, were “losing their old arts and slipping into the universal blend.” Mouat and Whiteford returned to Beloit with a large collection of objects, which have been curated at the Logan Museum. Fortunately for the Shipibo, they did not disappear “into the universal blend” (what we now call globalization) as Whiteford feared. They retain their identity today, living along the tributaries of the Amazon in the Peruvian rainforest.

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What do we make of the Shipibo objects nearly 50 years later? In Mouat and Whiteford’s time, new transportation infrastructure was bringing the outside world into the Shipibos’ once-isolated part of Peru. Tourists and ethnographers wanted pieces of Shipibo material culture. The Shipibo, like many people before and since, turned their traditional crafts into saleable commodities, adapting old forms and creating new ones to meet the demands of their new customers. The objects Mouat and Whiteford collected reflect a unique moment in Shipibo history when this market was coming into full bloom.

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The Logan Museum’s latest exhibit, Casimira’s Quandary: A Tale of Change and Choice in the Peruvian Jungle, explores this moment and its implications. Using the Shipibo collections obtained by Mouat and Whiteford, the exhibit was designed with a wide range of possible class uses in mind. It explores issues of authenticity, personal economic decision making, gender, and culture change. The exhibit is presented as a fictional story based on real people, places, and processes. In it, Shipibo matriarch Casimira ponders making and selling "traditional" Shipibo ceramics in the tourist markets. At the end of the exhibit, visitors are asked to make one of four choices for Casimira and consider the consequences of each.

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The exhibit is open now in the Shaw Gallery on the museum’s second floor.

From the exhibit:

A month later Casimira and Catalino are at a Big Drinking ceremony in nearby San Francisco Yarinacocha. Casimira traded the beer pot she made for food and spent her small savings on the medicine Catalino needed. She’s glad she did, but now she won’t be able to buy that foot-powered sewing machine she’s wanted. It seems whenever a little gets saved, something happens and she has to start over.

Leaving the party, Casimira walks around the village. She sees turistas bargaining with women over how much to pay for beaded necklaces, painted fabrics, and wood carvings. Many poorly made pots are also offered for sale. A man approaches. “Señora Casimira,” he says in Spanish, bowing slightly and offering his hand, “My name is Raul de los Rios. I am a shopkeeper in Pucallpa.” That night she thinks about Señor de los Rios’ offer. He wants to sell her pots in his store.