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Home | Interesting articles
Interesting articles

A different view on the world
mythological beings in Wayana-art

by Marieke Visser

Two headed caterpillars and frightful water spirits are recurring motifs on an artifact that can only be found in the Southern part of Suriname and French Guyana and the neighboring region of Northern Brazil: the maluana. The maluana is a large wooden disc which is used by the people of the indigenous Wayana-community to cap off the peak of the round roof of their community hut. The meaning of the word maluana in the Wayana language is sky or firmament. In the past decade the production of this exceptional form of artistic expression has taken off at great speed, because these beautifully decorated discs are in high demand with tourists and collectors.

Way of living and cultural manifestation
The original inhabitants of Suriname are the Indians, presently referred to as the indigenous population. During the last census of 2004 it was determined that of the 492,829 inhabitants of Suriname a little over 18,000 people are considered to be indigenous. This is incidentally however, anything but a homogeneous community. The largest group is formed by the Kalińha, followed by the Arowak. Significantly smaller communities are that of the Wayana, the Trio and the largely diminished Akurio en Warau. All groups have their own language and culture. The Wayana, who are also the creators of the maluana’s, live in the most Southern parts of Suriname. There are a total of approximately 1500 Wayana. A significant part of the works of art by the well known Surinamese artist Paul Woei has been greatly influenced and inspired by the way of living and cultural expressions of the Wayana.

Beautiful specimens
Until recently the maluana was used mainly as a practical implement with a certain added decorative value. These days however the majority of the maluana’s produced are destined for the souvenir retail market as beautiful specimens of Surinamese craft. In the past maluana’s were solely made by the men as were for that matter also all other figurative expressions of arts and crafts, as well as the geometric weaving work. But times change, and it is thus that today Lola Ankarapi, far away from her birth village of Tepu, creates her maluana’s in Domburg, a village a little ways south of Paramaribo. Most of her discs are sold by the Readytex Art Gallery but aside from those, she also makes several larger maluana’s a few times each year at the request of fellow-villagers. Also other round huts in Wayana- and in some Trio villages, other than the community hut, are nowadays equipped with a maluana. The indigenous people of Suriname are proud of their cultural heritage and the maluana is a wonderful manifestation thereof. Lola Ankarapi was born in 1967 in Tepu and both of her parents are Trio-Indians. Her father was raised by Wayana-foster parents from Kawemhakan and it is there that he learned how to make maluana’s. He passed on this knowledge to his daughter. Lola Ankarapi’s husband, Peter Maparina, is council supervisor for the villages of Tepu and Palumeu. Oftentimes he himself travels into the jungle to fell trees and cut them into discs. Lola takes care of the other finishing touches and applies the decorative paintings. Her son and a foster brother are currently being apprenticed by her.

Two headed caterpillars
When the discs are intended for use as practical implements, their average diameter is approximately one meter. The material used in those cases comes from the Kankantri, the large majestic Ceiba pentandra, also known as the Kapok tree. For the smaller maluana’s the wood most often used is cedar wood, Cedrela odorata. Regardless of the personal style of the artisan, the maluana is always created based upon a standard method. The background is usually black or dark brown, and occasionally red or green. Natural color extracts are usually derived from resin or clay and nowadays many artisans also use oil or acrylic paints. The figurines are animal figures – sometimes real existing animals, sometimes mythological beings – alternated with geometric patterns. The number of images varies. Often used are the mulokot, a water spirit or mythological fish, and the frightful double headed caterpillars kuluwayak and totokosi. Turtles, ant-eaters, frogs, birds and catlike species are also often used.

Supernatural world
Not much is known about the Wayana culture. The cosmology is different from the western view of the world and of life itself. Anthropologist Karin Boven whom resided in the Wayana-village Kawemhakan for some time wrote in a newspaper article ‘Wayana symbolism in everyday life (De Ware Tijd, October 10th 1996) that the Wayana view of the world is based upon the contradictions between nature and culture. Nature and culture are constantly in conflict with one another; ‘there has to be a balance between the two in order to prevent setbacks or hardship such as food shortages, disease or death.’ According to their beliefs, the spirits that inhabit the wilderness and the water are just as real as are the creatures from the animal world. Consequently these supernatural beings have to be taken into consideration during everyday life. In her article Karin Boven explains that the threat emanating from these spirits, can to some extent be reversed by incorporating these frightful creatures into the culture, such as in for example the rituals, in the weavings and on the maluana’s. The water spirits such as the mulokot and the caterpillars such as the kuluwayak are thus made into allies. Another important contribution to the recording and documenting of the Wayana-culture was made by Claudius Henricus de Goeje, Professor in Language and Ethnology, whom between 1909 and 1937 executed several scientific expeditions to the interior of Suriname. His research results are published in the well known ‘Bijdragen-reeks’ (Contribution-series) of the KITLV (Royal Institute for language-, country- and cultural anthropology) in Leiden, the Netherlands. A large quantity of the objects collected by De Goeje is currently also included in the collection of the Dutch Rijksmuseum for Cultural anthropology. His explanation for the motifs and figures on the maluana’s is that they portray the history and origin of the Wayana-community. A mythological story about the courageous ancestors whom in their previous residential territory in Brazil engaged in battle with a frightening giant caterpillar and came out victorious. Another plausible but decidedly less fascinating explanation for the north bound migration is that the Wayana fled in order to escape the Portuguese colonists who wanted to enslave them. Yet another source mentions raging fire-ants that devoured all the crops and thereby forced the tribe to migrate elsewhere.

Magnificent patterns
The story about the battle against the monster is a very important part of the Wayana culture. For the Wayana people that myth also encloses the origin of their artistic expressions. For the migration to their present habitat, tradition commanded that they defeat the monster Tulupele in a subsidiary stream of the Paru-River in Brazil. The descriptions of this monster are rather varied: anywhere from snake-like to caterpillar-like. Tulupele devoured anybody who attempted to travel over the water and that was how this creature managed to isolate the Wayana from other tribes. Ultimately the Wayana, together with Apalai, were able to defeat this monster. The magnificent patterns on the skin of Tulupele have inspired the Wayana and the Apalai in the creation of a large part of the motifs which are still used in their art. After their victory over Tulupele they traveled, as a nomadic tribe, through inhospitable landscapes and encountered therein all sorts of dangerous mythological beings. These were described and drawn by those who witnessed them which is why even today, they still appear in the oral traditions and in the multitude of arts and crafts produced by the Wayana.

Added significance
Winston van der Bok is an artist who has extensively studied Wayana motifs and who has not only incorporated them in his art, but has also transformed them and given them added significance. He is Kalińha, a member of the indigenous community which is also known as Karaďb, currently the largest indigenous group in Suriname. Winston van der Bok was born in 1947 in Calbo, a village on the Cottica River, across from Paradijs. ‘I can still show you the mango tree in which the hammock was tied where my mother gave birth to me. We had everything, except for money.’ He was raised however by foster parents, has traveled all over the world and became estranged from his culture. He is a graphic designer in 1992 when on the eve of the commemoration of the 500 year time-lapse after Columbus’ so-called discovery of the New World, he decides to participate in an exhibition with 30 pieces of art. ‘The calling came upon me then. I don’t know my own language, but I am what I am: Kalińha. I know what I want, and through image carriers I am able to attach my own roots-message to my work.’ His graphics background is clearly identifiable in his work, but even more so are all the indigenous motifs: the patterns of the woven work, the maluana-symbols and also the images of the constellations which his ancestors made for anthropologists. ‘All that I do, I do out of a deep sense of love for what I am and for what they are.’

Marieke Visser is publicist in the area of Surinamese art and culture and works from her own press agency Swamp Fish Press in Suriname.

The maluana is placed in the peak of the tukusipan: the communal hut.
(Photo Collection Tabiki Productions / Culture studies)

Lola Ankarapi working on one of her maluana’s
(Photo’s Readytex Art Gallery / William Tsang, 2007)

Maluana’s manufactured by Lola Ankarapi
(Photo’s Readytex Art Gallery / William Tsang, 2007)

Winston van der Bok while working on Diminishing Icons, 2007, and applying a pattern over an image which depicts the constellation Meu
(Photo Hubert Hermelijn)

Stylized maluana shapes, (Design Winston van der Bok)

Winston van der Bok, Transformatie, 2007, acrylics on canvas, (Artist’s collection)
(Photo Hubert Hermelijn)

Readytex Art Gallery: www.readytexartgallery.com
Margreet Kauffman Foundation for International Educational Projects: www.mkfoundation.nl

Karin Boven, ‘Een monster als inspiratiebron voor Wayana kunst’ (A monster as source of inspiration for Wayana art). In: Oso jrg. 16, April 1997, p. 73-81.

This article has previously appeared with the title ‘Een andere kijk op de wereld’ in the Dutch magazine ‘Origine, voor kunst, antiek en toegepaste kunst’, Number 1 / 2008, volume 16.
It was translated into english by Cassandra Relyveld Gummels.



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