This portfolio and the essay below are excerpted from The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo, a new collection of never-before-published paintings by the renowned artist, edited by Howard G. Charing, Peter Cloudsley, and Pablo Amaringo, recently released by Inner Tradions/Bear & Co.
Memories and Legacy: Early Encounters with Pablo Amaringo, Painter of Visions
by Dennis McKenna, Ph.D.
I first met Pablo Amaringo in May 1981, when I was finishing up some ethnobotanical fieldwork in the Peruvian Amazon. It was at the end of a grueling but rewarding six months of collecting specimens and material for phytochemical investigations on a project that was eventually to evolve into my doctoral thesis on the botany, chemistry, and pharmacology of ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is the now-famous but at that time little-known visionary brew that is the portal to the shamanic universe of the Amazon.
It had been a long trip. I had returned to Pucallpa for a few days to collect a few more specimens and to visit my chief informant there, the ayahuasquero Don Fidel Mosambite, who had been my major informant when I first arrived in Peru. It seemed appropriate, somehow, to stop and pay my respects to this wonderful man before catching my flight back to Lima, and then Vancouver.
So it was that on a sunny Sunday afternoon I found myself in Pueblo Joven José Olay, a tiny settlement on the outskirts of Pucallpa, near Don Fidel’s home. I had stopped in at a local cantina to slake my thirst on the hot day, and was trying to order a beer and a little food in my broken Spanish (it has since improved) when a diminutive man with a kind face and a soft voice introduced himself in equally broken English and asked if I needed some assistance with my order. I was grateful for his help and offered to buy him a beer. In the conversation that ensued I learned that he was a maestro, a teacher, and, specifically, that he taught English in the local one-room school in his village. It was one of those chance encounters about which one thinks little at the time; a pleasant conversation in a local watering hole, a casual encounter that began what became, over the years, a warm friendship that would change both of our lives.
We passed the time in the dusty shade of the drowsy afternoon, learning what we could of each other through the limitations of our linguistic filters. It transpired that Pablo was not only a teacher, but a musician and an enthusiastic amateur painter. He invited me to his modest home on the main drag of this village (or what would have been the main drag if there had been any automobiles, which there were not).
While I waited in his living room, nursing a glass of lemonade, he went into a back room and rummaged around for a bit, returning with a stack of paintings on cardboard or particle board. They were mostly representations of animals and plants, things he had seen during his extensive ramblings in the jungle. Though I murmured politely as he showed me painting after painting, they were workmanlike but unremarkable, the sort of effort that might be the product of a first-year art student.
Eventually, as the afternoon dissolved into evening, I took my leave, telling Pablo that I was tired and had to return to my hotel to pack my gear in order to catch a plane to Lima the next day. I thanked him for his kindness and hospitality, made another insincere comment or two on the paintings, and prepared to depart. Pablo asked if I would like to return the next day for a fiesta de la musica. He wanted to gather together some friends and give me a little concert, a proper send-off for my long journey back to North America.
I started to demur, but he would not be put off; he insisted that I come to his house the next afternoon. As my plane did not depart until early evening, I had no real excuse, so finally I assented and told him I would stop by around lunchtime the following day. It was perhaps one of the best spur-of-the-moment decisions I have ever made.
When I arrived, bringing cervezas (beer) and a bit of comidas (food), Pablo had gathered several of his friends together and they were unpacking musical instruments of all kinds: a battered guitar, drums, flutes, ukeleles, tambourines, and bells–the typical ensemble of Peruvian folk music. This little band of “jammers” then proceeded to regale me, for about the next four hours, with a truly amazing repertoire of traditional folk tunes.
The beer and laughter flowed freely, food was consumed, stories were told, and all of it transpired in an atmosphere of warmth and friendship, just a bunch of amigos hanging out, jamming, and having a good time.
I was truly moved.
Suddenly, I was no longer an extranjero, an alien foreigner dropped in from a parallel universe; I was just one of the guys and the guys were eager to share their music, their laughter, and their life with me. It was a moment I will never forget. As it happens, I had a few cassettes left, and my cheap tape recorder, which had served me well over the past months, still had some life left in its failing batteries. So I was able to capture a little of the performance, and that tape–tinny, scratchy, and about as bad a recording as it’s possible to make–remains one of my most treasured possessions to this day. My head was full of the music, but my heart was sad as I bid Pablo and his band of merry men good-bye, not knowing if I would ever see any of them again. I returned to Vancouver and threw myself into my work, spending long days and sometimes nights unraveling the chemical secrets of the hard-won samples I had collected.
Years passed and although Pablo and I had exchanged addresses and I had heard from him once, there was no further communication from him. I had responded to his one brief letter with an equally short missive, the best I could do as a busy graduate student (or so I justified to myself).
In the fall of 1981, shortly after the conclusion of my fieldwork, I met Luis Eduardo Luna for the first time. He was in town to attend an anthropology conference being held at the University of British Columbia; though we had not met, we knew of each other, as he had been a friend of my brother Terence since 1972. When he sent word that he was coming to Vancouver, I invited him to stay in my tiny apartment, even though I had just moved in a few days earlier with my new girlfriend, Sheila (who is now my wife). Eduardo was a model houseguest. We spent many hours talking late into the night, after he had returned from the conference and I from my long days in the lab. Another birth took place there and then, of another friendship that I still cherish.
Suddenly, it was 1985. I had completed my thesis the year before, published the findings (such as they were), and moved to San Diego to begin the first of an endless chain of postdocs. In the mail I received an unexpected invitation from my new (and now old) friend, Eduardo. It seemed that he was organizing a satellite symposium on ayahuasca that was to be held in conjunction with the 45th International Congress of the Americanists, scheduled for that summer at the University of the Andes in Bogota, Colombia. Could I be persuaded to attend and present some of my findings? It took no persuasion; I told him I was honored, and I was ready to go.
That July I met up with Eduardo at his home in Florencia, in the province of Caqueta, Colombia. I had passed through Florencia once before, in 1971 while I was on the way to La Chorerra in the company of my brother and our unlikely hippie entourage. It felt strange to be returning to this forsaken spot on the map, the place where, nearly a decade and a half before, I had had my first encounter with the Psilocybe cubensis mushrooms, an encounter that changed my life forever. (The chronicle of our journey to La Chorrera and the hyperspatial portal lurking there has been related extensively in my brother’s book, True Hallucinations, so there is no need to belabor it here.)
We stayed at Eduardo’s home for a few days and journeyed together to Bogotá for the conference. Afterward, we parted company. I had an obligation to travel on to Iquitos to conduct some business, and we agreed to meet again in Pucallpa to embark on six weeks of travel and collecting in various parts of Peru. Eduardo showed up right on time, encountering me waiting impatiently in the cantina of El Pescador–the tiny, squalid hotel in the town of Yarina Cocha, a few kilometers from Pucallpa.
No sooner had he dropped his bags than we left for an ayahuasca session with Don Fidel; I was eager to introduce him to my informant, still going strong since I had last seen him in ’81. The next morning, after a light breakfast, we determined to go to Jose Olaya to see if we could find Pablo. We found him at home and introductions were made. Eduardo’s presence, with his perfect Spanish, enabled a much less superficial conversation with Pablo to take place this time.
In short order, the subject of ayahuasca came up (I had not discussed this at all with Pablo in our previous encounter, four years prior) and we learned that not only did he know about it, but that he had been a practicing ayahuasquero for many years. Suddenly my perception of this odd, funny little man changed dramatically. He was not just an ayahuasquero, but a very powerful one. He related to us the circumstances that had led him to follow the path of the medicine; how in his late thirties he had been diagnosed with a serious heart problem, a congenital defect that doctors told him was likely to shorten his life by decades. There was nothing they could do, they said. In despair, not knowing what else to do, Pablo sought out the local shaman and submitted himself to the medicine, not knowing whether this or any other measure could help him.
He related an amazing story; how, in his first or second encounter, he had been visited by “spirit doctors” (he described them as “German doctors”). He found himself in a curved space, an operating room, surrounded by high-tech machines and doctors in white coats. He related how the doctors opened his chest and removed his heart, still beating, all while Pablo watched in terror, convinced he was going to die; how the doctors did things to his heart, fixing it before his eyes, and replaced it in his chest and closed him up; how, after this experience, he never had any further heart problems (his doctors in Pucallpa were baffled–they couldn’t explain it); how, following this miraculous healing, he had responded to the message from ayahuasca, that in order to maintain his health and vitality he had to become a student of ayahuasca; how he learned to use it to maintain his health and to cure others. Which he did, over many years, until it came about that he got into a shamanic conflict with other ayahuasqueros–evil brujos (sorcerers) who were bent on killing or harming him.
He went on to tell us how, at that point, he determined to give up his practice. He saw himself at a crossroads, he said, where his only choice was to kill his enemies or to be killed by them. Not wanting either of these grim options, he stepped back from the world of ayahuasca and never ingested the brew again. Eduardo and I were struck by this story and while we were ruminating over his tale, Pablo proceeded to bring out some of his paintings to show us. As we were examining these (his work had improved somewhat since he had first shown it to me years before, but his paintings were still fairly conventional) Eduardo asked him if he had ever tried painting his ayahuasca visions. Pablo seemed puzzled by the question; the idea had really never occurred to him! Eduardo made some compliment about his technique and gently suggested that he ought to give it a try. Pablo was noncommittal, and the moment passed. We spent another hour or so in conversation about inconsequential matters and then took our leave.
The next morning, we decided to drop by Pablo’s house again, with no particular agenda except to say hello. Pablo was excited and showed us three canvases, the first three visionary paintings he had ever produced. Intrigued by Eduardo’s suggestion, he had been up all night producing these paintings. They were still somewhat crude by the standards of his later work, but it was clear to both of us that these works were of a wholly different order from anything he had shown us before. They seemed to come from a place of vision and inspiration–a direct download from the magical ayahuasca universe, its details remembered and rendered perfectly from memory, though it had been many years since he had taken the brew.
Both Eduardo and I noted with slight amusement that the paintings were unsigned. So egoless was this man, so naively unaware of such conventions, that it did not occur to him to spoil the effect with the imprimatur of his creative ownership. Eduardo, much more qualified than I to judge the quality of Pablo’s artistic efforts and quick to discern their commercial potential, lost no time in suggesting that he should include his name on any further works he might produce; but those first two remained unsigned and are hanging, still unsigned, one in my den in Minnesota, the other in Eduardo’s study in Helsinki.
We returned to visit Pablo the next day, to find that he had turned out three more paintings in the preceding twenty-four hours. They were signed this time, as he proudly pointed out. They were, if anything, even more intricate, colorful, and inspired than the works of the previous day. And thus began Pablo’s remarkable career as one of the world’s foremost visionary artists.
It was as though Eduardo’s simple suggestion had triggered something in Pablo; once he took to the idea, it turned on a floodgate of creative expression, with ideas and images pouring out of him almost faster than he could put brush to canvas. That original inspiration and its prolific result continued and his technique improved while his fame grew. His later works are more sophisticated and detailed, reflecting his years of experience, and yet they clearly spring from the original creative impulse that moved him to put brush to canvas and generate the first of his visionary works.
In the years that passed subsequent to this fateful encounter, initially with Eduardo’s help in arranging sales and international exhibitions and later independently, Pablo became famous and revered worldwide, not only for his paintings but for the Usko Ayar school of Amazonian painting, which he founded with Eduardo’s help in the late 1980s. Through the school he taught many young people in his community how to paint and gave them a means of livelihood, a way to help support their families by producing and selling wonderful paintings depicting the marvelous plants and animals of the Amazon.
There are now many derivatives; one cannot wander into to a gallery or tourist shop in Pucallpa or Iquitos that does not have a few paintings from Usko Ayar, or, more frequently, crude knockoffs of the genuine articles. But few of Pablo’s students have ventured into visionary painting and while their works are wonderful, masterfully done, highly detailed, and taxonomically accurate, they are largely representational. Only Pablo can claim the title of curator and official artist in residence of a museum of marvels, committing to canvas, for the world to see, the bizarre, beautiful, magical, and terrifying reality that is the ayahuasca dimension.
The results of Pablo and Eduardo’s collaboration in the late ’80s culminated in the publication of his first collection of visionary paintings. Ayahuasca Visions: The Religious Iconography of a Peruvian Shaman, published in 1991, brought Pablo’s work to the world. Pablo’s paintings, reproduced in high-quality full color, together with Eduardo’s detailed translations of Pablo’s interpretation of each painting, have given students of folk art, anthropology, Amazonian mythology, and ayahuasca a window into this shamanic realm that few will ever experience firsthand.
Pablo’s creative output did not end with the publication of his first book, and although he was subsequently invited to hundreds of conferences and workshops, no additional collection of his paintings was published. Recently some new collaborators, Howard Charing and Peter Cloudsley, teamed with Pablo to create the second collection of his work, which includes numerous examples of his more contemporary paintings, many of which have never been widely shown before.
The collection builds on Pablo’s previous work and illustrates its evolution over the last two decades. Any collector of Pablo’s work or student of Amazonian art or mythology will want to have and cherish this new work. The collaboration has done justice to Pablo’s legacy. Always and forever, Pablo will remain the maestro, the explorer, and chronicler of the visionary worlds of ayahuasca.
Dennis McKenna received his doctorate in botanical sciences in 1984 from the University of British Columbia. His research has included the pharmacology, botany, and chemistry of ayahuasca. He has also conducted extensive fieldwork in the Peruvian, Colombian, and Brazilian Amazon. He coauthored The Invisibe Landscape with his brother Terence and is an assistant professor at the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.