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Department of Anthropology                        University of Pittsburgh


Anthropology 1548 – Amazonian Arts: Making and Meaning    45 contact hours

Summer 2019. 2:00-4:30  M-TH

Pitt in Ecuador


Dr. Tod Swanson,        

Office hours will be posted for this course, and instructors are available by appointment.


Course description: 


This course introduces students to the visual arts, poetry, music, and dance of the Amazonian region in the context of their function and meaning. The course will be taught as a combination of lecture and hands-on experience working with Native potters from the Bobonaza River. Students will learn to make pottery in the Kichwa (Quichua) tradition, and to understand the role of pottery and material culture in the daily lives of people in this region.   On a number of occasions, students will accompany the Native potters on journeys into the adjacent forest to gather materials and to study the patterns in nature that inspire them. Here students will observe related arts such as face paint patterns, beaded ornaments, ritual singing and storytelling. Carefully selected readings and lectures will use these arts as a window for exploring Amazonian thinking about the natural world behind the designs, and the ways in which the designs can be used to understand patterns of social interaction. Interviews with potters will aid in understanding these arts in the context of daily and ceremonial life. In the process, the arts become a doorway allowing the student to explore Amazonian culture and environment first hand. Comparative material from several other world regions will also be discussed.   Lectures are comparative.  The goal is to teach students to analyze Amazonian visual art by placing it in the context of other forms of Amazonian artistic expressions such as music, poetry , and oral literature and then to to compare and contrast Amazonian aesthetic tradition as a whole to the arts of Japan and the classical mediterranean world (including Islam)




Objectives and outcomes: 

 "introduces students to the modes of analysis applied to music, theater, or the visual arts"

This course introduces students to Amazonian pottery and artistic traditions set within the context of pottery as a longstanding Native tradition. The course has three interrelated learning objectives:

1. To understand indigenous Amazonian aesthetics (philosophy of beauty) in comparative context 

2. To produce at least 4 pieces of original ceramic art using Amazonian techniques and adapting Amazonian designs with the guidance of Kichwa artists.

3.  To be able to analyze select pieces of Amazonian visual art by situating it within the Amazonian tradition and by comparing and contrasting it to Japanese and Mediterranean classical traditions.

3. To understand the mythic and ceremonial context of Amazonian ceramic art.

To explain how a holistic, analytical, and comparative framework leads to greater understanding of continuity and change in artistic and material culture. 

Assignments and Grading Procedure

Grades reflect your performance on assignments and adherence to deadlines. Graded assignments will be available
within 48 hours of the due date via the Gradebook.  

  • 4 pieces of ceramic art created in Amazonian Quichua style adapting Amazonian Quichua design patterns.  10% each

  • 4 essays of 500 words each that critically analyze specific works of Amazonian art by comparing and contrasting them to works from other traditions using the assigned readings, videos, or field engagement of indigenous culture .  The essays are due by end of day each Friday and should be posted through that weeks forum on the discussion board.  (10 % each)

  • Final exam primarily multiple choice intended to measure comprehension and the ability to apply comparative concepts learned from the assigned videos, readings and lectures.  20%



Brown, Michael.  Tsewa’s Gift:  Magic and Meaning in an Amazonian Society.  Smithsonian Institution Press.  1986

Parks, Graham.   Japanese Aesthetics.  In Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy

Swanson, Tod D. and Jarrad Reddekop, "Looking Like the Land: Beauty and Aesthetics in Quichua Philosophy and Practice." Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Volume 85, Issue 3, 1 September 2017, Pages 682–708,

Course Schedule




Saturday, June 1


Sunday, June 2

Monday, June 3

Tuesday, June 5





Wednesday, June 6




Thursday, June 7







Friday,  June 8

Saturday-Sunday  June 9-10










Monday,  June 11



Tuesday,  June 12




Wednesday,  June 13



Thursday,  June 14








Friday,  June 15

Saturday-Sunday June 16-17




Monday,  June 18




Tuesday,  June 19

Wednesday , June 20


Thursday,  June 21 

Friday,  June 22

Saturday-Sunday  June 23-24






Monday,  June 25     





Tuesday,  June 26




Wednesday,  June 27





Thursday,  June 28

Friday,  June 29 

Saturday,  June 30

Arrive in Quito


Travel to Iyarina. 



The Geography and History of Ecuador as the setting for the west Amazonian artistic tradition. 




Lecture:  Serving asua:  The social context of Amazonian ceramic art.

Students dig clay and and observe the asking of permission from the mother of clay.  

Read: Uzendoski on Manioc Beer


Art of Late Antiquity and Amazonian Art as "Primitive Art".


Hike in the forest with Quichua ceramic artists to study patterns in nature.  Students select patterns and draw them on paper in preparation for painting their ceramic vessel.


Free Afternoon.  No class. 






Week 2  Amazonian Aesthetics in Comparative Context

Understanding cultural thinking on beauty and aesthetics is inherently comparative.  In the US indigenous art has been portrayed as "primitive art" through an unexamined comparison to classical and European traditions.   This unit seeks to shed new light on indigenous art by critically examining the contrast to the Mediterranean tradition and arguing for important similarities (in difference) to the art of  Buddhist  Japan.   


Shared Body- Shared Beauty

"Our babies cry like the animals we eat"



Comparison of Japanese Art to Amazonian Art  

Amazonian Art as Relational

Indigenous patterns that respond to the irregular patterns of nature

Roger Wepf, The resonances between Indigenous art and images captured by microscopes.    (Australian Aborigines)

Calling Animals With Beauty:  Hunting Songs


Magical Gardening Songs

Free Afternoon.  No class. 


Week 3  Quichua Verbal Art:  Poetry and Songs

The lectures and readings for this week focus on the use of images from nature, particularly bird images, in Amazonian ritual singing

singing.  While studying poetry and songs students will continue making a second ceramic piece in Amazonian style.

Love Songs

Test over week 3





Week 4  In conclusion the final week examines the role of beauty in the formation of Amazonian relational identity.   For Amazonian people living in beauty means adapting the body in response to the beautiful sounds, smells, tastes and sights of a particular local land.   Through this process their beauty becomes the beauty of the land.

Looking Like the Land. 

Hozhó: The Navajo philosophy of beauty  

Reading:  Tod Swanson and Jarrad Reddekop, "Looking Like the Land: Beauty and Aesthetics in Quichua Philosophy and Practice." Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Volume 85, Issue 3, 1 September 2017, Pages 682–708,


Amazonian face paint patterns
Study short videos of Quichua women talking about the meaning of face and body painting.  Students who so choose can have their faces painted in Amazonian style


The aesthetic of smell- Qichua interpretation of perfumes and taste.

Pedro Andi, "The Perfume of the Wanduk Flower."

Bélgica Dagua, "How an Unwanted Man Became the Spirit-Eye Tree." (Video recorded and edited by Tod Swanson) . This one of the key stories used in "Looking Like the Land" above.

Students paint their final ceramic vessel. 


Course wind up.  Test over week 4

Travel to the airport.

 Relational Self -Relational Beauty:  The Amazonian notion of shared body

Students continue to work on their first ceramic vessel.

  • Robert Epstein, The Empty Brain . We read this in week 1 because the idea of the IT metaphor Epstein presents in order to argue against it is something that follows from the myth of the blueprint.   The alternative "Empty Brain" he argues for is much closer to the Buddhist idea of the self.  I repost it here so that it can be a part of the continuing dialogue.

  • Scientists say your mind Is not confined to your brain or even your body.


Els Lagrou.      "La Figuración de lo invisible en Warburg y en las artes indígenas amazónicas   Figuration of the Invisible in Warburg and in Indigenous Amazonian Arts."   

Sanja Savkić (ed.),     Indigenous Visual Cultures and Aesthetic Practices in the Americas’ Past and Present.  Estudios Indiana 13, 2019.

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